What Were Orphan Trains?
On September 20, 1854, a train set out from New York bound for Dowagiac, Michigan. Aboard were 46 10-to-12 year old boys and girls heading for new homes and parents. It was the first of the phenomenon known as Orphan Trains. But what’s the story behind them?
In the 1850s, 30,000 or more homeless, neglected, orphaned, unwanted and abandoned children roamed the streets of New York, in search of food, money, a place to stay. This is where the term “street urchins” was born. Some of them sold matches, newspapers, rags or anything they could find on the streets that might earn them a nickel. They ranged in age from one-year-old infants to 17-year-old youths. These children, both male and female, were either born to criminals, alcoholics, neglectful parents, who cared nothing for their child’s welfare, or they had been orphaned by accident, illness, or murder, without family to take care of them. They did the best they could to survive on the streets.
Street Families and Arrests
These youngsters raised themselves by forming gangs to take the place of a family, much as today’s gang members do, when they feel unwanted or unloved. They did this mainly to protect themselves from street violence and to feel they “belonged” somewhere. Illness ran rampant in these groups, including Typhoid Fever, Yellow Fever, Flu and other diseases. There was little to no hygiene practiced among them as they possessed nothing to do such things; lice, scabies and infection were common. Police, overwhelmed with the sheer numbers of these youngsters, often arrested and placed them behind bars with hardened criminals, where they often learned the “finer” points of how to be a more adept criminal.
Charitable Organizations Get Involved
Charles Loring Brace, a New York Philanthropist, concerned about the welfare of these children, created an organization known as the Children’s Aid Society. This organization began going about the business of finding homes for these children. It shared responsibility with The New York Foundling Hospital for providing clothing for the children, making travel arrangements and seeing that children arrived safely to their new homes. The two organizations were to follow up on each individual child, to insure that there was no abuse or ill treatment of the child. Many children were raised this way and most never saw their biological parents again. Some never even knew the names of their biological parents.
A Home To Encourage Independence
Until the two organizations became involved, the only facilities for these children were orphan asylums and almshouses, neither of which were acceptable in Brace’s eyes. He felt they spawned dependence of the poor on charitable handouts and that children should be part of a home life that encouraged education, work, and jobs that contributed to their independence. In other words, a real home and parents who supported their endeavors.
A Natural Choice: The West
The west and the multitude of pioneers moving there gave Brace the idea that it was a natural choice for placement of these children. He felt these hardworking people could use help in settling the untamed territory and that it would be a healthy life for young people. He made arrangements with families who farmed or ranched, those who were moving west for a better life away from the crowded, often polluted, eastern cities.
Accusations of Abuse and Overwork
It’s almost inevitable with the children who went west that there would be accusations of abuse and overwork of some children. Many homesteaders and farmers considered the children a source of cheap labor and had no intention of accepting them as members of their family. In addition, because of the nature of the distance involved and their scattered locations, many families never received a welfare visit. This gave these families the sole jurisdiction and authority over the child without the need to answer to any agency. There were violations and it was later discovered that some children lived a miserable, slave-like life, without education and without time out to play and be a child.
Still, some were given a good home and grew up well educated and some even became prominent such as the Governor of North Dakota from 1891-1892, Andrew H. Burke, and Governor of the District of Alaska from 1897-1906, John G. Brady, both orphan train children. There were others, not as prominent, who grew up to be productive citizens who were grateful to the families that took them in.
In The Long Run
Oddly, even after Brace’s push for the western part of the country, the states receiving the most of the so-called orphan train children were not all that far away. They were: New York, which received nearly one-third of these children, followed by Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, whereas mid-west and western states received small numbers of children. It is not known why Brace’s idea of sending many to the western states was not followed.
There’s a National Orphan Train Complex located in Concordia, Kansas, dedicated to preserving the history and stories of the orphan train riders. Hours are variable so make sure to call before going, or go online to this website: Kansas Sampler Foundation, or the National Orphan Train Complex
The Train Comes To A Stop
The Orphan Train program ended in 1930, due to the hardships families were undergoing because of the Depression. Somewhere along the rails, a lesson was learned to find foster families in the city where the children came from. That program is in effect today, and with few exceptions, works pretty well. But questions about the orphan train program remain to this day. Many families just want to know their origination; what family did they come from, where were they born, were there brothers and sisters, and most of all, why were they put on the orphan trains?
- Were the parents notified before the child was put on a train and sent away from the city?
- Is there any record of how many of those children died while in the home of another family?
- Why weren’t the biological parents held accountable for their children?
- Why weren’t better records kept, so that each child knew his or her last name and genealogical history?
- Has every child who rode these orphan trains been accounted for today?
- Is there any way to find out if a member of your family was sent to a home on an orphan train?
Here are links to help you in searching for your possible connection to America’s orphan trains.
If you are interested in reading more about America’s Orphan Trains, here are a few books you might like.