Posted by Ancestry Team on May 11, 2017 in Who Do You Think You Are?

stamosAfter working with a genealogist, and making a whirlwind trip to Greece, John Stamos discovered his orphaned grandfather, Ioannis (John) Stamatopoulos, was only a baby when he lost his father to violence. With the help of experts, John learned the circumstances behind his great-grandfather, Vasilios’, death, and the struggles that his great-grandmother, Georgitsa, faced raising a family on her own.

John learned that in Greek culture at that time, a child was considered to be an orphan if he did not have a father. More typically, we think of orphans as having lost both of their parents, and many of us have orphans in our family trees. In John Stamos’s case, he was able to piece together enough records, including some oral history, to learn the circumstances of his great-grandfather’s death, and what eventually led his grandfather to the United States. This task, unfortunately, is often not so easy.

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Article describing the murder of Vas. Stamatopoulos

Many orphan stories have similar strains – parents who died in a car crash, a boiler explosion, a house fire, a stove accident, or a shipwreck. While the cause of death varies according to the decade in which it took place, one unifying theme in these stories is that the accident affected both parents. While some of these stories contain a kernel of truth, they are more often heavily fictionalized. First, orphaned children, and often their adoptive parents, may have fabricated stories to explain how a couple could have abandoned their own child. Second, some children who were orphaned actually only lost a single parent, while the other was left with a child or multiple children whom they could not effectively care for.

How is it possible, though, to make this determination? This depends almost entirely on the circumstances of the individual case. John Stamos’s grandfather was enumerated in a household register with his family, and lived with them for much of his early life, before departing for the Americas as a young adult. He was an orphan by Greek law alone. In most cases in our own families, children were orphaned at a much younger age, and we are rarely lucky enough to encounter them enumerated on a census with their biological parents.

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Household register featuring the Stamatopoulos family

Three main sources prove to be the most accessible when exploring an orphan’s origins. These strategies work in Greece, as do they in other places. First, and perhaps most importantly, you should be certain to collect any vital records relating to the child. Depending on the time period, birth and death records might not be available, but marriage records regularly are, and some counties provided space to identify one’s parents. That said, orphans would often either identify their adoptive parents in these documents, or misidentify their biological parents, trying to rely on memory or what they were told to in order to produce the names. Simply because a record provides a name does not mean that that name is accurate.

Second, it is crucial to look in court records. While not all estates resulted in extensive probate, if you have a surname and rough year to work with, doing a thorough examination of local court records can often lead to finding guardianship records for children, or potentially documents about an intestate parent, naming their surviving minors. Many of these documents are available online and do not necessarily require a courthouse visit.

Lastly, newspapers, in the right circumstances, can be invaluable. Again, searching simply for surnames in the right place during the right period can turn up a court notice about the surrender of children, the breakup of a marriage, or the story of a parent’s death (naming or indicating that they had minors). Alternatively, if you have a candidate for a biological parent, and the child was adopted shortly after birth, look for local papers that specify that the parent might have been traveling or visiting another state, potentially to give birth or give up a child. This is often referred to as “community journalism” or, depending on the locality, “chicken dinner” stories.

Most importantly, be persistent. If the records you are looking for are not in one county, look in the neighboring counties. If you cannot find a child in the censuses, be creative with your searches, perhaps only using a first name and year of birth. Surnames often change to those of the guardians or adoptive parents, sometimes for just a census or two. Create a biography of the family who took them in, and look for court records or newspaper articles under their name instead. You never know what you are going to find with so many unique orphan stories across the country and across the world.

Learn more about John’s journey or see videos about other celebrities’ ancestries on TLC.com. Watch full episodes of the show on TLCgo.com. Discover more celebrities uncovering their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Sundays 10|9c on TLC.

