The New York Children's Aid Society and
The Orphan Trains Era
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.