"Orphan Trains of Kansas" is contributed by CONNIE DIPASQUALE.


by Connie DiPasquale


     Orphans ... Foundlings ... Waifs ... Half-Orphans ... Street Arabs ... Street Urchins ... all terms used to describe the children who rode the Orphan Trains. When the Orphan Train movement began, in the mid-19th century, it was estimated that approximately 30,000 abandoned children were living on the streets of New York. And over the 75 year span of the Orphan Train movement, it is estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 "orphan" children were relocated to new homes via the Orphan Trains. But the term "orphan" is used loosely in many cases. Some children were true orphans, no parents, no other family to look after them, living on the streets, sleeping in doorways, fending for themselves by whatever means necessary. But many of these children had parents. Some were "half-orphans", one parent had died and the remaining parent could not care for them, so they were placed in an orphanage. Some children still had both parents, but were merely "turned loose" by the parents because the family had grown too large and they couldn't care for all the children. Some were run-aways - from abuse, drunkeness, etc.

     The factors that "created" these children are many. Some of them are:

    parental death, due to disease, industrial accidents, starvation, etc.

    neglect, abandonment, prostitution.

    massive overpopulation in the New York area due to extensive
        immigration in the mid 19th century.

    a general attitude among the "higher society" that those in the "lower
        classes" didn't deserve help, that they "were poor because they chose
        not to help themselves, therefore they got what they deserved".


     Basically, there were two main institutions responsible for this mass "emigration" of children from New York. Those institutions are The Children's Aid Society, and The New York Foundling Hospital. Both are still active today (in 1996) helping children. The first "train" went out from The Children's Aid Society on September 20, 1854, with 46 ten-to-twelve-year-old boys and girls. Their destination was Dowagiac, Michigan. All 46 children were successfully placed in new homes. While this "placement" effort of orphans was not entirely original to these two institutions, there had been similar efforts tried in Boston as early as the mid 1840s, they are the institutions that most often come to mind when discussing the Orphan Train movement.

Rev. Charles Loring Brace and The Children's Aid Society:

     Brace, a 26 year old Congregational minister, found his "calling" a little closer to street-level, than the lofty climes of the pulpit. In 1853, concerned with the growing number of "homeless" children he saw wandering the streets of New York, he joined together with other "reformers" and founded the Childrens Aid Society. Unlike other charitable institutions of the time, he wanted to provide more than just food, clothing, and a place to sleep. He felt that education and the opportunity to learn a trade were necessary ingredients in properly caring for these children. For a short while, he tried helping these children with his institutions in New York City, establishing schools for them, teaching the boys a trade, inviting volunteering ladies to help teach the girls the proper way to behave and dress, establishing a "savings bank" to teach the boys to save their money rather than gamble it away. But just a year after founding the Children's Aid Society he knew he needed help. Thus, he took up the plan that Boston had tried ten years earlier. Taking "orphans" from the street, sending them "west" on trains and "placing them out" to families at the various stops along the way who were willing to "adopt" them.
     The Boston plan had also allowed for children to be taken on as "indentured servents", but this was not an acceptable option to Brace. He developed what he called "the family plan". This meant that a child should be taken into a home and treated as part of the family. He expected the "adoptive families" to provide for the "orphans" with the same food, clothing, education, spiritual training, etc. that they would for their own biological children. Sometimes this happened, sometimes it didn't. But, overall, Brace felt these orphans had a better chance at life with placement in a new home "out west", than they did remaining on the streets of New York. He also felt that moving these children "west" was better for them healthwise, than remaining in the city. So, the first group was sent out on September 20, 1854 ... and America's first "foster children" were placed.
     The basic procedure for "adopting" children from The Children's Aid Society was as follows. Determination was made of what children were to be sent out, if a child was not a "true" orphan, then "release for placement" was obtained from whatever parent/guardian remained available. It was decided where the train would travel, and what towns it would stop at. Advance "notice" of "Homes Wanted for Orphans" would be placed in key newspapers by the placing agents who were to accompany the children. It was desirable to have one male and one female agent accompany each group, but this was not always the case.
     Shortly before the day of departure (oftentimes just the night before) the children would be told that they were going on the train, and they would be bathed, given new clean clothing, and their hair tended to. Then they would board the train, and off they went to their new destiny. Upon arrival in one of the projected towns, they would disembark and go to perhaps the local opera house (sometimes the town hall or a local church) and be lined up on a stage or platform at the front of the room. Usually, a local town "committee" had been at work prior to the arrival of the train, trying to line up good potential families for the expected children. At this time, members of the community would be allowed to visit with (and inspect) the children. If a match-up was made between adult and child, and the local committee and placing agents were in agreement, then the child would leave the group and go on to his/her "new home".
     Often brothers and sisters were separated by the "adoption" process, sometimes never to see each other again. It then became the responsibility of the placing agent to "keep tabs" on each child they placed in a new home. The agent would make return trips to check on the children's welfare. If the placement was not working out, or the agent thought the child was being abused, he would then remove the child from it's new home and try to find another family.
Sister Irene and The New York Foundling Hospital:

