The History of Orphan Train Movement

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During the mid nineteenth century, urban cities such as New York City, Boston and Philadelphia, began to have an influx in population due to the immigrants because of the opportunities that were offered in America. The Children’s Aid Society with some help from The New York Foundling Hospital created the Orphan Train Movement, sometimes referred to as the Placing Out System (will be referred as Orphan Train Movement throughout the paper) to help destitute children by transporting them from Eastern America to Western America in order to provide them with homes and families who were able to take care of them. Some believe that the Orphan Train Movement helped the children while others believe that, in reality, it hurt the children more than it benefited them. In some cases, it gave children a stable home and a loving family. However, more times than not, it actually did not affect them the way that it was anticipated to. The Orphan Train Movement in America during the late 1800s was detrimental to the orphan ‘riders’ due to severe mistreatment, lack of communication with their biological families, and invasive attempts to change their religious beliefs and practices.

There were many jobs in factories because america was becoming more industrialized and therefore, immigrants came with their families to america for the opportunity at a new life that was promised here because of the assecabile jobs. Housing shortages, unemployment, diseases, and poverty were very common because while there were many jobs, there weren’t enough for everyone that needed jobs. The combined effect of the conditions that the US east coast was in during the mid-19th century left children neglected, destitute, or orphaned. Children were left to fend for themselves in many cases. Charles Loring Brace created The Children’s Aid Society to help homeless children get off the streets, obtain an education, learn Christian values, and find work. The orphanages were overcrowded and Brace felt that the children were not being taught how to be functioning and successful adults with the ability to help themselves; believed that a strong family life could help these neglected children.

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The American pioneers who were settling the West could use help, and felt that an arrangement that would place children within these families would be mutually beneficial. Hence, The Orphan Train Movement, a process in which the children from Eastern cities in lower socioeconomic class are transported via train to homes in Western America was formed. The West was seen as a place where anyone with a pioneering spirit could succeed, regardless of their beginnings, if they were willing to work hard. It represented the best that america had to offer so, it was the perfect place for children to be. Therefore, it was thought to be a great place for children to learn lessons of hard work and self sufficiency while living in a safe, loving environment. In the beginning of the Orphan Train Movement, the trains that took children across country were only a little bit better than cattle cars and because they had makeshift bathroom facilities.

Therefore, the conditions weren’t good for children to live in. They were traveling a very far distance so, the children were on the trains for days at a time, which isn’t healthy. The conditions of the train cars improved in later years as more money became available; and in the final years the children rode in sleeping cars. There were between 30 and 40 children, infants to teens, traveling with two or three adult chaperones which isn’t the best ratio because children at different ages require different levels of attention. Children didn’t know where they were going, only were told that they were going for a train ride. Agents had to investigate possible families before placing the children with the families. Asked for people to join a selection committee. Participants were usually a preacher, man that owned a general store, editor of the newspaper, sheriff, any notalables, bankers, whoever would be willing. These were the people who they did business with, so you don’t know if they were telling you the truth or not because the people on the selection committee wouldn’t want to offend any of the families. Therefore, wasn’t the best people to be a part of the committee because they were biased and that is why children were placed in homes that they shouldn’t have been put in.

Agents were required to make follow up visits after placing the child which were meant to be conducted a year or half a year after the initial placement. However, poor documentation, a low number of workers and 250,000 orphan train riders made this impossible. Society’s conception of the West didn’t understand the harsh realities of farming and rural life. Americans on the East saw the West as a part of the country that was free of violence and crime and therefore the agent believes that they were placing the orphans in environments where they would learn morals and lead upright lives. However, this was not the case, children were saw only as cheap labor and there was also evidence that some children experienced abuse in their new homes. Therefore, by creating this movement, Agents ended up harming the children who they sought to protect. Children would line up on a stage of a town hall or local authority and the parents would be able to examine the children, as thoroughly as the desired, in order to see who they wanted to take home with them.

