Genealogy Today, by Betty Lou Malesky, CG
The Orphan Trains: New York to the West
By 1853 residents of New York City acknowledged they had a problem with homeless children. A great influx of immigrants, high unemployment, low wages, and inadequate living conditions for the unskilled contributed to the dilemma. If a parent deserted or died the remaining parent was often unable to support the children who wound up in a public home or on the streets.
A group of New York businessman formed the Children’s Aid Society to help care for orphans or neglected children—30,000 of whom were estimated to be living on the city’s streets at the time. The unique solution devised to find homes for the unfortunates was the Orphan Train.
Groups of children were put on trains and sent west wherever the railroads went. Towns along the way were advised of the orphans’ arrival and residents were invited to view the children and hopefully adopt them. Orphan Trains carried over 200,000 needy children between 1854 and 1929. The only cost to the adopting family was the care of the child.
Ideally, the child would be placed in a Christian home, have plenty to eat, receive an education, and be raised in a healthy rural environment. Unfortunately, it didn’t always work out as planned. While the program spoke adoption, it was often a form of indenture. Some found good homes but others were physically abused and mistreated. Although adopting families were screened many children were sought only to do farm work or serve as household servants.
Most of the children had never been on a train. Some had entered an orphanage as an infant and knew no other life. When they arrived at a stop, they were lined up outside the train for viewing and possible selection by a family. Often brothers and sisters traveled together, with one chosen and another put back on the train alone to await the next stop.
Typical of many such articles, the Grand Forks Herald reported the arrival in August 1906 of thirty orphans aged 2 to 4 years from New York. Eight were placed in homes and the rest sent on to other communities. The National Orphan Train website at www.orphantraindepot.com/ posts stories of many former passengers. An 8 year old rider relates a tale of being separated from his younger brothers who were chosen first. He spent time in four homes before being rejected in each. He finally found acceptance in a family that loved him despite his fear and anger and learned to love them in return.
One survivor who died in 2008 at age 95 still had the three-page "indenture agreement," which outlined the duties she was expected to perform in her new household. Until she came of age, her life was less that of a daughter and more an unpaid servant. She never learned about her parents as the foundling home she came from sealed the records for 100 years.
The obituary database at genealogybank.com displays 165 post-1997 obituaries that mention the Orphan Train, with many of the deceased born in New York and sent west when very young. When grown some became advocates for children’s rights, speaking out about the trauma they had experienced. Few ever became reconciled to the loss of their birth families.
One can scarcely imagine the terrors of the trip for such young children. Most of us raised in the families who birthed us cannot begin to understand the agony of not knowing who we really are and why we were given away. Only knowledge can lesson the pain.
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