The Orphan Train~Young Pioneers of the West

Orphan Train

Stacey Kayne

I’m popping in on a Tuesday this week! Huge thanks to Karen Kay for covering for me on Friday–I was in home-stretch mania of turning in the proposal for my third BRIDE book.  Developing the heroine for this story has submerged me in the history of the “orphan trains”.  I first read about the orphan trains in a romance novel and was so moved by the images I had to do some research to find out if such a thing really existed. It certainly did. 

In the 1800’s the Industrial Revolution and massive immigrations led to overpopulation in large cities like New York, Philadelphia and Boston. Illness and factory accidents claimed the lives of many parents leaving children to fend for themselves. During this time is was estimated that 30,000 homeless, orphaned and abandoned children were living on the polluted streets of New York. The Children’s Aid Society organized the first orphan train out of New York to Michigan in 1854. Forty-six children between the ages of ten and twelve were successfully placed. What became known as the Orphan Train Movement began in New York City in 1856, founded by the Children’s Aid Society and New York Foundling Hospital, and ran until 1930. In 1867 the westward campaign to move homeless and displaced children out to the expanding west began and continued for seventy-five years.  It is estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 “orphans” boarded the trains and were relocated to new homes across the Midwest, as well as Canada and Mexico.

Who were these children?  Not all were true orphans. Many of these train riders had a single parent and due to the death of a spouse, had no means to take care of them. Others came from families too large for parents to afford all their children and some were given up to the trains for adoption. Orphan TrainOthers were simply given up at birth by unwed couples, single mothers and prostitutes.

While there were many, many families happy to welcome a child into their home, there were also expanding farms in need of cheap/free labor. Families interested in the orphans showed up to look them over when they were placed on display in local train stations, and placements were frequently made with little or no investigation or oversight. I’ve read many journals of orphan train riders, some happy, some tragic. Some children went to loving homes while others were far less fortunate. Because of the lack of documentation kept in the early days (children boarding trains with no documentation at all and simply delivered along the line) separated siblings had no way to later find their brothers and sisters, or to trace any family history. As this adoption process developed the recording process improved and “Adoption Agents” were incorporated to follow up with children and make sure the children were placed in healthy homes.

Here is some information I found on the Orphan Train Riders website:

How they did it…

The Children’s Aid Society:

 Agents would plan a route, send flyers to towns along the way, and arrange for a “screening committee” in towns where the children might get new homes.

The towns where they stopped, naturally, had to be along a railroad line. The screening committee (mostly men) was usually made up of a town doctor, clergyman, newspaper editor, store owner and / or teacher.

The committee was asked to select possible parents for the children and approve or disapprove on the day the children arrived. They were to help the agent(s) in the placements.

When the children arrived, a contract was signed between the Children’s Aid Society and the adults taking the child. This is how the contract read:

Terms on Which Boys are Placed in Homes

Applications must be endorsed by the Local Committee.

Boys under 15 years of age, if not legally, adopted, must be retained as members of the family and sent to school according to the Educational Laws of the State, until they are 18 years old. Suitable provision must then be made for their future.

Boys between 15 years of age must be retained as members of the family and sent to school during the winter months until they are 17 years old, when a mutual arrangement may be made.

Boys over 16 years of age must be retained as members of the family for one year, after which a mutual arrangement may be made.

Parties taking boys agree to write to the Society at least once a year, or to have the boys do so.

Removals of boys proving unsatisfactory can be arranged through the Local Committee or an Agent of the Society, the party agreeing to retain the boy a reasonable length of time after notifying the Society of the desired change.

If for any reason, the child had to be removed from the household, the Children’s Aid Society did it at their own expense…….. it cost the new family nothing.

The New York Foundling Hospital

Priests in towns along the railroad routes were notified that the Foundling had children in need of homes. The priest would make an announcement to his congregation and ask for volunteers to take the children. At that point, adults could sign up for a child, specifying hair color and the color of eyes they preferred. Of course, specifying a boy or girl was respected.

The Priest would notify the Foundling that they could take a specific number of children with blond hair and blue eyes; brown hair and brown eyes; black hair and blue eyes; or a certain darkness of skin. One such request was for a boy with red hair because the farmer had 5 red haired daughters and no sons. He was not only delivered the requested red haired boy, but the boy later inherited the family farm.

The Foundling selected the requested children believing if a family got a child that “fit in” everyone would be better served.

An “Indenture” form was used to place the children. It was a legal document that gave the Foundling legal recourse without going to court, should the placement not be satisfactory and the child had to be removed.

Often called an early form of adoption, it was not adoption as we know it today, because with adoption a child is legally a parent’s natural child. Indentured children that were not legally adopted were ineligible to inherit unless the adults left a will specifying the indentured child was to be given an inheritance.  

