Adoption plays an often quirky role in genealogy. First, there’s the problem that people often disagree about how to handle adoptive lines when a biological line is also known. And second, there is the problem that modern adoption is a formal, legal procedure, while historic adoption was often informal and can be indistinguishable or almost indistinguishable from fosterage. 

To the early Greeks and Romans, the goal of adoption was to perpetuate the family based on the male line of descent and to ensure the continuation of the family’s religious practices. Thus, the adopter originally had to be a male without a legitimate son. Adoption also served the purpose of cementing political alliances between families and continuing political dynasties. Later Roman emperors, however, did permit adoption by women to “console them for the loss of children” [citations omitted]. 

Roman adoption practices never took hold in England. Statute law first introduced adoption to England in 1926. English concerns with the integrity of blood lines and the desire to ensure that property was inherited by legitimate biological descendants meant that there was no adoption law to be received in postrevolutionary America. In the United States, adoption laws developed in response to the needs of dependent children, not infrequently poor, orphaned, or handicapped. Statutory schemes regulating adoption were first enacted by the states after the middle of the nineteenth century, the earliest probably being in Massachusetts in 1851“[citations omitted].

What this means in practice is that we’ve had only a relatively few generations to think about adoption. Not enough time to reach a cultural consensus. At bottom is a very basic understanding about what we mean by genealogy and family history. Is it an essentialist world where there is a biological absolute, maybe with a cultural overlay? Or is family history entirely cultural, where perhaps it would never be possible to make a rule about which facts best present the history of different families?

It bothers me to see the DNA commercial where the guy turns in his Lederhosen for a kilt. It implies culture is biological. You might have grown up in the German part of town, speaking both English and German, eating German foods, and thinking of yourself as German-American, but if you don’t meet some minimum threshold of German biology, it doesn’t count. Adopted? No one cares. It’s not who you are.

That seems far too harsh to me. But if I twist the question just a bit, and ask about a White family that believes they’re Indian–is that different? I think it is, for reasons I’ve talked about in other posts, but my own answer can’t settle the question for everyone. The examples of White Indians and Ethnic Imposters leaves us wondering how far we can go and be within the “acceptable limits” of “family history”. And our answer there has implications for how we handle adoption in genealogy.

And finally, the unanswerable fact that we cannot bring some kind of scientific precision to these questions shows without doubt that we’re dealing with concepts constructed by culture.

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