Orphan Trains

Source: Courtesy of Children's Aid Society

Going west on an orphan train, 1904

 

Source: Orphan Trains of Nebraska, available through rootsweb.com/~neadoptn/Orphan.htm

The orphan trains are among the most famous episodes in adoption history. Between 1854 and 1929, as many as 250,000 children from New York and other Eastern cities were sent by train to towns in midwestern and western states, as well as Canada and Mexico. 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.

This ambitious and controversial project in the relocation of a massive child population was emblematic of the move toward placing-out. Organized by the New York Children’s Aid Society and directed by well known reformer Charles Loring Brace, the orphan trains were based on the theory that the innocent children of poor Catholic and Jewish immigrants could be rescued and Americanized if they were permanently removed from depraved urban surroundings and placed with upstanding Anglo-Protestant farming families. This evangelical humanitarianism echoed more than a century later, after World War II, when people like Bertha and Harry Holt made international adoptions more visible and common.

In spite of the trains' stated intention, they did not permanently separate most children, geographically or culturally, from their parents and communities of origin. Well into the twentieth century, impoverished but resourceful parents took advantage of the services of middle-class child-savers for their own purposes, including temporary caretaking during periods of economic crisis and apprenticeships that helped children enter the labor market. Reformers like Brace were determined to salvage the civic potential of poor immigrant children by placing them in culturally “worthy” families while simultaneously reducing urban poverty and crime and supplying some of the workers that western development required. But poor parents had no intention of losing track of their children, and they usually did not, even in the case of very young children placed permanently for “adoption.” Historians who have studied the records of the Children’s Aid Society closely have concluded that the largest number of orphan train children were temporarily transferred or shared, not given up.

 

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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
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