Thursday, July 26, 2018


The Children’s Aid Society was founded in 1853 by a small group of clergymen and social reformers concerned about the general conditions of homeless, neglected, and delinquent children. One of the principals of this group was a 26-year old Congregational minister, Rev. Charles Loring Brace. He had been working as an assistant minister in the Five Points Mission, located in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods of the city. He also occasionally visited the New York City Almshouse on Blackwell’s Island, further exposing him to the degrading and dehumanizing conditions prevalent in large sections of the city.

Home for destitute children, New York City

Rev. Brace, a Yale College graduate, was selected to become the first Secretary/Director of the Children’s Aid Society. Rev. Brace knew that American pioneers could use help settling the American West and arranged to send orphaned children to them. This became known as the Orphan Train Movement. Many people think of the orphan trains as the beginning of the modern foster care system.

Searching through rubbish for food

Between 1854 and 1929, an estimated 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, and runaway children in the East were sent via trains to Midwestern farming communities. The first group of children went to Dowagiac, Michigan in 1854. The last official train ran to Texas in 1929. 

Lined up to board train
Children were taken in small groups of 10 to 40, under the supervision of at least one western agent, traveled on trains to selected stops along the way, where they were taken by families in that area. Agents would plan a route, send flyers to towns along the way, and arrange for a screening committee in towns where the children might get new homes. The towns where they stopped, naturally, had to be along a railroad line. The screening committee was usually made up of a town doctor, clergyman, newspaper editor, store owner and/or teacher.

Put on view for possible adoption

In the recent anthology UNDER A MULBERRY MOON, the novellas of Jacquie Rogers' A FAMILY FOR POLLY and my A FAMILY FOR MERRY deal with sisters who were adopted from the orphan train and later adopt their own children from an orphan train. Only 99 cents for a limited time! Amazon buy link 

For many years I have been interested in the orphan trains and the children who were taken from the streets of New York by the Children’s Aid Society. Most of the children went to a better life than they had. In spite of the few failures, I admire what the Children’s Aid Society intended.

Homeless children sleeping in an alley

Can you fathom a child being sent to prison because he had no home? Imagine children living on the streets with no way to buy clothes or food and no safe place to sleep. Sadly, there are still such children in many places, especially large cities!

The National Center on Family Homelessness reports that one in every thirty children in the United States is homeless, for a staggering 2.5 million children each year in America. Of course, some of those are with their parents, but many are alone. Nevertheless, this one-in-thirty number shocks me!

An orphan train stopped for photos
Rev. Brace received financial support from New York businessmen and other philanthropists such as the Roosevelt, Astor, and Dodge families to ensure the physical and emotional well-being of children and provide them with the support needed to become successful adults. The only options available to the thousands of abandoned, abused, and orphaned children were begging, prostitution, thievery, and gang membership unless they were committed to jails, almshouses, or orphanages. Rev. Brace believed that institutional care stunted and destroyed children. (I certainly agree that being sent to prison for being homeless is not the right solution!) His opinion was that only work, education, and a strong family life could help them develop into self-reliant citizens.

A "gang" of thieves and their adult leader in New York

The history of the railroads is deeply tied to the history of the Orphan Trains Era in America. Railroads were the most inexpensive way to move children westward from poverty filled homes, orphanages, poor houses, and off the streets. In the West and Mid-west, Rev. Brace believed, solid, God-fearing homes could be found for the children. Food would be plentiful with pure air to breathe and a good work ethnic developed by living on a farm would help them to grow into mature responsible adults able to care for themselves.

One of the things I found upsetting is that siblings were often split up, never to be reunited—something I believe occasionally happens today in foster care. A child’s last name was often changed and that meant the chance of contacting a sibling later was almost impossible.

When it began, the program was quite controversial. Since this was before the Civil War, abolitionists viewed it as a form of slavery, which for some failures it was. Pro-slavery advocates saw it as part of the abolitionist movement because the labor provided by children made slaves unnecessary.

Since a significant percentage of poor children in Manhattan were Irish Catholic and would be raised outside their faith once transported, some Catholics called the program anti-Catholic. In response, the Archdiocese of New York upgraded their  child-welfare programs. They improved their parochial school system and built more Catholic orphanages. In addition, they created a 114-acre training center on farmland in the Bronx which they called the Catholic Protectory.

A joyous arrival from an orphan train
The Children’s Aid Society included in their first annual report: “We have thus far sent off to homes in the country, or to places where they could earn an honest living, 164 boys and 43 girls, of whom some 20 were taken from prison, where they had been placed for being homeless on the streets. The great majority were the children of poor or degraded people, who were leaving them to grow up neglected in the streets. They were found by our visitors at the turning point of their lives, and sent to friendly homes, where they would be removed from the overwhelming temptations which poverty and neglect certainly occasion in a great city. Of these 200 boys and girls, a great proportion are so many vagrants or criminals saved; so much expense lessened to courts and prisons; so much poisonous influence removed from the city; and so many boys and girls, worthy of something better from society than a felon’s fate, placed where they can enter on manhood or womanhood somewhat as God intended that they should.” 
(Source: The Victor Remer Historical Archives of the Children’s Aid Society, Children’s Aid Society of New York City.)

The Orphan Train Heritage Society maintains an archive of riders’ stories. The National Orphan Train Museum in Concordia, Kansas maintains records and also houses a research facility.


Through a crazy twist of fate, Caroline Clemmons was not born on a Texas ranch. To make up for this tragic error, she writes about handsome cowboys, feisty ranch women, and scheming villains in a small office her family calls her pink cave. She and her Hero live in North Central Texas cowboy country where they ride herd on their rescued cats and dogs. The books she creates there have made her an Amazon bestselling author and won several awards. Check out her website and sign up for her monthly newsletter to receive a FREE western historical novella titled Happy Is The Bride. Find Caroline here:
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  1. Such a fascinating subject in a era of great upheaval and growth. I appreciated the added information and links you provided.

    Best on the anthology, which I hope to get read soon. Here's to many more stories and pieces of history that help create wonderful stories. Doris

  2. Great article, Caroline. I learned much more about orphan trains than I knew before. I have Under a Mulberry Moon on my kindle. Just need to find time to read it!

  3. This is really fascinating. I can't imagine how horrible it had to be for parents to realize they couldn't feed their kids or take care of them.

  4. The Orphan Trains have been receiving considerable attention from fiction writers in recent years. Author/Friend Marilyn Campbell has written "TRAINS TO CONCORDIA" and, recently, "A TRAIN TO NOWHERE." I've worked in the foster care system as a group home houseparent and as a child placement worker in CPS. Finding foster and adoptive families to meet children's needs is demanding and difficult, especially in hard economic times. While I don't usually write of such issues, I did show a positive outcome of the movement in "BY GRACE," when Grace meets a carload of children heading west, draws their picture and later meets up with one special child again in Virginia City, MT.
    Caroline, thanks for telling the story.

  5. I met a man who was on the Orphan Train from New York. He was adopted by a family in Akron, Colorado. He didn't say much about his experiences, but the little he did say was positive. He said the family that adopted him was a good, kind, and loving family.


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