What is the Orphan Train?

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  • Written By: Britt Archer
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 November 2019
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Desperate and impoverished times affect everyone, but none so much as the youngest members of society who are unable to care for themselves. It is often during times of crisis that charities and organizations dedicated to promoting change are founded. In the mid-19th century, immigration was at an all-time high, and eastern port cities in the United States became more crowded than ever, leading to a shortage of work and financial instability for many families. In 1854, a mass relocation of abandoned, homeless and impoverished youths began under the guidance of the Children's Aid Society, which hoped to find better homes for the children.

The Children's Aid Society was founded in 1853 by a minister named Charles Loring Brace. A native of Connecticut, Brace was working in the poorer areas of New York when he noticed the substandard quality of life for children who were orphans, the offspring of impoverished immigrants or who otherwise lived on the streets. His solution was to place urban children in need with rural families, who would then raise them as their own in exchange for help with farms and family businesses. In addition to the Children's Aid Society, a faith-based orphanage, the New York Foundling Hospital, worked to find better homes for children outside of the city.


The preferred method to transport these orphans was the newly constructed railroad system. The railroads provided the cheapest and most efficient way to ferry the children to their prospective families all across the United States. Because of this, the movement was termed the “orphan train,” which is something of a misnomer as many of the children were not orphans. The children would ride the trains, accompanied by an agent whose job was to look out for their welfare and place them in decent homes. The orphan train would make scheduled stops, and the children would be led off the train and inspected by their prospective families.

It was impossible to tell whether the children of the orphan train were indeed treated by the terms of the contract that was required for adoption. This was especially true as the children were often placed very far from the sponsoring organization. While many of the orphan train children were given wonderful homes, cases of neglect and abuse were still present, resulting in many orphan train children running away.

During its years of operation between 1854 and 1929, nearly 200,000 children were moved around the country and adopted from the orphan trains. Several noted public figures were orphan train children, including former governor John Green Brady of Alaska and former North Dakota governor Andrew H. Burke. Henry McCarty, who sometimes went by the name of William Bonney, and is more popularly known as Billy the Kid, was also a child placed through the orphan train program. Today, the orphan train program is largely considered to be the grandfather of the modern foster care system in the United States.


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