The Orphan Train Movement in the United States

Photograph of the painting Little Orphan at the Train by Norman Rockwell
‘Little Orphan at the Train’ by Norman Rockwell, 1950. Norman Rockwell/Jeremy Keith/Flickr/Creative Commons

The Orphan Train movement in the United States was an ambitious, sometimes controversial, social welfare effort to relocate orphaned, abandoned, or otherwise homeless children from crowded cities on the East Coast to foster homes in the rural Midwest. Between 1854 and 1929, some 250,000 children were transported to their new homes aboard special trains. As a forerunner of the modern U.S. adoption system, the Orphan Train movement preceded the passage of most federal child protection laws. While many orphan train children were placed with loving and supportive foster parents, some were abused and mistreated.

Key Takeaways: The Orphan Train Movement

  • The Orphan Train movement was an effort to transport orphaned or abandoned children from cities on the United States East Coast to homes in the newly settled Midwest.
  • The movement was created in 1853 by Protestant minister Charles Loring Brace, founder of the Children’s Aid Society of New York City.
  • The orphan trains ran from 1854 to 1929, delivering an estimated 250,000 orphaned or abandoned children to new homes.
  • The Orphan Train movement was the forerunner of the modern American foster care system and led to the passage of child protection and health and welfare laws. 

Background: The Need for Orphan Trains

The 1850s were literally “the worst of times” for many children in crowded cities of the American East Coast. Driven by a still-unregulated influx of immigration, epidemics of infectious diseases, and unsafe working conditions, the number of homeless children in New York City alone soared to as many as 30,000, or about 6% of the city’s 500,000 residents. Many orphaned and abandoned children survived on the streets by selling rags and matches while joining gangs as a source of protection. Street-dwelling children, some as young as five years old, were often arrested and placed in jails with hardened adult criminals.

While there were orphanages at the time, most children who had lost their parents were raised by relatives or neighbors. Taking in and caring for orphaned children was typically done through informal agreements rather than through court-approved and supervised adoptions. Orphaned children as young as six years old were often forced to go to work in order to help support the families that had agreed to take them in. With no child labor or workplace safety laws yet in place, many were maimed or killed in accidents.

Charles Loring Brace and the Orphan Trains

In 1853, Protestant minister Charles Loring Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society of New York City for the purpose of easing the plight of abandoned children. Brace viewed the orphanages of the day as little more than human warehouses that lacked the resources, expertise, and incentive needed to turn orphaned children into self-sufficient adults.

Along with providing the children basic academic and religious training, the society attempted to find them stable and safe jobs. Faced with a rapidly growing number of children cared for by his Children’s Aid Society, Brace came up with the idea of sending groups of children to areas of the recently-settled American West for adoption. Brace reasoned that the pioneers settling the West, always grateful for more help on their farms, would welcome the homeless children, treating them as family members. “The best of all asylums for the outcast child is the farmer’s home,” wrote Brace. “The great duty is to get these children of unhappy fortune utterly out of their surroundings and to send them away to kind Christian homes in the country.”

After sending individual children to nearby farms in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and rural New York in 1853, Brace’s Children’s Aid Society arranged its first “orphan train” delivery of large groups of orphaned and abandoned children to Midwestern towns in September 1854.

On October 1, 1854, the first orphan train carrying 45 children arrived in the small town of Dowagiac in southwestern Michigan. By the end of the first week, 37 of the children had been placed with local families. The remaining eight were sent by train to families in Iowa City, Iowa. Two more groups of homeless children were sent to Pennsylvania in January 1855.

Between 1855 and 1875, Children’s Aid Society orphan trains delivered an average of 3,000 children a year to homes in 45 states. As a strict abolitionist, however, Brace refused to send children to Southern states. During its peak year of 1875, a reported 4,026 children rode the orphan trains.

Once placed in homes, orphan train children were expected to help with farm tasks. While the children were placed free of charge, the adoptive families were obligated to raise them as they would their own children, providing them with healthy food, decent clothing, a basic education, and $100 when they turned 21. Older children who worked in family businesses were to be paid wages.

The intent of the orphan train program was not a form of adoption as it is known today, but an early form of foster care through a process then known as “placing out.” Families were never required to legally adopt the children they took in. While Children’s Aid Society officials tried to screen host families, the system was not foolproof and not all children ended up in happy homes. Rather than being accepted as family members, some children were abused or treated as little more than itinerant farmworkers. Despite these problems, the orphan trains offered many abandoned children their best chance at a happy life. 

The Orphan Train Experience

A typical orphan train car carried 30 to 40 children ranging in ages from infants to teenagers, accompanied by two to five adults from the Children’s Aid Society. Having been told little more than that they were “going out West,” many of the children had no idea what was happening to them. Among those who did, some looked forward to finding new families while others objected to being removed from their “homes” in the city—even as dismal and dangerous as they may have been.

