The Orphan Train Movement, 1854 – 1929
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.
It was started by a man named Charles Loring Brace in 1853. Brace was a minister, and he was upset by the plight of the more than 30,000 homeless children that were living on the city’s streets. To help the children, he founded the Children’s Aid Society and devised a plan for the organization to remove the children from the streets and send them, by train, to live with families on farms in rural areas.
These homeless children came mostly from large cities on the east coast, such as New York and Boston. Most children were poor and many had been in trouble with the law. Many times, children were separated from their brothers and sisters during these moves. Some never saw their siblings again.
When the orphan train movement began, it was estimated that 30,000 abandoned children were living on the streets of New York City. Between 1854 and 1929 an estimated 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children were placed during, what is known today as the Orphan Train Movement. The name of the movement came from the trains that moved these children throughout the 47 states and Canada.
The children were accompanied on the train by adults, often Catholic nuns. The children left the train at each stop and were chosen or not chosen by the 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 chaperones who would match the number to the child wearing the same number. Homes and homeowners were screened to see that they were fit to take care of children.
Many children who were transported to new homes via an Orphan Train had a hard adjustment. For children who knew nothing but New York City streets, farms in states like Indiana or Nebraska were a shocking change. Despite the transitional challenges, many children who were placed in the Orphan Train program flourished in their new lives. Many had successful careers, and several went on to be governors, congressmen and district attorneys and hold other powerful positions.
The Orphan Train Movement certainly helped improve the lives of children who ultimately would have lived in destitution. It was not, however, without its critics.
Some of the Orphan Train children were eventually adopted, but many were not. Some were “indentured,” which means their labor was sold to waiting farmers. Many were taken in as one of the family and raised as if they had been adopted, whether or not the actual adoption paperwork had been completed.
The Orphan Train movement provided many children with homes during a very difficult time. Many people felt that seizing children from their lives and taking them somewhere unfamiliar was traumatic and unfair. Others believed that it promoted slavery because the children were often put to work when they arrived at the farms.
Do you think that the Orphan Train Program was a successful one? How do you think it compares to the foster care system that exists in America today?