Orphan Train Facts
History

Orphan Train Facts

The Orphan Train Movement was a supervised welfare program that transported orphaned and homeless children from crowded Eastern cities of the United States to foster homes located largely in rural areas of the Midwest. The orphan trains operated between 1853 and 1929, relocating about 250,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children. See the fact file below for more information about the Orphan Train movement.

  • The term “Orphan Train” refers to a time in American history from 1854-1929. During this time, an estimated 150,000 homeless children were placed on trains and taken to rural areas in the Midwest and West in search of homes where the they could live and work. The children ranged in age from as young as about one year to 17.
  • These homeless children came mostly from large cities on the east coast, such as New York and Boston. Most children were poor and many had been in trouble with the law. Many times, children were separated from their brothers and sisters during these moves. Some never saw their siblings again.
  • Part of the problem was that there was almost no need for work in the large cities. Large numbers of immigrants had flooded into the major Northeast cities, especially New York, between 1847 and 1860. There wasn’t enough work to go around.
  • Poverty and disease were common in the crowded areas where these new immigrants lived. There weren’t any extended families to help out if parents became sick or died. At this time, homelessness was a huge problem and thousands of children resorted to theft in order to survive. These orphaned children were often placed in large institutions.
  • At the same time, the midwestern and western farmers suffered a severe labor shortage. They needed help with the work on their farms and ranches.
  • The Orphan Train era was initiated by social welfare reformer Charles Loring Brace of the Children’s Aid Society in New York. Brace urged that children of the poor be given an opportunity to live and work with another family. Another group, The New York Foundling Hospital, was also determined to help these children. This period of mass relocation of children in the United States is widely recognized as the beginning of foster care in the United States.
  • When the orphan train movement began, it was estimated that 30,000 abandoned children were living on the streets of New York City. Between 1854 and 1929 an estimated 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children were placed during, what is known today as the Orphan Train Movement. The name of the movement came from the trains that moved these children throughout the 47 states and Canada.
  • The children were accompanied on the train by adults, often Catholic nuns. The children left the train at each stop and were chosen or not chosen by the people who came to the station to see them. In some cases, the match was made ahead of time, and the couple would present a number to the chaperones who would match the number to the child wearing the same number.
  • Some of the Orphan Train children were eventually adopted, but many were not. Some were “indentured,” which means their labor was sold to waiting farmers and were considered to be not much more than slave labor. Many were taken in as one of the family and raised as if they had been adopted, whether or not the actual adoption paperwork had been completed.
  • The Orphan Train movement provided many children with homes during a very difficult time. Many of these children were loved and treated very well, but many were not. Many children were separated from parents and siblings for the remainder of their lives.