The Orphan Trains Delivered Homeless Children to Rural Farmers

By Karen Harris

Group of foundlings to be sent on 'Orphan Trains' to the South and West. (Getty Images)

New York City in the mid-1800s had a real problem. There were too many homeless and orphaned children living in the streets. By some estimates, up to 30,000 kids without parents that roamed the city, begging for food, stealing, and loitering. Some of the children took odd jobs, like selling matches and newspapers, to earn money for food. For protection, groups of orphaned children banded together, forming gangs. Most people wanted to rid the city of its feral children epidemic, but there seemed to be no humane solution. That is, until Charles Loring Brace, founder of the Children’s Aid Society, proposed shipping the orphans to America’s farms. 

(Iowa Public Television)

Orphans Were Sent to Work on Rural Farms

Brace’s idea was to solve two problems at once. The orphaned children in New York needed homes and someone to look after them and the rural farmers needed help on the farms. He believed that the farm families would open their homes and hearts to the homeless children and welcome them into their families as one of their own. In exchange for room and board, the city children would be expected to help out around the farm, just as the farmer's own children did.

On October 1, 1854, the first Orphan Train arrived at its first stop, Dowagiac, Michigan, and a worker with Brace’s Children’s Aid Society told a crowd that gathered in the rail yard that they could adopt any of the 45 children on the train, proclaiming that the boys would make great farm hands and the girls could do housework. No one checked the references of the adopting families and the children were parsed out. 

The Orphan Trains Kept Running

More and more Orphan Trains, run by the Children’s Aid Society and other organizations, shipped youngsters from New York to small towns dotting the American countryside. The trains operated from 1854 through 1929 and it is estimated that as many as 200,000 abandoned children were relocated from Eastern cities to towns in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Kansas, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Iowa. Wealthy East Coast families donated to the Orphan Trains and the program attracted many volunteers who all got warm-fuzzies from believing that they were helping unfortunate street children find a better life. But not all the orphans’ stories had a happy ending. 


The Orphan Trains Separated Families

Keeping families together is a rallying cry we are hearing in the news today, but there seemed to be little concern for that in the 1800s. While the majority of the children rounded up by the Children’s Aid Society were, indeed, orphans, many were not. They spent their time on the streets because a parent, due to illness, disability, or addiction, couldn’t properly care for them. They had parents, yet they were still shipped away to new homes because the aide workers optimistically believed they would be better off with new parents. Siblings were also separated from each other. While the aide workers often informed prospective families that there were sibling units available for adopting, most families only wanted to adopt one child. Siblings were separated and never saw each other again. 

Orphans Became Indentured Slaves

The happy, welcoming adoptive families that Brace and the other aide workers envisioned did happen in some cases. Many orphans found loving and supportive homes and were treated just like a member of the family. But, for others, the experience was akin to slavery. The orphans were forced to work long hours in miserable, unsafe conditions, giving scraps to eat, told to sleep in the barn and beaten. Some estimates claim that more than half of the children who participated in the Orphan Train programs suffered physical abuse and frequent beatings. The emotional abuse was undocumented. Some children were not permitted to become an actual part of the family and were made to always feel like inferior outsiders. They were ridiculed at home and bullied at school and whispered about in the community. 

Some Orphans Were Sexually Abused

It is difficult to know the number of young orphaned girls who were placed with pedophiles, but we know that it did happen. There was little to no oversight of the adoptions and no background checks of adopting families. Bachelor or widowed men, in fact, were encouraged to adopt young girls who could cook and clean and keep house for them. Unbeknownst to the good-intentioned aide workers, they were sending these girls off to a lifetime of sexual abuse. 

The Orphan Trains Developed into the Modern Foster Care System

The idea behind the Orphan Trains – to place homeless and orphaned children with caring families – developed into today’s foster care system, albeit without the trains. The Orphan Trains stopped running with the foster care system took over the problem of abandoned children. While the aides who sent the homeless children away on the Orphan Trains almost always had the children’s best interests at heart, the reality is that most of the children suffered under the system, either from abuse or from being separated from their biological families. 

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.