Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Following the Orphan Train Riders

Orphan Train
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Searching for one’s family history can be rewarding but also frustrating. Perhaps few have as great a challenge as descendants of Orphan Train Riders. Between 1854 and 1929, more than 200,000 poor and orphaned were “placed out” in rural communities in 47 states and Canada.

How did it all begin? Mass immigration to the United States during the 19th century left America’s eastern port cities overflowing with the destitute. The abundance of cheap labor led to poor paying jobs. Often entire families, including children as young six, worked 12 hours a day to afford food and a room shared with as many as ten others. Illness, accidents, lost wages, unwanted pregnancies, or death quickly sent families into poverty. In 1850, the city of New York estimated that 30,000 “vagrant children” roamed the streets. Another 3,000 lived by stealing.

At the same time, a labor shortage existed throughout the Midwest and on the Plains. Reformers and missionaries believed that traditional rural values held the promise of American life. If children could grow up on farms and in small communities, they would become productive, responsible, Christian citizens.

Leading the way was Charles Loring Brace, one of the founders of the New York Children’s Aid Society. The New York Foundling Hospital was also committed to helping the urban poor as were smaller charitable institutions. But the New York Children's Aid Society was deeply committed to resettling the destitute. The society placed out more than half of all of the poor between 1854 and 1910. Many more were relocated in the final two decades of the program.

Now, as then, the perception remains that the destitute were shipped to rural areas in what we today call the “West.” But, according to researchers at the National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas, the New York Children’s Aid Society resettled 1/3 within its own state. Ninety percent of the remaining poor found homes in the states of Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Kansas, Indiana, and Iowa. Nearly 8,000 were resettled in Ohio.  Some 12,500 were placed in Michigan.

Agents traveled by rail with as few as five and as many as 50 children. Although most were not orphans, the trains soon became known as “orphan trains.” They stopped at rural communities, where locals gathered at depots, churches, courthouses, or schools. There they inspected the lot of waifs and made selections.

Children’s experiences were as varied as their personalities and the families who chose them. Some were separated from siblings, never knowing their heritage or their parents’ names. Some endured constant hard labor and beatings, living in surroundings worse than those they had left in New York or Boston. Others were well cared for, educated and cherished for the remainder of their lives by the families who gave them a home.

Today, it is estimated that there are 2 million descendants. Many want to know more about their grandparents and great grandparents experiences even if their stories were grim and their lives were painful. A good place to learn more is through the National Orphans Train Complex website. Contact information, reunion dates, research materials, and much more is available. PBS' American Experience website features an excellent bibliography and Teacher's Guide.

A version of this article appeared in Lifestyles 2000.

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