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. Others 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:
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.