Saturday, November 13, 2010


The Orphan Trains in the Nineteenth Century both intrigue and inspire the public. Even today, the topic is a viable one, eliciting numerous websites dedicated to the orphans, their stories, biographies, and detailed obituaries.

All the photos of orphans I found were a mixture of sadness and hope. The children appear stoic and brave, but I can imagine their little knees knocking with fear and apprehension, wondering if their time had come. Would a family step forth, holding out their hands, offering the child a home? Would the family treat them fairly, and perhaps even show them love? Or would the family only treat them as workers, employees to give orders to and to house, feed, and clothe? How bewildering it must have been for them.

A DVD available on Amazon contains several episodes of a fictionalized group of children. A recording artist wrote and sang a song about the orphan trains. In 1979, a made-for-TV movie titled “Orphan Train” that starred Jill Eikenberry, Kevin Dobson, and Glenn Close is on DVD. Today, numerous publishers offer fiction, some historical, some romance, centered on an orphan and his/her life.

An estimated 30,000 children were homeless in New York City in the 1850s. The children ranged in age from about six to 18 and shared a common grim existence. Homeless or neglected, they lived in New York City's streets and slums with little or no hope of a successful life. Charles Loring Brace, the founder of The Children's Aid Society, believed that there was a way to change the futures of these children. By removing youngsters from the poverty and debauchery of the city streets and placing them in morally upright farm families, he thought they would have a chance of escaping a lifetime of suffering.

He proposed that these children be sent by train to live and work on farms out west. They would be placed in homes for free, but they would serve as an extra pair of hands to help with chores around the farm. The family should pay the older children for their labors, although they often did not.
The Orphan Train Movement lasted from 1853 to the early 1900s, originating from several northern and Midwestern states. The organization placed 120,000 children. This ambitious, unusual, and controversial social experiment is now recognized as the beginning of the foster care concept in the United States.
Some of the children struggled in their newfound surroundings, while many others went on to lead simple, very normal lives, raising their families and working towards the American dream. Although records weren't always well kept, some of the children placed in the West went on to great successes. There were two governors, one congressman, one sheriff, two district attorneys, three county commissioners as well as numerous bankers, lawyers, physicians, journalists, ministers, businessmen, and teachers.

Part of the fascination of the stories of the orphans is because the children's stories are poignant. But, more than that, the program is a reminder of how unsuccessful the nation has been in finding solutions to the problems of childhood poverty. The orphan train program was dissolved in 1929, not only because of criticism of 'placing out,' but because of reforms of the child welfare system. When we read descriptions of New York City or Boston in the 19th century, we realize those days are not very far off from today. Our nation still struggles with foster care. Many of the same criticisms we find with the orphan train are valid today.
On the trains, the babies would ride in train coaches; the older kids were often just stuck in boxcars. The orphanage operators couldn't afford to put them all in coaches. Citizens in towns along the rail lines learned the orphan train was headed their way when an orphanage agent posted handbills or put notices in the local paper. In the case of children from Catholic orphanages, priests in parishes along the way were notified in advance and asked to line up homes.

When the train arrived, townspeople wanting a child would come to examine them and make a choice. People would poke at their arms and look at their muscles. They would pick out kids they wanted. If any remained, they would go on to the next stop.

I wrote a short Free Read for The Wild Rose Press titled “Wishes Do Come True.” It’s about a lonely young woman who had arrived in the west on an Orphan Train as a young child. Read about Anna Morrison and the man she loves, Ross Davis.

DOWNLOAD FREE from The Wild Rose Press:
(Or you may e-mail me and I will send it to you.  celiayeary AT Yahoo DOT COM)


  1. Great post! My grandmother talked about her mother's best friend being the "little girl next door who'd arrived on the orphan train." According to my great-grandmother the little girl was much loved by her new family.

  2. It's amazing something like this was ever accepted considering the laws we have in place now. One of our friends tried for five years just to adopt a baby. They've had him a year next week and you could never find a happier family.

    I wish all those children could have found people to love them instead of some of them being used as cheap labor. I can't imagine anyone mistreating a child, but guess desperation did strange things to people. This was such an interesting post, Celia. Thanks for reminding us of how hard life could be back then.

  3. Ah Celia, my heart goes out to all those children. It must have been terrifying to be uprooted from all that they knew and transported hundreds of miles away from familiar landmarks. You are such a good person to talk about issues like orphan trains presenting both the good and the bad.

  4. Oh my, Celia. Can you imagine how frightened those poor children must've been? What an intriguing post. Thank you so much for sharing it AND the free read.

  5. I like to think most of the children were as loved as the one Marin mentioned. Fron stories I've read, I know it isn't so. Some were treated little better than animals, others used in debauched ways--a problem that still exists in the foster care system today. Still, most of the children were adopted and loved--much better than starving on the streets. Can you tell this is one of my soap box issues? LOL Actually, when we moved to our present home, we learned a man in this town was one of the children from the latter orphan trains. Apparently several were adopted, but he was the only one still living and has since passed away. However, he led a happy and normal life.

  6. The pictures you chose remind me of the war years in the UK when 'refugee' children were sent out of the cities to escape the bombing. But some were sent to Australia, S. Africa and other far away places, and must have known in their hearts they'd never see their families again.
    I'm glad that the orphan train-children, mostly ended up in loving enironments.

