Orphan Train flyer

Suffer the Little Children – Orphan Trains in America

In this post from the archives by the late Carolyn Barkley, the history and role of America’s orphan trains in a children’s diaspora is discussed. If you are having trouble tracing a child in your family history during the time period of 1853-1930, looking into the orphan trains may help you in your search.

It is dark and the wind whips up the few leaves that have found their way into the gutter. A figure, hunched against the night’s cold, appears in the dim light of the street lamp. She cautiously, and almost furtively, lays her carefully wrapped burden on the doorstep, gives it a lingering caress and then disappears back into the shadows. A few streets away, a small, grubby child begs for food on the corner, perhaps assessing each pedestrian as a possible candidate for pick-pocketing. Sound melodramatic? Surely. But scenes such as these were enacted on the streets of New York during the mid-to-late nineteenth century.

Immigration had brought many hopefuls to America’s shores. It is estimated that in the approximately twenty years between 1841 and 1860, over four million immigrants arrived; by the turn of the century, over one million were landing each year. This influx of newcomers, often poor and with no immediate prospects in their new country, caused many problems. Housing was limited; jobs were often unavailable to immigrants; food was scarce; and diseases were common-place. The support that might have been provided by members of extended families in the “old country” was not available in the new. Laws regulating – and ultimately restricting – immigration would not be enacted until 1917, although there was a Chinese Exclusion Act as early as the 1880s. The result was the abandonment of children on the doorsteps of private homes, churches, and other institutions that might provide them with shelter and care, and a growing number of homeless childrens eeking out a poor subsistence on the streets.

In New York City, two agencies began to address the issue. In 1853, a group of businessmen, headed by Charles Loring Brace, formed an organization to help care for these neglected children. Known as The Children’s Aid Society, the organization’s goal was the “placing-out” of children in order to save them from life on the streets by relocating them elsewhere, particularly in the rapidly expanding western states. Their efforts would result in the placement of over 200,000 children between 1854 and 1930. Small groups of children, accompanied by a “western agent,” would be sent by train to preselected cities or towns in order to be placed with families, particularly those who lived along the railway routes leading west. A local committee of prominent men in such a community (doctors, clergy, teachers, etc.) would select families and then match these families with children when the train arrived. The basis of what would be called “fostering” today was a contract between the Children’s Aid Society and the family. Such contracts stipulated the terms under which children under the age of 15 would remain with the family and be sent to school, as well as the terms under which they could be removed and returned, at no cost, if some problem prevented the family from keeping them. These placements began in 1854 and ended in 1929. The Society’s annual report for 1854 was filled with glowing affidavits describing the positive effects of their efforts. An example read, “In reply to your inquiries touching the lad sent me, I have not to say that he is making rapid progress at his trade, is obedient, industrious and studious, and bids fair to become a man of unusual parts. Since he has come among us he has associated himself with the Cadets of Temperance, among whom he occupies a prominent place for one so young…” Another read, “Sarah G. has been with us nine months, and we think she is a different girl, in all respects, from what she was when she first came…It is our intention, if we all live, to take pains with her, and to bring her up in such a way as to be useful to herself, and also to be a useful member of society.”

The New York Foundling Asylum of the Sisters of Charity was founded in October 1869.  Within three days, their first infant was left with them; within three months, the total had risen to 123. The New York State legislature authorized New York City to provide a site for a building and appropriated $100,000 for its construction, providing that matching funds could be raised. The project was completed by 1873. The Asylum continued to grow and eventually included a maternity “pavilion;” an annex on Staten Island; several departments devoted to such activities as boarding, adoption, and social services; a prenatal clinic; St. John’s Hospital for Children; a pediatric service; and more. Now known as the New York Foundling Hospital, the institution continues its work today. Letters accompanying the abandoned children, sometimes describing the circumstances in which the child had been found, graphically detailed the conditions affecting many children in the city at that time. For example, a letter from a doctor in May 1873 states: “This offspring is the fruit of a brutality on the person of this poor but decent woman and to cover her shame and being too poor to support the children, there are two from her husband, she is obliged to resort to this extreme measure.” Another, in July 1870, read in part, “This is the last time I can speak of him as mine, and if in years to come if I could hear that he had a home and kind friends, I could die in peace. On the other hand, if I should never hear, it would haunt the day of my death.” When the Foundling Hospital had children eligible for “placing-out,” they notified priests in towns adjacent to railroad lines. The priests, in turn, would identify families within their congregations who were interested in taking in a child. These families could specify the gender of child they would like to take in, as well as physical descriptors such as eye and hair color. The Hospital required an indenture form to formalize the placement.

