sifting through Grandma’s Sexy Data, war children worldwide can reclaim ethnic heritage when rare records are digitally archived

Authors note: This article is long, my apologies. But I think if you can make it through the first couple of paragraphs, you’ll understand its value… 

Take your time with it, and ponder about the ramifications of the loss of collections like this. Share it with your tech friends, converse about it. There’s much to digest.

On the counter of the printing office of a pacific northwest genealogical society sits a collection of metal drawers on loan from a local chapter of Veterans of Foreign Wars. Inside are thousands of brittle and delicate 8×5 cards, many created more than 70 years ago, containing the administrative information of long since deceased members.

70 year old membership cards, Veterans of Foreign Wars

70 year old membership cards, Veterans of Foreign Wars


From the VFW website

The VFW traces its roots back to 1899 when veterans of the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Philippine Insurrection (1899-1902) founded local organizations to secure rights and benefits for their service: Many arrived home wounded or sick. There was no medical care or veterans’ pension for them, and they were left to care for themselves.

In their misery, some of these veterans banded together and formed organizations with what would become known as the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States. After chapters were formed in Ohio, Colorado and Pennsylvania, the movement quickly gained momentum. By 1915, membership grew to 5,000; by 1936, membership was almost 200,000.

The society has been granted permission to scan, index, and share this information with its membership, but there’s a problem. Their volunteers are not particularly technologically savvy, and finding individuals to lead digital archive initiatives is difficult. Grants for such projects can be found, but society members skilled enough to scan, create databases, manage a website, and deal with the ongoing maintenance of such a collection aren’t available.

The cards are delicate, often with obituaries attached and news clippings.

The cards are delicate, often with obituaries attached and news clippings.


Why should anyone care about these and other records in the care of genealogical societies? The reason may shock you.

While the genealogical society will claim no specific value for the data, leaving that determination up to the persons researching, in a round about way, information on or attached to the cards is invaluable to individuals who have been disconnected from or are seeking knowledge about their family’s military service, or in fact, even knowledge about their own origins.

Tens of thousands of adoptees and persons of unknown birth family worldwide have turned to DNA testing meant for genealogical purpose to help them understand better their ethnicity and genetic heritage. A portion of them are the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of U.S. military personnel. Conceived and left with their mothers overseas, the majority end up in orphanages, and then are adopted back out to international homes. They are known as war children.

From an Economist article published in May of 2015, “Pity the Children”

After the end of the Korean war in 1953, biracial children who were the product of fleeting wartime unions between foreign servicemen and South Korean women in the 1950s were abandoned to drift in South Korea’s ravaged cities. The waifs—“dust of the streets” as they were called—were shunned by a Confucian society that prized bloodlines and could not countenance raising another’s child. Thousands of foreign homes began to take them in—probably the largest exodus of infants from a single country into adoption.

For about the cost of an AppleTV (or about $100), they can DNA test through companies like Ancestry, Family Tree DNA, and 23andMe, and then receive access to a database of cousin matches — individuals with whom they share an ancestor.

If a significant number of relatives have also tested, it is possible to determine the identity of that ancestor by cross referencing family trees.

When 2 or more of the trees match up, it’s likely that the location is also an ancestor of the adoptee.

“X” marks the spot.

It’s also possible to single out specific DNA segments on chromosomes shared between cousins and to assign them to an ancestor when pedigree is well known. This segment can be passed to several descendants off-shooting from that ancestor and travel far and wide as those branches migrate around the U.S. and the world. If cousins share a DNA segment more than 10cM (centimorgans) long, it’s extremely likely that they share an ancestor within 7 generations. About how long ago was that? 100 to 150 years. Cousins sharing longer segments are likely to be descended from more recent ancestors.

In this way, adoptees and abandoned children are able to learn about their ethnic and family heritage. What they choose to do with that knowledge is a matter of personal choice and also may be regulated by local laws. To explore the issue is matter of prerogative, but for some the impetus can be as serious as familial genetic disease which should be traced and understood for a better quality of life.

While the process of proving an ancestor can sometimes be laborious, there are FB groups, some with as many 20 thousand members, who have rafted together in solidarity around a unifying belief.

Abbreviated from articles 7 and 8 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC),

Children have a right to a nationality (to belong to a country). Children also have the right to know and, as far as possible, to be cared for by their parents. Children have a right to an identity – an official record of who they are. Governments should respect children’s rights to a name, nationality, and family ties.

Many interpret this to mean that all persons, independent of circumstances of conception, have the right of knowledge of origin — who their parents were, their medical history, and to have a knowledge of their genetic and social heritage.

At this time, the adoption community in the U.S. is widely oppressed and refused access to information by closed-adoption laws and obtuse avenues for inquiry. Even simple medical history is impossible for many to acquire. The only way through is to find birth family by DNA testing meant for genealogical purposes, and to learn about that family through public and rare archive collections held by genealogical societies and state and national archives.

Once a person has identified an ancestor within about 5 generations (2nd great grand parents), they can begin to research relatives in a contemporary time period. In some cases, they can even be reunited with birth family — the process is collaborative, and may end in rejection. However, for a lucky few, a good reunion is possible and reciprocally favorable.

“Army Veteran Reunites With His Twin Children for the First Time in Over 40 Years”, ABC News special interest story (video)

It’s not just possible, it’s not even just likely or probable, there absolutely *are* clues and truthful facts concerning the the identities of the birth family of adoptees and war children in those cabinets. Access to that information is endangered every day that collections like it linger in boxes and on shelves as it deteriorates further with each passing year. Also, genealogical societies are closing their doors and losing their repositories in record numbers as membership declines.

What can be done for it?

An amazing amount. With mentoring and a commitment to transparency, technical professionals and hobbyists can put those skills to great charitable use by helping genealogical societies and family history libraries bring their physical archives ONLINE.

How to help.

Do you have experience with CMS, databases, graphic design, scanning and photography, online community organizing, information security, cloud and subscription based services administration and support citizen science and social justice? I want to hear from you.

Contact, Lisa Chan for more information about volunteer opportunities, or to share ideas.

– The opinions and interests expressed in the article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect the opinions of any organization she may belong to or consult with.