The Heartbreaking Tale of Orphan Trains
There are few tragedies more heartbreaking than being an orphan. But, in the 1800s in the United States, that tragedy brought with it unimaginable dimensions of loss, abuse, and violence. Orphanages were established to save children from the streets. But they often became places of horror. And homelessness on the streets offered no less risk of misery.
The first orphanage in the U.S. was established in 1729 in Natchez, Mississippi, for white children orphaned as a result of the conflict between Indians and settlers. Orphanages grew at spectacular rates in the eastern United States between 1830 and 1850 in response to health epidemics (mostly of cholera, tuberculosis and influenza), wars, the influx of immigrants, and crushing poverty.
Booming industrialization and mechanization also played a significant role in the growth of orphanages: although child labor had always been common and remained so all during the 1800s and early 1900s, there was such an influx of immigrant children in the 1800s, that it created an oversupply of child labor. Many children, unable to find work, were left destitute and homeless, or in orphanages.
Many children were placed in orphanages because their parents could not afford to feed them and care for them. In fact, from 1847 to 1869, a review of the Protestant Orphan Asylum in St. Louis, Missouri, revealed that only "twenty-seven percent of the children were full orphans. Sixty-nine percent of the children had one parent, the other parent being deceased or absent. The single parents were equally divided amongst fathers and mothers. Four percent of the children had both parents."
Also, during the last half of the 1800s, American Indians were facing extermination of their families through war, disease epidemics, and displacement and destruction of their culture and their land. The government oversaw institutional removal of Native American children from their parents, tribes and communities to boarding schools, orphanages, and mission schools to indoctrinate them into white culture. They were not allowed to speak their native tongue, practice their native ways and were beaten and abused to break their spirit. The adoption of Native children by white families was promoted and native children were adopted by whites at a much higher rate than any other children in the nation.
Around 1850, the populations of orphans on the East Coast rose to such an extent that 5% of New York City’s population was estimated to be abandoned children. A public crisis ensued that resulted in the creation of three large charitable social institutions: the Children’s Village, (founded 1851 by 24 philanthropists), the Children’s Aid Society (established 1853 by Charles Loring Brace), and later, the New York Foundling Hospital. The institutions were supported by wealthy, socially-minded donors and were operated by professional staffs. (Coincidently, the nation’s first animal shelters were also established at this same time. See post: AMERICA’S FIRST ANIMAL SHELTERS.)
Together, these institutions fostered a program to place their growing numbers of abandoned children in homes across the country. Some children were pre-assigned through in-person or mail-in applications. In these applications, interested foster families could specify age, gender, personality type, even hair and eye color.
But many were put on trains called “orphan trains,” “baby trains” or “mercy trains,” and transported across the country, where they stopped at various cities where posters had been billed announcing the arrival of the orphan train. When the train stopped, children were essentially paraded into the hall or place designated as the “place of distribution” and the children took turns walking across a stage, giving their names, singing a song, reciting a poem or addressing the crowd to make an appeal for their own adoption. Sometimes people even prodded them, felt their muscles or looked to see if their teeth were good.
Babies were the most desirable. The older the child was, the harder he or she was to place. Children older than 14 were always challenging to place because of concern that they were too set in their ways or might have bad habits. Children who were physically or mentally disabled or sickly were nearly impossible to place. Although many siblings were sent out together on orphan trains, foster parents could choose to take a single child and separate siblings.
The first orphan train was believed to have arrived in Dowagiac, Michigan, with 45 children on October 1, 1854. The children were accompanied by E.P. Smith of the Children’s Aid Society. Smith presented the children to the audience, saying the boys were hard workers and very handy and the girls could perform all types of housework. In less than a week, all but eight children had been placed. Smith traveled with the remaining eight children to Chicago and put them on a train to Iowa City by themselves, where they were sent to an orphanage run by Reverend C.C. Townsend, who planned to place them with farm families who needed laborers. Thusly, the first expedition was considered such a success, more orphan trains were planned and the exodus of orphans began their treks West.
In this manner, more than 250,000 orphan children were dispersed throughout the United States between 1854 and 1929. New York state was the leading state for fostering children from the trains, followed by Illinois, Ohio, Iowa, and Missouri. Farms were desperate for laborers and Midwest states “adopted” the most orphan children from the orphan trains.
Ironically the trains ceased operation in 1929 when the stock market crashed and the Depression began. By this time, the government had instituted the foster care system, based on the concept that children living in family settings were better off than in large institutions.
Near the end of the 1900s, adult children of the orphan trains began to have reunions and recount their trials and tribulations. One such man, 82-year-old Arthur, told his:
In January 1918, a month-old boy was found in a basket in the Gimbels department store in Manhattan. Five years later, after bouncing from one orphanage to another, he boarded a train for Iowa. The train arrived in a small Iowa farm community called Clarinda. A large group of curious farmer families were waiting at the train station to see the children. According to the local Clarinda paper, a little 5-year-old boy climbed into a farmer’s lap and asked, “Are you going to be my daddy?” The man and his wife, Worley and Lillian Smith, looked at each other. They had only come to the station out of curiosity. But they slowly smiled at each other, then took him home.”
©2020 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER