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Orphan Trains

Orphan Trains (1854 – 1929)

By Angelique Brown

“When a child of the streets stands before you in rags, with a tear-stained face, you cannot easily forget him. And yet, you are perplexed what to do. The human soul is difficult to interfere with. You hesitate how far you should go.” – Charles Loring Brace

Introduction: Between 1854 and 1929 the United States was engaged in an ambitious, and ultimately controversial, social experiment to rescue poor and homeless children, the Orphan Train Movement. The Orphan Trains operated prior to the federal government’s involvement in child protection and child welfare. While they operated, Orphan Trains moved approximately 200,000 children from cities like New York and Boston to the American West to be adopted. Many of these children were placed with parents who loved and cared for them; however others always felt out of place and some were even mistreated.

Trying to get children off the streets

During the 1850s there were thousands of children living on the streets of several major cities. The children were in search of food, shelter, and money and sold rags, matches, and newspapers just to survive. The children formed gangs for protection because life on the street was dangerous and they were regularly victimized. The police often arrested the children, some as young as five years old, and put them in lock up facilities with adult criminals. Determined to remedy the situation, the Children’s Aid Society and the New York Foundling Hospital devised a program to take children off of the streets of New York and Boston and place them in homes in the American West rather than allow them to continue to be arrested and taken advantage of on the streets. Because the children were transported by train to their new homes, the term “orphan trains” began being used.

Rev. Charles Loring Brace, Founder of the Children's Aid Society
Rev. Charles Loring Brace, Founder of the Children’s Aid Society
Photo: Public Domain

It was Charles Loring Brace, the founder of the Childrens Aid Society, who first came up with the idea of placing needy children with families in the West rather than in orphanages. Brace felt that orphanages were overcrowded and gloomy places that did not teach children to become productive and functioning adults who could take care of themselves. Brace believed that a strong family life could help these victimized and neglected children, knew that the American pioneers who were settling the West could use help, and felt that an arrangement that would place children within these families would be mutually beneficial. He thought that the farmers in the West would welcome the children, take them in, and treat them as their own. Therefore, he arranged to send the orphaned children to pioneer families. The Orphan Trains and the practice of “placing children out” into homes that would accept them was the precursor to the modern foster care system in the United States.

“The best of all asylums for the outcast child is the farmer’s home. The great duty is to get these children of unhappy fortune utterly out of their surroundings and to send them away to kind Christian homes in the country.” Charles Loring Brace

Riders leave their pasts behind

A quarter million children rode the orphan trains from 1854 to 1929.
A quarter million children rode the orphan trains from 1854 to 1929.
Photo: Kansas State Historical Society

In the beginning of the Orphan Train Movement, the trains that took children across country were little better than cattle cars and only had make-shift bathroom facilities. The conditions of the train cars improved in later years as more money became available; and in the final years the children rode in sleeping cars.  At any one time, there were between 30 and 40 children, infants to teens, traveling with two or three adult chaperones. The children often had no idea where they were going, and were only told that they were going to take a train ride.

 

“I’d just finished eating and this matron came by and tapped us along the head. ‘You’re going to Texas. You’re going to Texas.’ Well, some of the kids, you know, clapped and laughed. When she came to me, I looked up. I said, ‘I can’t go. I’m not an orphan. My mother’s still living. She’s in a hospital right here in New York.’ ‘You’re going to Texas.’ No use arguing.” —Hazelle Latimer (Orphan Train rider)

The confused and often frightened children lost contact with their families back in their hometowns and, those who were old enough, were encouraged to make a complete break with their past. When the children arrived in the new area where they were to live, there was no formal process to place them with new families. There were only handbills that announced the distribution of groups of needy children that brought crowds of prospective parents to view and choose children. Although the Children’s Aid Society made a point of emphasizing the success stories of children who were well cared for and loved, the outcome of the placements in general was mixed. Some of the farming families saw the children only as cheap labor; there was also evidence that some children experienced abuse in their new homes.

“I do remember the children milling around outside the train, waiting to be assigned our seats. The big problem was that you never knew what the future held for you. You had no idea what the future ever held for you and that was a great concern and a great worry.” –Lee Nailling (Orphan Train rider)

Government Intervention on Behalf of Children

In the 1920s the number of Orphan Trains decreased sharply. It was at that time that states began passing laws that prohibited placing children across state lines. Additionally, there was criticism from abolitionists who felt that the Orphan Trains supported slavery.  Pro-slavery advocates criticized the practice as well, saying that it was making slaves obsolete. In 1912, the U.S. Children’s Bureau was established with the mission of helping states support children and families and alleviate many of the factors that led to children living on the street. As state and local governments became more involved in supporting families, the use of the Orphan Trains was no longer needed.