These young orphan train riders were an integrated part of railroad and western history and development–another element that shaped the west.

Another very interesting side note: The Children’s Aid Society is still functioning today.




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35 thoughts on “The Orphan Train~Young Pioneers of the West”

  1. Good Morning Stacey and all. I have read several books about the orphan Train and have loved them all. My first was a book written by Rosalyn Alsobrook called “Wild Western Bride”. The story was so wonderful and touching. If you haven’t read a book by Rosalyn you really should.

    Love the stories created about the orphan train, another favorite is the mail order bride.

    Have a great day all

  2. I first learned about orphan trains from reading a series of books by Linda Lael Miller. (Some people will scoff at this, but you really can learn a lot of history from fictional novels!) Anyway, I found the subject of orphan trains to be very sad, especially when siblings had to be separated.

  3. Stacey. . .This has long been a strong interest of mine, and I have several books on the subject. What was particularly sad to me was the separation of siblings. And I imagine some committees were more diligent than others in finding good homes. Thanks for more illumination on the subject. Fascinating blog.

  4. I just read a really good fiction novel about three siblings separated by the orphan train. It’s called My Heart Remembers, by Kim Vogel Sawyer.

    I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to be separated from the only family you had left and from everything familiar.

  5. The Orphan Trains are fascinating. There are Orphan Trains involved in my book coming out next year.
    The librarian in my hometown came west on an orphan train and she was a lovely lady and her grandchildren went to school with me, and her great-grandchildren went to school with my children.
    A lady near me recently interview all the orphan trains riders she could find in the area…yes there are quite a few still living…and it’s a fascinating look at a strange little slice of American history.
    I think the people who were behind the Orphan Trains really had wonderful intentions, trying to save all those children who were living on the streets and overflowing the orphanages in New York. It didn’t always work well, but it was suprising how often those children found a much better life.

  6. Boy, Stacey, this blog brings back memories! I’d researched orphan trains for my very first book, WYOMING WILDFLOWER. They were just as you described.

    Fascinating. And like Pat said, the separation of siblings was most sad. That, and how some families used the children as free labor. The boys had to work as hard as men.

    A tough life, for sure!

  7. Hi Pat! I will have to look for your books as well 🙂 I’ve been fascinated by all the infomration available on this era in our history. Whether it be out west or in the big cities, life was tough on children in the 1800’s.

  8. Hi Cheryl! Do you recall the name of that series? I haven’t happened across that one.

    I agree–historical romance can provide wonderful historical information 🙂

    Just the idea of an orphan train was shocking to me. The founders really did have good intentions, buying int the same hope as so many during the westerward movement… a chance for new hope and opportunity in the west — and for some, it was, while other faced new struggles. Life on the streets of New York was a horror all its own.

  9. Hi Vicki! Thank you for the recommendation 🙂

    I agree–it must have been frightening to be carted off to who knows where, and to see you siblings go without you. I read a peronsal account of a brother and sister. The brother was taken in to a loving home and the sister was sent to work on a sod farm and treated like a hired hand. She ran away three years later and found her brother, and went on to leady a hard yet happy life 🙂

  10. Hi Pam! Another book I need to find! You are right about this being a tough life. The Industrial age was hard on children–whether in the cities or in the country, exploitation was high. The textile mills is another fascination of mine. Times were hard for everyone.

  11. Fascinating blog, Stacey! I’ve actually done some research on orphan trains as well, thinking I might write a story on them. I think it was really a sad way to supposedly help children. They should’ve tried to keep siblings together instead of shipping them all over the country. And it really was a system of indentured servant in many cases. They should’ve had some oversight and check to see what kind of homes the children were in. As with most huge agencies, there was a lot of corruption.

    However like you pointed out, some children did go to good homes and fared really well. Those were the fortunate ones.

    Janette Oke wrote a book that was part of the Love Comes Softly series that featured the orphan trains. It was an exceptional story. And Cheryl C. please tell me the Linda Lael Miller series that used orphan trains. I’m really curious.

    Stacey, thanks for a wonderful glimpse into another part of the settling of the west!

  12. It’s funny to read that almost all of us have written or are writing an Orphan Train story. There’s just so much fodder there for fiction and drama and conflict. The stuff of novels. 🙂

  13. Fabulous post, Stacey! And I am so much enjoying everybody’s comments and knowledge and book recommendations. I learn so much from this blog as well as from the historical fiction I read.

    Heartrending that people gave up kids because they had too many!

    And Mary…wow, more Nebraska history, your own historical orphan train survivor.

  14. Hi again, Stacey. You asked about Linda Lael Miller’s series. It was called the Orphan Train Series and was written in the early 1990’s. The individual titles were “Lily and the Major”, “Emma and the Outlaw”, and “Caroline and the Raider.”