Through the work of these two agencies and others like them, “orphan trains,” as they were called, became the process by which these unfortunate children, orphans and non-orphans alike, were transported to what was believed would be a better life. In most cases these children were happy and prospered with their new families in surroundings that provided adequate food, shelter, and safety, as well as schooling. The process itself, however, must have been quite frightening, first by the disorientation of a long train ride among strangers, and then by virtue of visual and physical inspections carried out by individuals at each rail stop. Siblings often were unable to remain together, and he or she might never communicate with other family members again. The scenes seem to echo, uncomfortably, the slave transactions of the pre-Civil War period. If fortunate, a child would be placed with a family. If not, they would be returned to the train and taken to the next station, where they would repeat the same process of inspection and selection. While almost all states received some children via the orphan trains, New York, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, and Kansas received the most; Arizona received none; New Mexico, Wyoming, and Utah received the least. The number of trains declined by the 1920s as many state legislatures began to pass laws regulating or prohibiting the interstate placement of children.

Does your family lore include a story of an ancestor who rode an orphan train? As you begin to explore that story in available original records, you will quickly discover that it is not an easy search. Many organizations participated in the placement of children during that time period, and there is no single, central listing of children placed. In addition to the Children’s Aid Society and the New York Foundling Hospital, there were other agencies involved in child placement, including the New England Home for Little Wanderers, the New York Juvenile Asylum, the Chicago Home Society, the Salvation Army, and many others. There are, however, resources that will assist you in your search.

  • Carolee Inskeep’s book The New York Foundling Hospital: An Index to the Federal, State, and Local Census Records [1870-1925], contains 13,000 names. While some of the data in the book can be found elsewhere online, the original print volume contains information about the children who lived in the hospital between 1870 and 1925. They were extracted from the 1870 and 1800 federal censuses; the New York City Police Census of 1890; federal censuses of 1900, 1910, and 1920; and New York State censuses of 1905, 1915, and 1925. The names are listed chronologically by census, and then alphabetically by surname. In almost all cases, entries include the individual’s name, race, sex, age and status. By searching the actual 1920 census, using information gained from the database or print volume, you may discover additional information concerning the birthplace of the individual or his or her parents.
  • Another Carolee Inskeep title, The Children’s Aid Society of New York: An Index to the Federal, State, and Local Census Records of its Lodging Houses (1855-1925)  lists 5,000 children who lived in one of the dozen or so lodging houses that were part of the Children’s Aid Society, long enough to be counted as a resident in one of the federal, state, or city enumerations conducted between 1855 and 1925. Using either of the Inskeep source books yields better results than online databases that utilize the information in the books. The records for the online databases can be disjointed and circular, and may even lead you to the wrong relative or a false dead end.
  • Cyndi’s List provides access to an extensive list of links under the heading “orphans.” One section is devoted to orphan train information and provides links to a variety of state orphan train projects as well as a major online resource, the National Orphan Train Complex. This site provides a significant amount of historical background and resource information and, in addition, maintains a Rider Registry, which provides an individual with the opportunity to register an orphan train rider, or to request research on a rider for a nominal fee. Other resources listed include the ORPHAN-TRAINS Mailing List, which provides subscribers with opportunities to discuss children, document their experiences, and perhaps locate their descendants.

If you are experiencing a brick wall tracing a child in this time period, research into orphan trains and their passengers may help you scale that wall.

Image credit: By J.W. Swan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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