Tips from AncestryProGenealogists:

  • Pay attention to geography. If your ancestor was born in New York, but shows up later on a farm in Iowa, you may need to do searches in all places where they could have lived. The guardianship could have been processed anywhere. Also, this might indicate that your ancestor was placed with a family by an orphanage or charitable society that might have their own record collections.
  • Look for siblings of your ancestor. Try to locate other children with the same surname in the same area who might be in a similar situation – other young farmhands, servants, or children living in a household with a different name. If you cannot find records for your ancestor, perhaps those of their siblings will be more enlightening.
  • Family legend is not always perfect. The same causes of death appear in family after family, and are convenient ways to explain a parent’s loss. More commonly, children were orphaned because of the breakup of their parents, because a father abandoned a mother, or because one died and the other could not support them.
  • If records fail, take a DNA test. Even if you are able to find sufficient records, it is always a bonus to have DNA confirmation for the biological family. Don’t fret if you don’t have close matches to the surname families – you can always locate descendants and ask them if they would be willing to test.

8 Comments

  1. kerry W

    Very helpful information. My husband’s great grandmother was supposedly orphaned, but I believe the mother died and the father left. She was adopted by another family. Also I have 2 2nd cousins who were adopted to other families and trying to determine how we are related so this information could help. I only found these two people through DNA testing.

  2. Paula

    Great story. In my family, we have a genealogy that was published in 1950. I heard the back story from a relative that a direct ancestor had an illegitimate child who was adopted by an uncle, and because everyone knew about him and the circumstances, they expected the genealogy compiler to include that in the genealogy. But he didn’t. Yes, the boy is named, but only as an adopted son. His blood connection to our family would have been lost forever if it hadn’t been for my aunt telling me about it. I guess adoptions can be a touchy subject, even 80 years after the fact!

  3. Denise

    I truly enjoyed watching John Stamos and learning about his family history. He was so lucky to have found & visited with his relatives that he did not know living in Greece. I think this was the best “Who Do You Think You Are” ancestry story this year. It was great to watch it with my Serbian family on Orthodox Easter “Pascha”. Great job Ancestry.

  4. Ruth Ann Harmon

    I’m interested in finding ancestry from Germany. All information stops for me at great-grandfather from Germany.

  5. Raegan Terry

    I just started searching for anything on my fathers side of the family.. I thought Edgar was very uncommon name until I looked up my fathers name on Ansestory.. They have approximately 80 pages, 20 names to the page.. I’m sure y’all all know this already but it was very overwhelming for me.. Every single page had Edgar’s, John B. Terry’s( John B. Terry was my fathers father.. My grandfather.. My father Edgar Donald Terry is an only child and both of his parents have since died.. Where do I start? What’s the easier sites? Which sites offer the most information without confusion?? My older sister did a DNA test but I’m not sure if she gave permission for them to use it incwsd we have family members out there.. hell

  6. Raegan Terry

    I just started searching for anything on my fathers side of the family.. I thought Edgar was very uncommon name until I looked up my fathers name on Ansestory.. They have approximately 80 pages, 20 names to the page.. I’m sure y’all all know this already but it was very overwhelming for me.. Every single page had Edgar’s, John B. Terry’s and John B. Terry which was my fathers father.. My grandfather.. My father Edgar Donald Terry is an only child and both of his parents have since died.. Where do I start? What’s the easier sites? Which sites offer the most information without confusion?? My older sister did a DNA test but I’m not sure if she gave permission for them to use it incwsd we have family members out there..

  7. Sonia Marie Woods

    My mother, Ava Marie Phillips (maiden name) always said that her paternal great grandfather was Andersen (Devil Anse) Hatfield and that her grandmother, Sarah Jane was his daughter but, I can’t find a Sarah in his family tree. Was my mother lieing? My great grandmother ? Or is their another answer?.. I am writing a book about my family and would love to know this.

  8. Robin Ackiss

    I only know my father’s first and last name. He was somewhat of a pro golfer. My mother did not marry him. They separated. 3 years later my mother married a Daniel Wayne Sharp. Who adopted me. It says my father gave up his parental rights so I could be adopted by my stepfather and have a true last name. I know I have 2 other brothers my mom did not let my real father ever see after my birth 10,14 1968.
    Where or what should I do? I don’t know anything else except a few details

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