Thousands of children were on the street, starving. They had no place to call home. The Orphan Trains were made to fix this problem. The trains took children to a new place, to start over so they could have a good life.
It was all started by one man. It was his dream to see all of these children placed in a good home, where they could accomplish something with their lives. This man was named Charles Loring Brace. It was the start of a revolution, where children would not be left on the streets to fend for themselves. The information covered in this paper will talk about the conditions these children faced, the struggles along the way, and the aftermath of the orphan trains. It was the 1850s, and the setting was New York City. Nearly 30,000 homeless children were roaming the streets (Johnson 6). These children were born into families that were poor and couldn’t afford to take care of themselves let alone a child.
The families then turned to crime, and some parents turned to alcohol to fight the stress caused by not being able to feed their family. Some parents also died from disease due to the dirty conditions they lived in (Johnson 6). Children as young as 6 years old were working, trying to support their families. Food became really scarce.
Many fathers took jobs at sea, trying to support their families. Many of them died because at that time the owners were not concerned about the well being of their workers. Many mothers died from being overworked, leaving children homeless (The Need For Orphan Trains). Many of the families shared a room with 15 people. These places were breeding grounds for diseases like typhus, yellow fever, favus a scalp disease, and many more diseases. Many parents died from these diseases, leaving many children alone (Johnson 31).
These homeless children were then placed at asylums, almshouses, and workhouses. These places were cruel. They forced children to work long hours without water or food breaks. If they misbehaved, they would be beaten, receive whippings, go without food, and other harsh punishments (Johnson 34). Charles Loring Brace saw the flaws these institutions had and did not believe children should be treated like this. He saw that these institutions were a breeding ground for future criminals. He decided to found the CAS or the Children’s Aid Society to help these children to be placed in homes with a loving and caring family. This is how the orphan train movement began (Johnson 8).
He believed that by starting these different movements, he would be able to reduce the rate of crime in the U.S. (Johnson 78). With the help and support of several reformers, civic leaders, homeless children (Johnson 25).
On September 28 of the year 1854, the first group of children boarded the orphan train and headed towards the midwest. Many of these children hoped to be adopted. 37 boys and girls ages 6-15 rode the train. They were accompanied by three adults from the CAS. The trip lasted a total of four days (Johnson 8).
The children were given small suitcases for their trip, which was just enough for their belongings, because most children did not own very many clothes or belongings. The CAS also gave each child a bible, which was a way to give the children a form of comfort on their stressful journey ahead (Johnson 12). Once they finally reached their destination, the children would be given a nice pair of clothes and would be told to walk up onto a stage.
People would come by to potentially adopt them. They would poke and prod at the children. They would have their muscles and teeth checked a lot like cattle. The children would sing and dance, trying to attract the attention of future mothers and fathers (The Orphan Train Experience). Some of the potential adopters would decide to adopt a child and exploit them for free labor (Orphan Trains).
The CAS had a high success rate when it came to putting these children into good homes. Many of these children even went on to get prestigious jobs. For example, John Brady who was a child that was part of the CAS program, later went on to become the state governor of Alaska (Orphan Trains). Not all of the children who rode the orphan trains were actually orphans. 25% of children who rode the trains actually had both parents. Less than half of the children who rode the trains were actually true orphans and did not have parents.
Many parents put them through the program because they knew they could not provide for their children or had their children taken away from them. Most of these parents just wanted better lives for their children (Orphan Trains). Most of these children were successfully placed into a home, but not all of them were (Hill 4-8). One problem was being solved, but now another problem needed to be solved. This problem was infanticide. It was a problem in the big cities that was growing bigger and bigger. Some parents who had a baby, and knew they could not take care of their child, simply murdered the unwanted baby or toddler.
Parents would also hold vendues, these were auctions that sold the unwanted baby. In these auctions, the lowest bidder would get the child. The bid represented how much they thought they could spend on the child yearly for food and clothes (Johnson 69). The CAS decided to combat this problem. In 1873, they created what they called foundling hospitals.
These hospitals were for babies only. Here, they would take babies from people who were unfit to care for them, or who were wanting to give up their child, and here they would care for the babies (Johnson 72). They set up foundling trains, and in these trains, they would take babies to their adopters. The difference between the Foundling Trains and the Orphan Trains was that the Foundling Hospitals had the babies already requested by the parents, while the orphan trains just sent children across the country without knowing 100% if they were going to be adopted (Johnson 72). The same year that the Foundling Hospitals were created, the first Foundling Train was sent out to Maryland.
Although the parents had to request to adopt the baby, they were not interviewed, and no home visits were required to see if the living conditions were safe. It was all based on the parent’s word (Johnson 74). By 1910, over 27,000 babies were taken to the foundling hospital, taken care of, and sent to new homes (Johnson 76). Although the CAS did much good for children, it still received much criticism. For example, many Catholic agencies did not like the CAS.
This was because they thought the CAS was purposely placing Catholic children in Protestant homes to convert the children to the Protestant faith (Orphan Trains). The CAS also was the center of a national scandal when they placed white Catholic children of European descent with Mexican Families in Arizona. The children were forcefully removed from their placements in Arizona by local Anglo men. The incident almost erupted into violence, and the CAS and the New York Foundling Program endured negative press (Orphan Trains). The CAS was also accused of neglecting the African American community. They rarely ever took African American children. They would take on African American children who could pass as white children, but once people found out about the race of the children, they were generally neglected by their caretakers and were sometimes bullied and abused by the community (Orphan Trains).
Sadly, in 1890 Brace died from kidney failure due to a disease called Bright’s disease. After his death, his two sons took over his organization. They decided to change up how things worked. They wanted to focus more on families instead of just focusing on the children. They wanted to keep the families together by any means possible, and if it was not possible, then they would consider adoption. This, along with many other factors slowly lead to the decline of the orphan trains (Johnson 82). The first thing the sons did when they took over the CAS was set up shelters for mothers and their children. They built schools, playgrounds, and nurseries for the families all at no cost to the family.
They also set up reading rooms, which sold coffee instead of alcohol so people would not be tempted to drink. These failed, as people preferred to read in the comfort of the shelters, no matter how crowded they were (Johnson 80). In 1909, the first White House Child Welfare Conference was held. Theodore Roosevelt, along with 200 others proposed nine plans to regulate the care of children and to make sure they were placed in safe homes. These nine plans were foster care, foster home inspections, educations, medical programs, and other important plans to help benefit the children. They all decided that children should be kept with the family, and shouldn’t be taken away unless the parents were unfit to care for them (Johnson 83). In the 1920s, the state legislature decided to take charge. They set stricter laws and rules controlling the care of orphans and making sure they were still in the same state.
The state legislatures decided to forbid the interstate placement of children. The first state to pass a law regulating the placement of children was Michigan, and soon after many states followed. This also contributed to the decline of the orphan trains (End of an Era). The last orphan train to run its course ran in 1929, to the lone star state, Texas (Orphan Trains). The CAS ran the orphan trains for about 75 years.
During that time, over 250,000 orphans were relocated and sent to start a new life (Johnson 13). The system today is a lot different than it was back then. Today the foster care system is a lot more strict and is focused more on making sure the child has a safe place to call home.
The foster care system today tries to keep children with their families. If this isn’t possible, they will try to place a child with a local family where they can still visit their parents if they choose to. The system will also try to keep brothers and sisters together, and will not separate them unless absolutely necessary (The Orphan Train Experience).