Central Iowa Genealogical Society
P.O. Box 945
Marshalltown, IA 50158
Orphan Trains Presentation to CIGS, Sept 21, 2003, by Millie Frese.
Over a 150,000 orphan and street children immigrated from New York slums to Midwestern farms in an effort that extended from 1854 to 1929.
In 1850, when New York City's population was 500,000, an estimated 20,000 homeless children lived in the streets or were warehoused in more than two dozen grossly overcrowded orphanages. The first "orphan train" went to Dowagiak, Michigan, in 1854. The trains would run for 75 years with the last one pulling into Trenton, Missouri in 1929.
Poor and homeless children roamed the streets of New York City in the mid-1800s. They sold newspapers, matches, and flowers earn money in the days before school attendance was required.. Called "street arabs," they sometimes begged for food and turned to stealing. Homeless children lived in boxes or under stairwells with only rags for clothing. Disease spread quickly through overcrowded areas where new immigrants to the United States lived. Many children died. Those who survived sometimes lost both parents to illness.
The dirty, congested streets of New York City were miles and worlds away from the open prairies of middle America. So how did conditions in New York affect midwest history? In the mid-19th century, charitable organizations began removing poor children from New York City. They were sent to "western" states to live in new homes with total strangers. These emigration or "placing-out" programs were intended to provide homes and families for children while fulfilling the demand for workers on farms.
From the mid-1850s until about 1929, at least 150,000 children were transported west on what became known as "orphan trains."
The Beginning of a Plan
In 1853, Charles Loring Brace became secretary of the Children's Aid Society. The new organization's goal was to help "a class of vagrant, destitute, and criminal children" in the city. Born into a well-off family, Brace attended school to
become a minister and spent time working among New York's poorest residents. Working with The Children's Aid Society, he helped establish lodging houses, schools, and other places where boys and girls could get help.
But more needed to be done. Brace and his workers were not satisfied with the accepted method of assisting homeless and needy children. At the time, these children were often placed in large orphanages, known as asylums. Brace thought children would grow up to be happier and more productive people if they were part of a Christian family. In addition, he realized that it was incredibly expensive to take care of all the needy children in asylums.
In 1872, Brace wrote a book about his work called The Dangerous Classes of New York, and Twenty Years' Work Among Them. In it he explained, "The founders of the Children's aid Society early saw that the best of all Asylums for the outcast child, is the farmer's home." In March 1854, The Children's Aid Society gathered the first group of children to be sent west. Forty-six boys and girls aged 7 to 15 were sent by train and boat to south western Michigan in search of new homes.
A Fresh Start
Soon agents from The Children's Aid Society began looking for other farm communities willing to take in needy children. Working with committees of local citizens, they screened applicants who wanted to become foster parents. Newspaper articles and flyers posted around town announced the upcoming arrival of children.
Before leaving for the West, children were bathed and given new clothes. Each group of children selected for placing-out was accompanied by at least one "placing agent," who supervised the children on the trip. after arriving in a selected town, the orphans were displayed before the crowds in a hotel, church, town hall, or other public place. Brace wrote, "The farming community having been duly notified, there was usually a dense crowd of people at the station, awaiting the arrival of the youthful travelers. The sight of the little company of the children of misfortune always touched the hearts of a population naturally generous."
The "distribution" process wasn't as rosy as Brace depicted it, however. D. Bruce Ayler, son of an orphan train rider and webmaster for th Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, Inc. (OTHSA) explains, "Many times the children were inspected like they were livestock. Muscles were felt. Teeth were checked. sometimes the children would sing or dance trying to attract the attention of new mothers and fathers. It was frightening to have complete strangers looking over them and touching them."
Problems with the System.
Sisters and brothers were often separated because most foster families only wanted one child. When possible, brothers and sisters were placed in nearby towns, but some children lost touch with siblings. Sometimes no one in a town wanted a certain child, so the child was put back on a train and sent to the next town. such rejection was especially painful for children who remembered being given up by their own parents.
Not all the children's difficulties ended when they found a new home. Some children were treated like servants, not members of a family. they were forced to sleep in barns with animals or were given only leftovers to eat. They were teased by other children because they were different and spoke with a New York or foreign accent. Some children ran away to escape horrible conditions. The Children's Aid Society made efforts to check on the children regularly, but the follow-up system was not perfect.
In addition, Brace was criticized for sending Catholic children to non-Catholic families. He thought it was important only to send children to "Christian" homes. In 873, the New York Foundling Hospital began sending Catholic children west on trains called "Baby Specials." The New York Foundling Hospital, originally called the New York Foundling asylum, was started by the sisters of Charity in 1869 to help unwanted babies and young children.
Unlike the Children's Aid society, the Foundling Hospital worked through local priests and found Catholic homes for children before they arrived in the West. A letter sent by the Sisters of Charity to Jesse Bell of Mason City said, "We take pleasure in notifying you that the little girl which you so kindly ordered will arrive a Manley, Rock Island Train on Thurs., June 24 . . . The name of the child, date of birth, and name and address of party to who child is assigned will be found sewn in the Coat of boys and in the hem of the Dress of girls."
The Rider's Legacy
The orphan train movement came to an end around 1929. Laws passed in many states restricted or prohibited placement of children from other states, according to the OTHSA. Other ways of assisting poor families were developed.
In its 1917 annual report, The Children's Aid Society bragged about orphan train riders who had grown up to be successful. They included the governors of North Dakota and Alaska, 2 members of Congress, 24 clergymen, 9 members of state legislatures, 19 physicians, 97 teachers, 18 journalists, and many farmers and business owners.
The success of the riders is an important legacy. The riders are "living proof that no matter what the bad things are that happen in your life, you can overcome that.
One rider said. "I had to get up early every day to milk the cows, collect the eggs, chop firewood, and stack wood. I had to walk a mile to school through rain, shine, snow and mud. I had to clean the barn, feed the cattle, mend fences, fix the barns, chop and stack wood and other work -- just like every other kid raised on a farm.
Millie Frese says she did much of the research for this subject while preparing
an article for The Goldfinch - Iowa History for Young People. Vol 21, Number 3,
List of Institutions Participating
Orphan Train Depot
Placed in Iowa
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Last updated on September 23, 2003.
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