  7. Hi, Marin--how interesting to actually know someone who had been an orphan train child. The trains continued through 1929, but those we read and write about most often are from the Nineteenth Century. I'm so glad to know the little girl found a loving home. Celia

  8. PAISLEY--I agree that's it's difficult to imagine, but it was done in the name of Christianity and a good heart. It's just that sometimes things don't turn out exactly as envisioned. I suppose given the alternative, the trains did serve a purpose.
    Mistreating a child is the worst nightmare. Some of the children were just handed over by their parents--or single parent--who simply couldn't care for them. I'd love to believe that was for the child's good--not the adult's. Celia

  9. MAGGIE--I found countless photos, and ai also found more than one site with the first-hand account of some of the orphans. Many were interviewed in later life and reams of transcripts are on-line to read. What stories some of them had. I didn't have time to read very many. Thanks for reading this--Celia

  10. MAEVEOh, yes! Don't you imagine how scared they were? On the other hand, for many, it was the first time they had a warm coat and shoes!
    I hope you enjoy the free read.Celia

  11. CAROLINE--Yes, I can tell!! You and I, sharing something else. Me? Too many throw-away children who need adoptive homes. I've been asked on interviews, if you had but one wish, what would it be? Me? Not world peace, although that would be nice. My wish: that every child in the world had a real home and parents who loved him.
    Did you ever get to talk with that man in your town? That would very interesting.

  12. Hi, Sherry! yes, I've read of the refugee children in the UK during the war (notice that people my age call WWII "The War". Hmmm, that dates a person, doesn't it?)
    But I didn't realize they were sent halfway around the world to another continent.How fascinating if we could learn about some of those children and their stories. No doubt, they'd have some worthy of the best fiction novel! Thanks for stopping by--Celia

  13. Hi Celia,
    Wonderful post. I knew about the orphan trains, but never knew who thought of the idea or how it came to pass. And it just makes you wonder, did the gov't. have agents who wandered the streets of the cities looking for orphans, rounding them up, keeping them in a warehouse or something until the next train was set to leave? This opens up a whole new vista as to what happened to the kids BEFORE they were placed on the trains. Boy, there have sure been some sad times, and still are, for kids. As you say, I'm sure they were scared to death, and how awful it would have been to have gone to a family who wanted you for nothing more than slave labor. Great post, as always.

  14. Thank you for a very interesting and enlightening post. I wonder how this affects geneology (sp) seraches.

  15. It is sad that the process of getting them out to people who would care for them wasn't done better, but think how many of those children would have ended up starving or worse in the city streets on their own. Of course some of them found abusive homes. A lot of children still with their actual parents are in abusive homes, also. Too many people are just sick and selfish.

    I just read part of an article yesterday where another country (I forget which) is starting to bring charges against parents who fled during the war and left their kids to fend for themselves. Unbelievable.

    Governments will never find a cure for child poverty. It's up to each adult to be responsible. That won't ever happen.

    Great post.

  16. Fascinating post, Celia. I am both touched that people "back east" tried to give these children better lives and appalled that there was no follow through to make sure they weren't being mistreated. Although I guess being used as cheap labor, as long as you were warm, safe and dry, was probably a lot better than living on the streets.

    I've downloaded your free read. I can't wait to dig into it.

  17. CHERYL--I never thought about what happened to the children before the train was ready to go. Only you have thought of it. The government, like they do so many things, often have good intentions which go awry when in the hands of people down the line who don't do their job properly. And haven't we as a nation always tried to place groups of certain people where we think they should be? Sometimes, I'd like to be in charge for five minutes and correct some of those error.
    I can only hope the children had better lives than they would have. We'll never know, though, will we? Thanks, Cheryl, for your usual special insight into people and situations. Celia

  18. LIANA--there are sites dedicated to the orphans and some attempt a geneology chart for them. Remember, in some cases, the child really wasn't an orphan.
    Even today, in the case of abandoned children adopted by strangers, some will never know about their ancestors. Celia

  19. LORAINE-you're right about that. The world nations will never find a way to care for every child--abused in any manner. Never.
    Sherry reminded me that in the UK during WWII, parents put their children on trains to get them out of the cities that were being bombed. The trouble was that many children ended up in Africa and Australia! Celia

  20. KEENA--yes, think of the alternative. I read several instances in which the child grew up strong and happy, even though the adoptive parents didn't express love. To some of these hardy souls, a warm dry place to sleep and enough food to eat was enough. And remember, many became important citizens in their community or state.
    (I hope you like the Free Read.)
    Thank you, Keena

  21. Fabulous article. I enjoy your amazing, touching research on this topic.

  22. Thank you, Danielle. I appreciate your kind words--glad you enjoyed it. Celia

  23. Wow, Celia, I had never heard of the ophan train, so this was enlightening to me. What a poignant story. The DVD looks very interesting and with a great cast. Thanks for brining it here.


  24. Hi there. I found your site while searching for photos to post on my blog with an article I wrote. That is to say, I was unsuccessful in finding photos that I felt I would be allowed to use, but your site was a hidden treasure.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your post. This is a subject that is very close to my heart.

    ~ Yaya


Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West! We are very sad to require comment moderation now due to the actions of a few spam comments. Thank you for your patience.