Flyer reading “Wanted: Homes for Children” dated February 25, 1910
Orphan Train flyer advertising “Wanted: Homes for Children” dated February 25, 1910. J.W. Swan/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

When the trains arrived, the adults dressed the children in new clothing and gave each of them a Bible. Some of the children had already been paired with new families who had “ordered” them based on their gender, age, and physical characteristics. Others were taken to local meeting places where they stood on a raised platform or stage for inspection. This process was the source of the term “put up for adoption.”

In bizarre scenes considered unimaginable today, these orphan train adoption inspections often resembled livestock auctions. Children had their muscles poked and their teeth counted. Some children sang or danced in an effort to attract new mothers and fathers. Infants were most easily placed, while children over 14 and those with visible illnesses or disabilities had more difficulty in finding new homes.

Newspaper accounts of an orphan train’s arrival described the auction-like atmosphere. “Some ordered boys, others girls, some preferred light babies, others dark,” reported The Daily Independent of Grand Island, Nebraska, in May 1912. “They were very healthy tots and as pretty as anyone ever laid eyes on.”

Newspapers also published glowing accounts of the “distribution day” when adopted orphan train children went home with their new parents. An article in the Bonham (Texas) News from November 19, 1898, stated, “There were good looking boys, handsome boys, and smart boys, all waiting for homes. Willing and anxious hearts and hands were there to take them and share their all with them through life.”

Perhaps one of the saddest aspects of the orphan train process was its potential for separating brothers and sisters. Though many siblings were sent out for adoption together, new parents were often financially able to take only one child. If the separated siblings were lucky, they were all taken in by families in the same town. Otherwise, the passed-over siblings were returned to the train and taken to its next destination, often far away. In many cases, brothers and sisters completely lost track of each other.

The End of the Orphan Trains

By the 1920s, the number of orphan trains began to decline dramatically. As the American West became better settled and shops and factories started to outnumber farms, the demand for adoptable children decreased. Once mere frontier settlements like Chicago, St. Louis, and Cleveland grew into sprawling cities, they began to suffer the same problems of abandoned children that had plagued New York in the 1850s. With their economies now booming, these cities were soon able to develop their own charitable resources for taking care of orphaned children.

However, the most significant factor leading to the final runs of the orphan trains came as states began enacting laws strictly regulating or banning the interstate transportation of children for the purpose of adoption. In 1887 and 1895, Michigan passed the first laws in the United States regulating the placement of children within the state. The 1895 law required all out-of-state child placement agencies like the Children’s Aid Society to post a costly bond for each child brought into the state of Michigan.

In 1899, Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota enacted similar laws that also prohibited the placement of “incorrigible, diseased, insane, or criminal” children within their borders. By 1904, the states of Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, and South Dakota had passed similar laws.

Legacy of the Orphan Trains

Today, orphan train creator Charles Loring Brace’s visionary belief that all children should be cared for by families rather than by institutions lives on as the foundation of the modern American foster care system. The Orphan Train movement similarly paved the way for federal child protection and welfare laws, school lunch programs, and child health care programs.

The Children’s Aid Society, though chronically understaffed, attempted to monitor the condition of the children it sent to new families via its orphan trains. Society representatives attempted to visit each family once a year, and the children were expected to send the society two letters a year describing their experience. Under society criteria, an orphan train child was considered to have “done well,” if they grew up to be “creditable members of society.”

According to a 1910 survey, the society determined that 87% of orphan train children had indeed “done well,” while the other 13% had either returned to New York, died, or been arrested. Two orphan train boys transported to Noblesville, Indiana, from the Randall's Island orphanage in New York City, grew up to become governors, one of North Dakota and the other of the Alaskan territory. Statistics also indicate that during the first 25 years of the orphan train program, the number of children arrested for petty theft and vagrancy in New York City decreased dramatically just has Charles Loring Brace had hoped.

Sources

  • Warren, Andrea. “The Orphan Train,” The Washington Post, 1998, https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/horizon/nov98/orphan.htm.
  • Allison, Malinda. “A Fannin County Orphan Train boy is remembered.” Fannin County Historical Commission, July 16, 2018, http://www.ntxe-news.com/cgi-bin/artman/exec/view.cgi?archive=74&num=111796.
  • Jackson, Donald Dale. “Trains Ferried Waifs To New Lives On The Prairie.” South Florida SunSentinel, September 28, 1986, https://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/fl-xpm-1986-09-28-8602270532-story.html.
  • “’Mobituaries’: The legacy of the Orphan Train.” CBS News, December 20, 2019, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/mobituaries-with-mo-rocca-the-legacy-of-the-orphan-train/.