I was less than ten years old when I first learned about the Orphan Train Movement of the mid-1800s to early 1900s, but it was many years into my adulthood before I dug into the true history behind it. Have you heard of Orphan Trains? If not, here’s a little about them.
|Charles Loring Brace
In the early 1850s, there were many children living on the streets of large cities like New York. Orphaned children. Abandoned or abused children. Kids forced to beg, steal, prostitute themselves, or join gangs to survive. One man, Charles Loring Brace, saw the sheer numbers and took compassion upon them. With the backing of other philanthropists and businessmen, this Yale graduate opened the Children’s Aid Society to take in and house these poor souls. However, Brace was not an advocate of simply housing these children in orphanages until they became adults. Rather, he wanted to make them productive members of society through hard work, education, and family. So, he took in as many children as he was able into his Children’s Aid Society with the plan to find them homes out west.
Why out west, you ask? Brace was of the belief that relegating a child to institutional life would stunt their growth, both physically and mentally, and destroy the children. To combat this, they needed wide open spaces, lots of fresh air, and old-fashioned hard work. Where better to find that recipe than in the western portions of the United States, where space was readily available and there were farms and ranches needing able bodies to succeed. So, in October of 1854, the first group of 45 orphans was placed on a train from New York, heading to Michigan. One lone adult accompanied the children on the days-long train ride, and once they’d arrived, he pointed out to those who’d gathered how strong and sturdy the boys were, and how the girls would be quite capable of handling any housework necessary. Within just a couple of days, all but eight of the children had been taken in by families. Those that remained were sent on to Iowa City where an orphanage administrator took them in with the plan to quickly find foster homes for them. The first Orphan Train was such a success that more were planned.
In order for this plan to work, each community would set up a committee of prominent members—pastors, lawmen, business owners, and the like—to screen the prospective adopters. Ahead of the train’s arrival, handbills would be printed and distributed, foretelling of the coming Orphan Trains. At the appointed time, the train would arrive, and the children—having been properly groomed and wearing their best clothes—would be taken to the chosen meeting place. There, they would be lined up from oldest to youngest and would introduce themselves. Families who’d been given approval to taken in children could then meet and select which ones they wished to take home.
Full-fledged adoption was not required, but prospective families were told they must treat the orphans they fostered as if they were their own children. They were to provide food, clothing, education, and $100 upon the orphan’s twenty-first birthday. In exchange for the food, shelter, and education, each orphan was expected to help with chores and/or farm work, just like a natural child of the family would.
As you might expect, not everything went smoothly with the plan. The children, many who were naïve to what was happening, experienced a range of emotions once they realized the truth of this situation. Some were overjoyed at the chance of having a family of their own. Others, who’d left their birth families behind, were incensed at the idea they were now expected to be part of a new home and family. Some children were adopted into homes where they were doted on and even spoiled, but just as often, children found themselves in abusive or unbearable homes where they were treated as anything but a true family member. In the latter cases, many of those children either returned to the Children’s Aid Society, or more often, ran away to fend for themselves. Often, in the case of older children (those of about 14 years and up), they felt they were close enough to adulthood that they didn’t need or want to be adopted. And the families considering them feared many would be too set in their bad habits to be redeemed and fully brought into their family.
In addition to these difficulties, the Orphan Train Movement faced much backlash from various groups. Before the outlaw of slavery during the Civil War, abolitionist organizations felt this program was just another form of slavery. At the same time, pro-slavery supporters felt that these orphan trains would undermine the slave trade by giving free labor to those farmers who needed it. There was even backlash from the Catholic population who feared that the Irish Catholic children (who were a large segment of the orphans being shipped west) would be forced to give up their Catholic beliefs when they were taken in by Protestant families in their new communities.
Despite the difficulties, the Orphan Train movement thrived. Yes, there werehardships for the children being “placed out” with new families, but by and large, they were given new homes, their physical needs were met, and a huge percentage went on to successful lives. The program eventually waned for a variety of reasons, like new laws and programs to better protect children and help struggling families…as well as the settlement of the Western Frontier. But between 1854 and 1929, some 200,000 children were given new opportunities at life, thanks to the vision of Charles Loring Brace and his Orphan Trains.
It’s Your Turn: Have you heard of the Orphan Train Movement before? If you had lived in the years when orphan trains operated, would you have considered fostering or adopting a child? Why or why not? Leave your answer to these questions with your email address, and you’ll be included in the drawing for a copy of my newest novella collection, The Blacksmith Brides.
Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has finaled and won in numerous writing competitions, and been on the ECPA best-seller list several times. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers, Women Writing the West, and is a lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, college-aged son, and four fur children.
COMING JULY 1, 2020
Despite the determination to be strong and independent, four women of bygone days are in need of a hero. On the journey to California, the deed to Mattie’s hopes and dreams is stolen. Elizabeth has been saddled with too many responsibilities at the family mercantile. Unexpectedly married, Sofia is ill-prepared for a husband and the society she is thrust into. When her sister is accosted, Aileen will do almost anything to support her. Accepting help isn’t easy when these women don’t want to show weakness, but it is more appealing when it comes with a handsome face.
Stories by Amanda Barratt, Gabrielle Meyer, Jennifer Uhlarik, and Kathleen Y’Barbo.