The mid-1850s was a period of rapid growth in America. The railroads were pushing west and opening up huge new territories, and millions of people were flocking to this wonderful new land of milk and honey they had heard about back in Europe, lured by the promise of free land and a bright future for themselves and their children. Many hoped to escape poverty, famines, and political unrest in their homelands.
Between 1841 and 1860, over four million newcomers arrived in America, the largest number of immigrants to any other country in history. While many did find happiness and success, even more found only hardship in their new home. Cities quickly became overcrowded and unable to provide even temporary housing for so many newcomers.
Many found themselves in crowded tenements, often ten or fifteen people crammed into one or two tiny rooms. Few had sanitary facilities, and diseases took a terrible toll.
With the glut of available employees, factory wages plummeted and working conditions were harsh and dangerous. Safety in the workplace was not a priority, and countless men were killed or maimed on the job, leaving behind wives and children who had to survive as best they could. Without extended family to rely upon in times of need, young families fell apart. Children as young as six years old were put to work to help support the family.
Food became scarce and disease was everywhere. Overworked widowed mothers put their children first, working long hours and doing without to feed their children, often leading to early deaths.
Without anyone to take care of them, their children found themselves in orphanages or living on the streets. Many children formed gangs to survive, resorting to criminal activity and even prostitution. The mortality rate was high and nobody seemed to care.
In 1869, the Sisters of Charity had a mission to provide refuge for orphaned and abandoned infants. Working out of a four-story brownstone on East Twelfth Street, sleeping on straw mats on the floor, they established one of the first hospitals in the United States devoted exclusively to foundlings.
The term “foundling” comes from the way these infants were discovered; on the streets, building stoops, and even in the garbage bins of New York City’s slums. Within their first week, they found their first infant, who was left on their doorstep. In just three short weeks, the good Sisters were caring for 45 infants, and that number doubled by the end of their first year. This was the birth of the New York Foundling Hospital.
The New York Foundling Hospital and the Children’s Aid Society developed a program that placed homeless children into homes throughout the country. The children were transported to their new homes on trains, which were eventually labeled “orphan trains.”
Between 1854 and 1929, an estimated 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children were placed in homes in forty-seven states and Canada during what is known today as the Orphan Train Movement. When the movement began, it was estimated that 30,000 orphaned and abandoned children were living on the streets of New York City alone.
While Boston and New York were the main sources of the children who were brought into the program, they came from other places, too. Some children were relocated to Canada, and some Canadian homeless children ended up in parts of the western United States.
Placement agents gave local newspapers advance notice of when an Orphan Train would arrive, and families from throughout the region would come to meet the trains. Local volunteers were recruited to screen prospective families, who were asked to care for a new child as if it were their own, providing food, clothing, shelter, and an education.
Many times the newspapers would publish stories about families who took in orphan children, and later run follow-up stories on their progress.
When possible, the New York Foundling Hospital prearranged their placement through local Catholic organizations. Families filled out and submitted request forms, specifying age, sex, eye, and hair color of a child they wanted. The organization tried to match a child with each request. Once selected, the hospital made up two identical tags that had the name of the child, their birth date, if known, the name of their new family, the town and state where they lived, and a number. One tag was sewn into the child’s clothes and one was mailed to the family, making for easier identification at the train depot.
This period of mass relocation of children in the United States is widely recognized as the beginning of documented foster care in America.
The hope was that the children would find loving homes and be assimilated into the families they were placed with, and this happened often. But not every story had a happy ending. There were more than a few people who viewed the children only as a cheap source of farm labor, and they became little more than indentured servants. Slavery had ended with the Civil War, but farmers still needed help, and often the children replaced slaves, or sons who were lost in the war.
Sometimes a family would want only one or two children, or children of a certain age, and siblings were torn apart, never to be reunited. Where possible, siblings were placed in the same general area so they could visit occasionally, but many never saw their brothers and sisters again.
