Orphan Trains


Have you ever, in your life, heard about the Orphan Trains?  I had not.  But then a mostly-life-long-resident of Wisconsin might not have.  I don’t think Wisconsin saw as much of the orphan train phenomenon as other states. Here in Texas it seems to have been a bigger ‘thing.’

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Let me explain. Between 1854 & 1929 somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 orphans were relocated from the populous cities in the Eastern U.S. to rural locations such as Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, North & South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, and others.  Considering I’d never heard anything about them, at first I hesitated to assimilate just how many kids and how many trains this represented, but I came upon this Kansas listing of communities visited by Orphan Trains and I was amazed— or shocked. It’s hard to fathom how different the world was in the 1850’s, or even in the early 1900’s.  My grandparents all arrived in this country during that time and the idea that they could have been placed on a train and handed out for adoption, indentured servitude, or even slavery never crossed my mind.  We were lucky in that upon arrival none of them were pressed by circumstances that placed them in abject poverty and helplessness but it was nothing more than a chance of fate (or Providence) that kept them from suffering disease. So, this could have been my story as easily as not.

There are a lot of references out there to help you learn about this strange phenomenon.  Wiki is a good place to start and I quote the lead paragraphs:

The Orphan Train Movement was a supervised
welfare program that transported orphaned and
homeless children from crowded Eastern cities
of the United States to foster homes located largely
in rural areas of the Midwest. The orphan trains
operated between 1854 and 1929, relocating about
200,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children.

Three charitable institutions, Children’s Village (founded
1851 by 24 philanthropists),[1] the Children’s Aid Society
(established 1853 by Charles Loring Brace) and later, the
New York Foundling Hospital, endeavored to help these
children. The two institutions developed a program that
placed homeless, orphaned, and abandoned city children,
who numbered an estimated 30,000 in New York City
alone in the 1850s, in foster homes throughout the country.
The children were transported to their new homes on trains
that were labeled “orphan trains” or “baby trains”. This
relocation of children ended in the 1920s with the beginning
of organized foster care in America. One of the many
children who rode the train was Lee Nailling. Lee’s mother
died of sickness; after her death Lee’s father could not afford
to keep his children. Another orphan train child was named
Alice Ayler. Alice rode the train because her single mother
could not provide for her children; before the journey they
lived off of “berries” and “green water.”

— WIKIPEDIA

It’s hard to fathom how different the world was back then.  Yet, at a time when our government is struggling with health insurance and what might be the proper involvement of the national government in the lives of it’s citizens — questions like “what do you do with orphans” aren’t nearly as out-of-the-box as “what do you do about refugees?”  Or what do you do about people without healthcare?

I don’t know if anyone out there is concerned that their “people” might have been on an Orphan Train?   If so, here’s a link to some Orphan Train resources for those doing genealogy research.  And another.

The stories — you can find many of them online — of the impact riding the Orphan Train had on the riders are as varied as the people themselves.  All were not pleasant; a few were.  Some found themselves in circumstances not much better than slavery.  Others found loving homes.

The idea of sending children off on a train with a few chaperones and little else seem barbaric now.  But we forget that the U.S., like the rest of the world, was subject to plague-like outbreaks of disease; there were few, if any, social nets to support those who could not control the size of their family or who could not provide for the family they had.  Life was very different then in some ways.

Yet, was it?

There were rich and poor in those days.  Some folks recognized the problem and set out to address it founding a variety of Aid Societies and from those we ultimately developed the systems that we have today. The governmental and private programs we have today are the direct result of decades of dealing with real and challenging problems;  they didn’t arise in a month, they weren’t solved in a month.  People of means for foresight too the lead, but today organizations like the Red Cross and many, many, many others do their best to help those who are unable to help themselves.

Compassion is not obsolete.  In the same way that 150 years ago there were helpless folks whom society could not abandon, so today there are as well.  The big question that comes to mind is how will we respond.

Thanks for stopping by, I’ll be here again tomorrow to chat.  Why not stop and say Hi.

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4 Comments

    1. I’m afraid there weren’t watchdog organizations back then as there are now. It’s wonderful that so many found homes, but the fact that others were mis-used and abused is a good reminder that government does have a place interfering in the lives of it’s citizens. Citizens don’t always do what is kind, fair, humane, do they?

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  1. I’ve read a few books on the Orphan Trains. Although some families “ordered” and received certain types of children (“a boy old enough to work on the farm” or “a girl who can help in the house”) other stories seem more like an auction: the trains would stop, they’d unload a bunch of kids, and then families would come and pick out the ones that looked most promising. The remainder of the kids would be put back on the train and they’d try again in another town.

    How devastating the whole process must have been for the children, especially those who were separated from a living parent or from siblings.

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    1. I agree. But do you think that in those days much consideration was given to the ‘feelings’ of the orphans? After all the orphan trains were a response to an overwhelming number of poor children on the streets — to be honest I don’t know how much compassion was being exercised and how much the wealthy — who could afford to organize the trains — didn’t want to be bothered to have to look at the poverty. It would not have been be the first time that the wealthy tried to hide unpleasantness. The numbers of indigent, abandoned, and parentless children on the streets at the time was horrible — we have sanitized our view of history so much that we are largely ignorant of true conditions in our own country at the time.

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