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Orphan Train Lesson for Kids: History & Facts

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

From the mid 1800s to the early 1900s, the United States ran a government program called the Orphan Train, which took orphans from major cities into the countryside for adoption. Learn about the program and its legacy in this lesson.

All Alone

Have you ever gone with your family to adopt a puppy or a kitten? Maybe you've gone to a shelter and looked over each pet to see if they're a good fit, and maybe you decided you'd take one home. Can you imagine if we did that with kids who didn't have parents and not just pets?

It may seem silly, but from 1854 to 1929, the US government decided that the best way to make sure orphans could find a home was to send them out of big cities and through the country so that grownups could consider adopting them. This was called the Orphan Train, and as many as a quarter of a million orphans rode it, although not all found homes.

Orphan train announcement poster for potential parents
Poster for orphans

Bad Place, Bad Time

About 150 years ago, the United States didn't have adoption agencies or many of the social programs we do today. Back then, if you could not afford to take care of a child, you had to find an orphanage, a charity for children without parents. Worse, the child would probably not have fun growing up, since orphanages didn't have much money and made children work.

Picture of New York City in 1865: crowded, dirty, and dangerous
New York City in 1800s

Big cities on the coast weren't very good places to raise kids anyway. They were very crowded and dirty, which led to disease. Kids growing up in poor city families might not get enough to eat. By 1850, as many as ten thousand children were thought to be living on the streets of New York City. Many were part of gangs, or groups of organized criminals.

Going West

A man named Charles Brace wanted to come up with a solution to the orphan problems. At first, he tried to help kids by giving them food and classes on the Bible. However, this wasn't working, so he decided the solution was to get them out of the city altogether. He organized the Children's Aid Society, which put children without parents on trains in order to get them out of big cities and to the countryside. Since the United States had begun to build a huge number of new railroads during this time, it was easy for Brace to connect orphans in the cities to rural parts of the country.

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