Refers to the era of 1854-1929 when an estimated 150,000 homeless children were placed on trains and taken to rural sites concentrated in the Midwest and West in search of homes where the children could live and work. The children ranged in age from as young as about one year old to age 16 or 17.
Limited follow-ups of the children revealed that then, as now, the children who adapted the most readily were usually the younger children and the older teenagers faced the greatest difficulty in adjusting to a radically different environment.
These homeless children came primarily from large cities on the Eastern Seaboard, such as New York City. Most were poor, and many had been involved with minor or serious infractions of the law. Many also had siblings and were separated from them for life as a result of the move. Yet most of the children made successful new lives for themselves, leaving behind them severe poverty and desolation.
The Orphan Train era was initiated by social welfare reformer Charles Loring Brace of the Children's Aid Society in New York. Brace urged that children of paupers not be left to languish in large crowded institutions but instead be given an opportunity to live and work in a family home.
Homelessness was a severe problem in Brace's society, and thousands of children often engaged in petty crimes, such as picking pockets, in order to survive. Police reports in New York City in 1852 revealed that in 11 wards, 2,000 homeless girls ages 8 to 16 were arrested for theft.
Children arrested for "vagrancy" and other infractions were housed together with pauper children in large institutions, influencing each other. These children were referred to as the "dangerous classes."
Part of the problem was that there was almost no need for "honest labor" in the large cities, which was why the children had turned to dishonest labor. Large numbers of immigrants had teemed into the major Northeast cities, especially New York City, between 1847 and 1860. There was insufficient demand for the labor of this huge influx of adults, let alone children. (This was prior to the child labor movement, and at this time, everyone worked.)
But at the same time, the midwestern and western farmers suffered a severe labor shortage. Brace saw the answer in Christian terms as well as in economic terms: provide children to the farmers-children who would work in exchange for a home-get the children out of their evil urban environments and into rural America.
Brace contrasted the chance to live with a family to what he saw as the demoralizing effects of growing up in an institution, and to him, the choice was clear.
Poor children were often not taught to read and write and had little hope for a successful future. Brace envisioned the children sent out on the trains as having a better life, growing up to be farmers and farmer's wives.
He was supported in this movement by organizations within the Catholic Church and other groups; for example, the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul and the New York Foundling Hospital were both actively involved in the Orphan Train movement.
The children were accompanied on the train by adults, often Catholic nuns, who rode with the children to their destinations and destinies.
The movement was also known as the "Placing Out" program and preceded adoption as we know it today.
The children left the train at each stop and were chosen or not chosen by people who came to the station to see them. In some cases, the match was made ahead of time, and the couple would present a number to the children's chaperone who would match the number to the child wearing the same number.
In other cases, the matches were far more informal. One train rider reported that her adoptive mother wanted a brunette girl, but the child with the right number refused to leave the nun. The red-haired and fair-skinned 18-month-old train rider happened to look at the woman and say, "Mama." She was chosen.
Some of the Orphan Train riders were ultimately adopted, while others were not. Some were "indentured," which means their labor was sold to waiting farmers, but many were taken in as one of the family and raised as if they had been adopted, whether or not an adoption was ever legitimized.
Brace was opposed to indenturing children because it didn't work and too often the children ran away. Instead, he believed the children should be treated with dignity and respect, and they would respond admirably.
Wrote Brace in 1859 in his book The Best Method of Disposing of Our Pauper and Vagrant Children,
The children of the poor are not essentially different from the children of the rich; the same principles which influence the good or evil development of every child in comfortable circumstances, will affect, in greater or less degree, the child of poverty. Sympathy and hope are as inspiring to the ignorant girl, as to the educated; steady occupation is as necessary for the street-boy, as the boy of a wealthy house; indifference is as chilling to the one class, as to the other; the prospect of success is as stimulating to the young vagrant, as to the student in college.
The Orphan Train riders continued their treks west until about 1929. Although today the idea of sending homeless children to strangers in other states may sound cruel and inhuman, it must be remembered that diseases abounded in the almshouses and orphanages and that yesterday's orphan trains were not all that different from today's "Adoption Fairs," wherein caseworkers bring adoptable children to a picnic or party that is attended by previously-approved prospective adoptive parents.
There were critics of Brace and the New York Aid Society. Brace's organization did not attempt religious matching, and often children of Catholic immigrants were placed in Protestant homes. Concern over this practice grew and ultimately resulted in attempts to place children in homes with the same religious background as their parents.
Critics also said Brace did insufficient investigations of the foster or adoptive homes and little follow-up or documentation. In Brace's defense, communications and transportation of his era had little resemblance to our society today.
Today the history of the Orphan Train era is kept alive by the ORPHAN TRAIN HERITAGE SOCIETY OF AMERICA INC., based in Springdale, Arkansas. Members assist each other in finding birth families and in reminiscing about their shared history.
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©2000 by Christine Adamec and William Pierce, Ph.D. Reprinted from The Encyclopedia of Adoption, 2nd Edition (2nd Edition) with permission of Facts On File, Inc.
Note: Our authors are dedicated to honest, engaged, informed, intelligent, and open conversation about adoption. The opinions expressed here may not reflect the views of Adoption.com.