  15. Hi Stacey – I’ve read about orphan trains and the reality of it is so sad. I’d heard boys were in demand to work the fields yet I’d hope many of those children did go to loving homes.
    Great post and congrats on finishing your book! Hooray!

  16. Hi Linda! Like you said, with such a large organization, corruption is inevitable. I started researching orphan trains in 2002 and some of the personal accounts I’ve read have been heart wrenching. With so many series mentioned, I’m shocked I’ve not come across more of them. I clearly don’t read enough romance novels 😉

  17. Oh so true, Mary! I had no idea. While my third BRIDE book touches on my heroine’s experience with the orphan train, it’s part of an anthology, so I wasn’t able to get in the detail I would have liked. My next series follows a group of “orphan train riders” and will show how very differently the experience shaped all of their lives–I’m excited to finally be getting to this group of stories that have been brewing for so long 😀

  18. Hi Tanya! I just can’t imagine how hard that must have been to give away a toddler you couldn’t afford, though I know it was done more often than we’d like to think during the Great Depression, out of sheer necessity. Very sad. I’ve also read quite a few references to the advertisements to immigrants to come to this country during the mid 1800’s, the land of opportuinty, and they’d spend their life savings on a boat ticket only to end up in the croweded streets of New York with five or six children to feed, and no jobs avaialbe. Many of the “train riders” were immigrants who’s parents I’m sure felt trapped once they arrived and could not provide for their children. And back then adopting or even giving a child up was not something anyone talked about–making it so much harder for those families to be reunited 🙁

    Thanks for stopping in to post!

  19. Thank you, Charlene!! I’m juggle two deadlines at the moment…finished the BRIDE proposal a month early to get an extra month to finish WILD 3 *ggg* I won’t be cheering (or sleeping much *g*) until the end of June 😉

  20. It breaks my heart to think of all these youngsters
    just loaded on a train and sent away! I realize it
    was the saving of thousands of young lives, but it just still seems such a cold way! I hope there was
    someone on the trains who cared enough to comfort
    the little ones!

    Pat Cochran

  21. They did have agents/overseers who rode teh trains. This is an intersting entry I found on the orphan train riders site–a glimpse of a the “good” side 😉

    Frankie’s hero: “Miss Bogardus, an agent for the Children’s Aid Society, brought three-year-old Frankie from New York City by train to a new home in Nebraska. In the years that followed, she made annual visits to Frankie and his parents. For more than eight years, Frankie wrote letters to Miss Bogardus telling her of the important events in his life. Her picture was included with those of family. To Frankie, she was a friend.”

    Hopefully there were many such generous souls guiding the children 🙂

  22. Wow, Stacey, and everyone–I don’t remember learning about orphan trains before. How sad! I do hope that there were many generous and kind people to guide these children along. I can’t imagine being herded along like this and at such a young age. Happy writing, Stacey–can’t wait to read the next installments, and it’d be fascinating to read a series based on this kind of train!

  23. Stacey, my third book LAND OF DREAMS was based on research on orphan trains. My best resources were interviews of men and women who told their true life stories about coming west on the trains and how their lives turned out. It’s still my best selling book of all time and has been reissued several times.

  24. Hi Stacey, fascinating post! I’ve heard of the orphan trains, and can’t imagine how scary it must have been for the children, not knowing where or who they would end up with.
    I like to think there were more families that adopted for the right reasons than there were for the wrong ones!
    I love all the book suggestions everyone has given, I can’t wait to read some of them!
    The new series that you said you would be writing sounds really interesting! Can’t wait to read all your upcoming books!!!


  25. Hi Missy! My TBR pile had DOUBLED *g* My writing schedule is already jam packed *lol*

    THANK YOU, Missy 😀 Six and a half weeks until the release of THE GUNSLINGER’S UNTAMED BRIDE!

  26. I have been facinated with orphan trains for the last 15 years. I research and read all I can get my hands on. I am a resident of central kansas and several of these children were placed in towns not far from where I live. FYI if you didn’t already know, Concordia, Kansas has recently opened an Orphan Train Historical Museum dedicated to all of the orphan train riders. Stop by their website of stop in for a visit if you find yourself in kansas.

  27. Hello, My name is Danielle I am in the fifth grade doing a report on orphan trains if you could send me a message on my dad’s email at that would be fantastic. I just would like to ask you questions about the orphan trains. -Thanks Danielle

  28. My mother-in-laws mother came here on an orphan train. She has one of her mothers dresses that I am making a shadow box for. I would like to hang the dress inside the box but have no idea what the hanger might have looked like. I would appreciate any help you could provide. I would like to copy a photo of the train and orphans on this web site to place in the box for reference material.

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