Resources and Information:

National Orphan Train Complex

PBS program on Orphan Trains

The Orphan Train Heritage Society of America

Scheuerman, D. (2007, November/December). Lost Children: Riders on the Orphan TrainHumanities, 28(6).

Warren, A. (1998). The Orphan TrainThe Washington Post.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Brown, A. (2011). Orphan trains (1854-1929). Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/people/mott-lucretia-coffin/

23 Replies to “Orphan Trains”

  1. Hi, I,m looking for my grandfather’s birthparents. My grandfather’s name was John Olson. He was born June 23rd, 1887 in Columbus, OH, and adopted by a scandanavian family named Olson or Olsen by Lydia Dahl Olson and deceased husband, Simon Olsen, in Omaha, NE. His adoption was prior to 1900. Could you help me. His ordeal has effected three generations and it’s been rough. Please help me. Dorothy Olson-Williams

  2. I believe I read somewhere that there weren’t many black children involved in the orphan train programs. Generally children of color were more likely to go to poorhouses. I would double check though because I’m not sure if I’m remembering correctly.

    1. Children were selected for these programs because of the likelihood that they could be placed with families in the Midwest. The Midwest had been settled in large part by the Germans, Scandinavians, Irish, and English–which is to say, white Europeans. Those families would probably be looking for healthy children who looked like them. Consequently, most of the children who were in this program were white.

  3. Can you tell me if the orphan train was still running in 1920. I’m interested in the Morenci, Clifton area.
    I’m trying to find a list of the children that were placed. I had a great uncle who had red hair and green eyes, always wondered if he was adopted.

  4. Was there any information as names or siblings ever recorded while the trains ran? And if so where would that information be held, if so it it available to the public? Thank you for your help..

  5. My Mother’s Mother was in the depression as a child, bare feet in the summer in Arkansas and Missouri. ALL my Grand Parents,Great Grand Prents were,late 1900’s, even through WWI and WWII, some farmers and my others had a saddle and cobbler shop.

  6. My mother has memories when she was a baby about her and her brother being on a train. She says soldiers were near by and she felt nauseous. This was during the WWII in 1941-42. She was 1 or 2 yrs of age she has an S on one of her thumbs. She thinks its from pressing it on the lettering of a hot iron stove. She also recalls looking in a mirror and seeing gauze on and under her tongue. She remembers going through her mothers things as a young woman finding baby outfits (worn on the train) and papers. At least one other sibling was adopted from an asylum, as she recalls this as a child. Her maiden name is Moore.

    1. That’s a question you’ll need to research. I hope this article and the links provided will help you find some good resources.

  7. Was there any tension between the colored kids and the white kids? If so what did they do to solve the problem?

  8. hi my name is Zoey and i am dong a project on how the orphans helped build the west. Do you have any other information or websites about this topic?

  9. I found this article very interesting. The information was very informative as a child I found out my dad was an orphan . I have done much research on it . I absolutely enjoyed reading this.

  10. So, abolitionists thought these trains supported slavery in the 1920s, 55-65 years after the end of the Civil war? It might have been a concern in the first decade, but I don’t see how abolitionists being opposed would be a factor at that time. As for no longer being needed, I wonder if making them illegal stopped them. The government does such a bangup job of fixing something working until it doesn’t.

  11. Do you have any more information about the homes that the children were put in? What were the people like? How did the children cope? Anything like that would be great. I am doing a book report and I could use the information, thanks!

    1. Thank you for the comment. In response, there are several reasons: 1) During the Great Depression state governments could not maintain the minimal services they had to meet the needs of the poor and unemployed. Even President Hoover initiated federal programs to help; later, President Roosevelt increased the role of the federal government with employment programs (e.g., WPA, PWA, CCC, and others). After WW II, the federal government had a surplus of funds and the Congress and Administrations decided to use the funds to build the Interstate Highway System, expand universities and hospitals, create Medicare and Medicaid, the War on Poverty, etc. etc. Hope this help. Regards, Jack Hansan

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