Some of the farming families one child remembers a large farmer sticking his hand into his mouth to see if his teeth were sound and says, ”It was all I could do to resist the urge to bite him.” This process of viewing is often compared to the way that people selected cattle ‘‘the prospective foster parents to inspect the children, in the same manner they’d inspect cattle: publically, critically, and without any sense of the child’s feelings.’’ Some parents made requests that had very specific age and physical requirements through the New York Foundling Hospital Older children were expected to work for their board and clothes until they were eighteen years old; at that point they were free to leave, or should be paid for their labor.’ Older children were frequently placed with famers who anticipated to profit from their labor. A “receipt” for the children would be sent to the possible family stating where and when the child would arrive. The family would present the “receipt” to the agent accompanying the child and if the numbers matched, the family would take the child home.Today this process of “the viewing” is often compared to slave auctions or cattle auctions.

All of which are dehumanizing and demoralizing to the human or animal who is being examined and possibly bought. One eleven year old girl said to the agents, ‘‘they didn’t want a child, they wanted a slave.’’ Shows that the children abused the orphans and didn’t treat them as parts of the family. The children lost contact with their biological families and, those who were old enough, were encouraged by the Children’s Aid Society to make a complete break with their past.As the children grew they tried to reconnect with their original families but found it difficult or, at times impossible to do so. Some children’s names were changed so it was very hard to find their original family members because they didn’t know the name that was given to them from their biological families. The orphan train riders created the orphan train heritage society to help people learn their personal stories and to help find their remaining family members. Generally, they tried to keep siblings together but families could only take in one-two kids. When they couldn’t be kept together, the Children’s Aid Society attempted to keep the siblings in the same area.

Many of the orphan riders had no possessions other than a Bible, given to them by the Children’s Aid Society. Brace was a minister, and believed that the young orphans could be transformed by the ‘implanting of moral and religious truths.’ Since Brace is credited with the Orphan Train Movement, in addition other facts about him, many believe that he was the influence tried to convert children. The children’s aid society wanted the orphans to be placed in homes that had some spiritual practices and beliefs, however, they weren’t specific about which religion family practiced when they placed the child. However, the New York Foundling Hospital placements were strictly to Catholic families. The orphan trains were a success to some people, and a failure to others. Caused some orphans abuse and misery, while others found love, happiness, and prosperity.

However, despite the treatment that they received in the homes, most were given a stable home which they weren’t necessarily able to obtain on their own. System worked- a study was done and from 1854 (when the system started) to 1929 (when the system ended) between 100,000- 300,000 children were put on orphan trains and relocated. Without this movement, children would be forced to live in overcrowded orphanages, or on the streets. Even if it wasn’t the best conditions, at least they had a stable home. Today Elizabeth Daniel is a great mother, grandmother and even great grandmother despite the lack of love and family that she received as a child. Her Parents died when she was young due to the flu outbreak and was left with her two brothers, Arthur and Frank. They had living relatives who were able to take them in however, none of them wanted to. She was placed in eight homes before finding her forever home. Some homes that she was in she felt that she wasn’t loved and that she wasn’t a part of the family.

At one viewing in Texas, “Two women were bickering over me. One offered me a doll and another a carriage. I just wanted something to eat and sleep.” She continued to leave homes until she felt that she was being treated the way that a child was meant to be. Had to trust that the foster parents would take care of them because she was young and when she found her forever home with the Tindle’s she felt that she was finally part of a family and that she was loved. Elizabeth had an intense loyalty to her foster parents and took care of them until they died. She did it out of love, and appreciation, because she knew what it felt like to be alone and without a family, but they took her in and showed her what love and what family felt like and the power that it has.

Elizabeth’s story shows the success that the Orphan Train Movement had on some of the riders lives. By the 20th century, the need for orphan trains had declined due to a number of factors. Federal and state governments began to become more involved in this issue by enacting laws sought out to protect the children and prevent them from becoming homeless again. Social work had become a profession, therefore, measures were taken to keep biological families together before considering foster care because it was seen as the less attractive option. Lastly, the West was settled, therefore, children weren’t need to do manual labor in order to contribute to the growth of the West and the train stopped running. The forced relocation of children was a “quick fix” for increased immigration and economic troubles. A review of the era generated views that opposes the fantasy that the Orphan Train Movement had a positive impact on the riders lives. In reality, it hurt the riders lives, however, it benefited society over all because new legislation, new profession and the west was now settled.

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The History of Orphan Train Movement. (2022, Aug 31). Retrieved from

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