Orphan Train: History & Facts

Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

The Industrial Revolution, although beneficial to the economy of the United States, had unintended consequences for its children. People thought that these children would benefit by being sent west- with something known as the Orphan Train Movement.

Immigrants and Industrialization

As railroad lines began to stretch across the western United States, the need arose for more workers. Immigrants saw America as the land of opportunity and a place where they could start over. These immigrants became labor for factories and for the railroad lines. Between 1841 and 1860, 4,311,465 people came to America.

The sudden influx of people made life difficult for residents in the cities. Housing was limited and people were crammed into small apartments called tenements. Everyone had to go to work to support their families, even the children. When one or more parents died, usually due to health or a factory accident, children ended up on the street or in orphanages. A surviving parent could pay for the child to be cared for, but when payments weren't made, children became wards of the state and usually never saw that parent again. An estimated 30,000 children were homeless in New York City during the 1850s.

Children employed as newsboys and newsgirls

Establishment of Aid Societies

Businessmen began to notice these homeless children and several organizations were founded to help and support them. Some had specific purposes, like helping babies or providing employment for children. Some of these included the New York Juvenile Asylum, the New York Foundling Hospital, and the Orphan Asylum Society of the City of New York. But none took such drastic measures as Charles Loring Brace. In 1853, Brace established the Children's Aid Society, an organization designed to help get children out of the city, to farm families that would give them a future outside of the factories.

Charles Loring Brace

Orphans at the New York Foundling Hospital

Placing Out

Brace decided that the children picked to be placed out would serve as an extra pair of hands at the homes they went to. This way it would be beneficial to the families taking the children. The term placing out meant that the children would be moved out of the slums and tenements to suitable homes. Older children placed by Brace's society were to be paid for their work.

Children began to be placed out in 1854 and the first train arrived in Dowagiac, Michigan on October 1, 1854. Children travelled in groups of 10 to 40 and were under the supervision of one or two agents or chaperones. These agents would plan the stops and send out flyers announcing the arrivals of the children. Each town would have a screening committee that would assist in the selection of the best families for the children. Upon selection families had to sign contracts stating how the children would be treated. Children under 16 were all to be sent to school until they were 17 or 18, even if they weren't adopted by the families.

A flyer announcing the coming arrival of children


Sometimes children got lucky with the families they were placed in. Some families, though, just wanted a servant. They would poke and prod at the children as though they were a work animal. The agents would try their best to make sure the children were well cared for, but some would slip through the cracks, even making their way back east.

One sad fact of the orphan trains was that siblings were often separated. Another is some of the children weren't orphans at all- their parents were still alive but simply weren't able to take care of them. Agencies tried to confirm that those placed out were legitimate orphans, but it was difficult to track this information down in the tenement houses.

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