     The story of Sister Irene and The New York Foundling Hospital runs parallel with that of Rev. Brace and The Children's Aid Society. However, there were a few key differences in how they placed children in new homes.
     The Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul created the Catholic Charities of New York in 1869. Through The New York Foundling Hospital, they had always taken in abandoned babies. In the foyer of their building stood a white cradle were mothers could anonymously leave their children to be cared for by the Sisters. But as knowledge of this cradle spread, it wasn't long before there were more children than they could adequately care for. Thus, began the Foundling Hospital's "mercy trains" also known as "baby trains". The Sisters worked in conjunction with Priests throughout the Midwest and South in an effort to place these children in Catholic families. While the Children's Aid Society requested that the children they place be given spiritual training (the choice of religion was left up to the "adoptive" family), the Foundling Hospital's placements were strictly to Catholic families.

     Probably the largest difference in how the Foundling Hospital placed their children is that the children were not sent out to be "randomly" adopted from a town hall or opera house, but were "requested" ahead of time by families who wanted a child. Requests would be sent to the NYFH for a child (for example: a 2 year old, blue eyed, blond haired girl), and then the Sisters would do their best to find a "matching" child. They would then send the requesting family a "receipt" for the child telling when and where the child would arrive by train. This notice requested that the family be at the station ahead of time so as not to miss the train. When the train arrived, the new parents were to have their "notice of arrival" with them which they were to present to the Sisters. This notice had a number on it that would match up with a child on the train. Once the match was made, the parents were to have signed the "receipt" for the child, and they were free to leave with their new child.

     The Children's Aid Society and The New York Foundlinig Hospital continued to "place out" children until 1930. There were several reasons for the orphan train movement to end. A couple of the primary reasons were:

    the beginning of the depression in 1930 made it extremely hard
        for familes to consider "adding another mouth to feed", and

    there were new laws and new programs being instituted that were
        designed specifically to help children. These laws made it harder
        for the trains to continue bringing children into states, and new foster
        care homes were beginning to replace the large institution/orphanages
        of the past.

     It is estimated that there are approximately 500 actual Orphan Train Riders still living in 1996. All would be 70 years old or older. It is also estimated that around 2 million people are descendents of an Orphan Train Rider. Do you have a Rider in your past?

If you would like to read more about the Orphan Trains, here are a few excellent books:

Warren, Andrea. Orphan Train Rider - One Boy's True Story. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston, 1996.

Patrick, Michael, Evelyn Sheets, and Evelyn Trickel. We Are A Part of History. Santa Fe N. Mex.: Lightning Tree Press, 1990.

Vogt, Martha Nelson, and Christina Vogt. Searching for Home: Three Families from the Orphan Trains. Grand Rapid, Mich.: Triumph Press, 1986.

Johnson, Mary Ellen (ed.) Orphan Train Riders: Their Own Stories, volumes I-V. Baltimore, Md.: Gateway Press, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996.

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