23 February 2013

The Orphan Trains: USA 1853-1930

This blog has been very involved in analysing programmes dedicated to saving children and young people from orphanages, poverty, chronic unem­pl­oyment, lack of potential marital partners after WW1 and exterm­in­ation by the Nazis in WW2. The label “Migration” has been used so often in this blog, it almost requires a sub-set called “Child and Adolescent Rescue”. But I don't remember any topic dealing with intra-national transporting of children.

It was estimated that in the 1850s there were 30,000 homeless child­ren aged 6+, in New York City alone. In 1853, a young minister called Charles Loring Brace moved to New York to study. He was hor­rified by what he saw and instantly recognised that without protection by a responsible adult, these children were without any hope of a decent future.

He dedicated himself to their rescue. Only by removing the children from the poverty and grime of the city streets and placing them in Christian farm families, could those children have a future. Rev Brace recognised the need for labour in the expanding farm country, and proposed that his children be sent by train, to live and work on farms. He believed that farmers would welcome homeless children, take them into their homes and treat them as their own. Note the em­phasis on expanding farm country – if the New York street children were merely transplanted to another grimy, industrial city, the prob­ability was that they would become street children in the new city as well.

cover of Stephen O'Connor's excellent book,
showing the orphans dressed for selection

So in 1853, Rev Brace founded the Children's Aid Society to do the endless tasks involved in the legal mass movement of children. His organis­at­ion planned the train trips and raised the money for travel and acc­om­m­odation. The children were not necessarily orphans: there were also neglected children from married or single parents, runaways and prostitutes. So the Children’s Aid Society made efforts to get parental consent wherever possible; in turn, the natural parents were promis­ed that their children would be sent to individual foster and adoptive families, not to institutions.

Besides the Children's Aid Society, other agencies placed children in the programme. These included both the New York Juvenile Asylum and the Orphan Asylum Society of the City of New York.

The children would be placed in homes, not as indentured servants but as unskilled labour who could help the farming foster-parents on their land. In fact the records said that older children placed by The Children's Aid Society were to be paid for their labours. I wonder if that happened.

As with all our rescue programmes, the motives for moving young people on the Orphan Trains were multiple:
A] to help populate farming communities in the western states by strong white people,
B] to provide a better future for New York’s street children in good Christian families, and
C] to rid New York and other city streets of grimy street urchins.

The Orphan Train Movement lasted from 1853-1930 during which time 150,000 children were shipped from eastern cities and and placed with rural western families. Each train would start its journey full of young people, stopping at stations along the railway line as advertised in the local newspapers, leaving small groups of children at each stop en route. Indiana was very popular, in the early decades.

advertising poster from Troy, Mo  in Feb 1910  
recruiting foster parents and specifying condition

The children did not know where they would be left nor who would select them and take them home. Posters advertised the arrival of children and just before the train pulled into a station, the children were cleaned. They were then shown off and inspected before crowds of prospective parents.

Placement into new families was not as professional as we would hope for today. In the best circumstances, there was an attempt to match adopters' wishes with children selected by welfare workers prior to the train trip, so that each child was sent to a specific, matched family. In many towns, vetting of farming families was left to local church elders who would try to weed out the alcoholics and wife beat­ers. Sometimes would-be foster parents merely examined the children’s teeth and muscles in the market place, in order to select the heal­thiest potential farm workers.

By 1910, the posters were announcing where the distribution (sic) of children would be, and specifying what the obligations on the foster parents would be: the transported children were to have schooling, church and clothing exactly the same as the natural-born children. Applications to foster a child had to be made to a nominated committee of upstanding local citizens.

The administrative records were far from complete. But as the PBS film The Orphan Trains suggested, the transition from one side of the country to the other must have been painful and confusing. Their biological parents may not have been the best in the world, but most train-children wanted desperately to see them again. And Rev Brace understood the dilemma. He wanted desper­ate­ly to improve the children’s lives… “And yet, you are perplexed what to do. The human soul is difficult to interfere with. You hesitate how far you should go."

The Chil­dren's Aid Society liked to point with pride to success stories. The orphans, when they grew up, produced two governors, one congressman, one sheriff, two district att­orneys, three county commissioners as well as numerous bankers, law­yers, physicians, journalists, ministers, teachers and businessmen.

cover of Renee Wendinger's excellent book,
which focused on New York's newsboys and bootblacks

Many others of the New York orphans went on to lead ordinary lives, raising their families and working towards a peaceful, productive future. But some of the children definitely struggled in their new life in the West. Some of the farmers saw the children as nothing more than a source of cheap labour, easily exploited. And there was also evidence of physical or sexual abuse by foster parents.

The question with the Orphan Trains, as it was with the Barwell Boys and the Stolen Children was: who in authority was on the spot, to supervise the placements and protect the children?

Programmatically, the successes and failures of The Orphan Train Movement focused welfare professionals’ and academics’ minds, leading to modernised child welfare reforms, including child labour laws, adoption, foster care, health care, state schools and vocational training.

There are two main sources of information today. The Orphan Train Heritage Society of America in Kansas re-establishes broken family trees and preserves the history of the Orphan Train Movement. The Victor Remer Historical Archives of The Children's Aid Society in New York holds the official records about children’s programmes (Orphan Train, foster care and adoption) operating from 1853 on, annual reports, and The Children's Aid Society lodging houses, indus­trial schools, convalescent homes, health centres and farm schools.

Readers might like to locate:
DiPasquale, Connie, A History of the Orphan Trains
O'Connor, Stephen Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed, Chicago UP, 2004.
PBS transcript of the film The Orphan Trains.
Wendinger, R Extra! Extra! The Orphan Trains and Newsboys of New York, Legendary, 2010.


Andrew said...

Seems that the scheme may have worked somewhat better than similar in Australia. While I am sure it did not work well every time, local important people overseeing the childrens' welfare must have meant less advantage taken and less abuse.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It is depressing to think of all these orphaned children and the trials they were put through. I am always impressed with the frequent appearance of orphan asylums in old photographs, and how large they usually appear. Also, there are many pictures of orphans lined up outside, orphan home bands, etc. I often wondered why there were such large numbers of orphans.

In Taiwan today there are still a number of orphan homes; I've known a number of people who volunteer or do fundraising for them. I am told that after a certain age, there is little chance for adoption, even for the healthy ones.

There are so many blogs that emphasize the qualities of attractive homes, and it is heartbreaking to consider children with no home at all.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...


Saving orphans and homeless children from grimy industrial cities and taking them to clean, farming families who would love them was always a great idea. The difference was that the Orphan Train Programme in the USA was the only programme that specified _standards of care_ in the posters put up on railway stations. The children who arrived off the trains were to have schooling, church and clothing exactly the same as the natural-born children of the foster families.

In the other programmes I looked at, the organisers simply _hoped_ that families would have Christian standards.

Hels said...


very depressing indeed. Even more so when Charles Loring Brace moved to New York in 1853!

It is to the very great credit of the social work profession that the The Orphan Train Movement sharpened thinking and lead to modernised child welfare reforms. Laws and practices relating to child labour, adoption and foster care greatly improved.

Optimistic Existentialist said...

This was a very educational post. Sometimes the plight of orphans doesn't get the publicity it deserves.

Deb said...

You mentioned that The Fairbridge Plan for caring for British child migrants started in 1912 and had very much the same rescue theme in mind. Did Fairbridge know of the Orphan Trains which already had 60 years of experience by 1912.

Hels said...


I think that was absolutely true in the 19th century, especially when countries were industrialising rapidly and the old order of family and church support was breaking down.

Do you believe it is still true today?

Hels said...


I wonder if a] the Orphan Train evidence was available to other welfare programmes before 1912 and b] assuming it was, would Britain have changed its own welfare policies as a result?

When the Barwell Boys started arriving in Adelaide straight after WW1, they certainly learned only from their own mistakes, not from the Orphan Train experiences.

diane b said...

An interesting read. I can see how people want to help disadvantaged children but all these schemes had risks of the children being abused. I feel sorry for the kids who missed their natural parents and vice versa.

Hels said...


you are justifiably expressing the same hesitation that Charles Loring Brace was aware of. How much to intervene in families lives, in order to save the children? I am glad the most deprived children in the nation were rescued, but what a cost their families had to pay :(