Spring 1999

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The New York Children's Aid Society and

The Orphan Trains Era


Mary Ellen Pollock

Mary Ellen Pollock was herself a rider on the Orphan Train.
Click here for her own story

First of all, I shall tell you about the man who started the placing-out of children, and then about the Orphan Train riders.

The period in America's history of caring for homeless children called the "free-home-placing-out" era began with Charles Loring Brace and the founders of the New York Children's Aid Society in New York City in 1853.

Charles Brace, who was born June 19, 1826, in Litchfield, Connecticut, attended Yale and studied theology. He became a member of the Congregational Church intending to continue toward his goal of becoming a minister. However, a trip to New York City changed the direction of this young man's life, and the lives of over 100,000 orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children over a period of 75 years.

A sermon delivered to paupers, prisoners, and hospital patients on Blackwell's Island October 31, 1849, gave Brace a new purpose. In the spring of 1852, he wrote to his father of his decision to "raise up the outcast and homeless, to go down among those who have no friend or helper, and do something for them of what Christ has done for me."

On January 9, 1853, a newly-formed association chose Charles Loring Brace as its first secretary and provided him with an operational budget of $1,000 a year, which included his salary. Their effort was termed "a mission to the children." Immediately word spread and crowds of wandering little ones found their way to Brace's office at 683 Broadway, in New York City.

Ira A. Glazier wrote in Vol. I, Germans to America that the port of New York received over 500,000 immigrants between 1850 and 1854. In The Famine Immigrants, edited by Glazier and M. Tepper, it is stated that over 650,000 Irish immigrants came into the Port of New York between 1846 and 1851.

Lack of adequate housing and jobs brought a breakdown in traditonal family life. Without an extended family (usually left behind in the 'old' country) to rely upon, young parents often found themselves unable to care for their offspring. As many as 10,000 children were roaming the streets of New York City at one point according to the Chief of Police. Stealing was the major crime of very young people.

The new association, the New York Children's Aid Society, provided care for these children as best they could but there were too many homeless children for any organization or group of organizations to care for.

As an experiment, a group of 46 boys and girls left the office of the Children's Aid Society on Wednesday, September 20, 1854, headed for Michigan. The party, under the guidance of Rev. E. P. Smith, arrived in a small town in Michigan at 3 a.m. on a Sunday.

The children spread out on the floor of the depot and lay down to sleep. After breakfast, Rev. Smith took the children to the local Presbyterian Church where they sang "Sabbath School songs" they had learned from meetings held by the Children's Aid Society. On Monday morning applications from farmers (recommended by their pastors and Justices of the Peace) were received and by nightfall 15 of the children had potential homes. Nine of the children went with Rev. Smith to Chicago where he sent them on to be placed in Iowa City. The children who were not chosen were then taken back to the orphanage.

Rev. Smith ended his report on the adventure by writing, "On the whole the first experiment of sending children West is a very happy one, and I am sure there are places enough with good families in Michigan, Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin, to give every poor boy and girl in New York a permanent home. The only difficulty is to bring the children to the homes."

This first group of children had traveled by boat and train to reach their destination; soon railroads became the major providers of transportation for the orphans. The "Michigan Experiment" began a 75-year period of placing-out, and is recognized today as America's first documented attempt to find permanent homes for homeless children.

In 1979, Dorthea Petrie and James Magnusson co-authored a book, Orphan Trains, which later became a movie (now available on video cassette). The term "Orphan Train" quickly became used and the children were denoted as "Orphan Train Riders." The years of the placing-out is now known as the "Orphan Trains Era."

A good definition of an Orphan Train Rider is a homeless child taken, with a group of other children, from their native-born state and sent to the Midwest or West to live with a non-biological family. They traveled with "agents" under the auspices of placement agencies in New York City, Boston or Chicago.

One church-affiliated institution sending children on trains was the New York Foundling Hospital established by the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. The Sisters placed a basket inside the hospital entrance to receive infants with no questions asked. Whenever a baby was left in the basket, a nun would quickly retrieve the deposited infant and care for its physical needs.

The Foundling Hospital used an indenture system for placing their children. Priests would inform the Foundling Hospital of how many and what type children their parishioners could care for. The Hospital in turn would select the children, put a number tag on their clothing and send a card with a matching number on it to prospective parents. On arrival, those cards were matched to tags worn by the children, indenture forms were signed, and the children were given to the families. The Foundling Hospital retained the right to remove a child at any time. Visits to the new homes were made by the local priest or a representative from the Foundling Hospital.

The Home for Little Wanderers, an institution, located in Boston, cared for children and began placing out children in 1865. It continued its placement work until 1903.

Estimates of the number of children placed with parents during the Orphan Train Era run as high as a quarter of a million. Today a conservative estimate of 500 survivors seems logical. Using the multiplying factor of four generations to cover a period of nearly 80 years from the time the program began until it ended, and adding the generations following the close of the program, as many as 2 million persons could have an Orphan Train Rider among their ancestors.

Mary Ellen Johnson of Springdale, Arkansas, heard in 1986, of a group of children that had arrived in Springdale in 1910. She began tracing the movements of these children and located four survivors. After interviewing two of them, her interest in finding others grew into organizing a research center and publishing a quarterly newsletter, Crossroads. The first reunion of Orphan Train Riders took place October, 1988, in Springdale, Arkansas.

Mrs. Johnson founded The Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, Inc. Membership in the society costs $25 a year, $10 for an Orphan Train Rider, and brings the 20-page quarterly with stories of riders, announcements of reunions, queries, newspaper article reprints, and books and items for sale. Request current prices of 144-minute Orphan Train video, and a list of books and items available from MEJ102339AOL.com or write to OTHSA, Inc., 614 East Emma Ave., #115, Springdale, AR 72764.

1999, Mary Ellen Pollock
Click here for Richard Call's story of riding the Orphan Train.
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