Nobody is sure just how many children rode the Orphan Trains over the years, but the best estimates are somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000. Many records, if they exist at all, are hard to find and often confusing. Many people in that time period were immigrants who did not speak English or who were illiterate, and several different organizations were involved in the Orphan Train program over a long period of time. The quality of record keeping depended on whoever any organization had available at any give time. In many cases there was no birth certificate for a child, or maybe only a certificate of baptism. Many times, a baby was placed in the care of an orphanage or organization without its parents ever being seen.
The National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas was established to tell the stories of the children who rode the Orphan Trains, to preserve the history of the movement, and to serve as a research facility for the families of those children.
The complex includes the old Concordia Railroad Depot, which now houses the Orphan Train Museum. Inside are displays on the Orphan Trains and the children who rode them to their new lives. There are many photographs of the children, along with short biographies that tell their stories.
Many are poignant, as is the story of Agnes Stanley Schenk David, who was born at Saint Ann’s Hospital in New York in February, 1901, to a single mother who bowed to social mores and placed her baby with the New York Foundling Hospital. When Agnes was five she was taken by ship to Galveston, Texas, a trip that took several weeks. During the trip, Agnes and the other children were kept in a single cabin, with the windows covered so they could not see out. Agnes was first placed in the home of a German couple in Weimer, Texas, who could not speak English and quickly decided that they didn’t want her. Before the first day was out, she was placed in a horse-drawn buggy and dropped off at the Catholic church in Weimer. Eventually she was taken in by Franz and Annie Schenk, although her new foster mother did not want the child and made it no secret that Agnes would never be a real part of the family.
Jean Sexton had a much happier story to tell. Orphaned at age three, she and her brothers and sister rode the Orphan Train to the Midwest, where Jean was adopted by a childless couple named Walter and Margaret Landreth, who lived a few miles outside of Neosho, Missouri. Jean recalled being very loved and living an idyllic childhood, riding her bicycle, helping her father on the farm, and being a tomboy. Four years later, the Landreth’s took in a niece who had been orphaned, who was only six months younger than Jean, and they grew up as sisters. When she was sixteen, Jean was able to make contact with one of her brothers, who lived in Colorado. They soon found their sister and baby brother, who had been adopted by a family in Auburn, Nebraska. The siblings had a reunion and stayed a part of each others’ lives from that point on.
There are many such stories in the Orphan Train Museum, and even more on the Orphan Train Complex website at www.orphantraindepot.org.
While some saw the Orphan Train program as cruel, there were few alternatives. Welfare and laws to protect children did not exist, and children had no rights. One positive result of the Orphan Train movement was the establishment of the laws we have today to protect children.
Almost all of the children thought that they rode the only orphan train. In their limited child’s world, they could not conceive of there being so many other trains carrying so many other children. Only after the riders started getting together at reunions, and started comparing notes, did they realize just how many children were involved.
They found out that they were not the only ones. There were others out there facing the same kinds of problems that they had faced. They were no longer alone.
Besides the museum, the Orphan Train Complex operates a small gift shop and research library in Concordia. Located at 300 Washington Street, the facility is handicapped accessible and is open Tuesday – Friday from 10 AM to noon, and from 1 to 4 PM. Saturday hours are from 10 AM to 4 PM. They are closed on Sunday, Monday and all national holidays. Admission is $7 for adults, $6 for military, and $4 age 4 to 18. Children 3 and under are free. There is limited parking at the museum for large RVs, but Airport City Park on the south side of town has paved pull-through RV sites with 30/50 amp electric, water, and a dump station. There is no set fee, but there are envelopes and a drop box for donations.
The children who rode the Orphan Train were survivors. In spite of their origins, most of them grew up to became solid citizens from all walks of life. There have been governors, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, teachers, laborers, soldiers and farmers among them. Most of them became loving parents who took in orphans of their own. It has been estimated that there are over two million descendants of Orphan Train riders, and they all share a common heritage, no matter where their parents and grandparents started life.
Thought For The Day – I am too lazy to be lazy.