Child Immigrants on Western Orphan Trains


The influx of European immigrants to the U.S. during the latter half of the 19th century brought unprecedented changes to the cities. In New York, 30,000 children roamed the streets or eked out a living as bootblacks or newsboys.

The Children’s Aid Society developed the Orphan Trains as a solution.Entire trains filled with orphaned and abandoned children left crowded Eastern cities for the sparsely settled Midwest from the 1850s until 1930. The popular movement removed older children from the dangers of street life and offered little ones a chance for adoption.

The older children, housed in orphanages, were often not orphans at all. Instead they were sons and daughters whose fathers and mothers could not afford to care for them. Hard-pressed Midwestern pioneers, many of them recent immigrants themselves, needed all the help they could get to establish farms and businesses.

Belching steam, the acrid smell of coal heralded the trains’ arrival. The exhausted, frightened children huddled together until they were separated and paraded onto a stage. Prospective parents poked and prodded them, and sometimes pulled back their heads to examine their teeth.

They chose the healthy and attractive youngsters. The others got back on the train to head for towns further west. Many, torn from their siblings, were used  as slave labor and never went to school. Other adults welcomed the children into empty homes.

The little ones fared the best. Foundlings, some had simply been left at the hospital at birth. Too small to be cared for in eastern orphanages they were generally adopted, officially or unofficially, and raised as family members.

Before the Civil War, Wikipedia notes, “Some abolitionists viewed the program as a form of slavery. Some pro-slavery advocates saw it as part of the abolitionist movement, since the labor provided by the children helped to make slaves unnecessary.

Policies shifted in 1930 when  organized foster care for children gradually replaced orphanages.

Credit: Wikipedia, Orphan Trains


Christina Baker Kline’s poignant novel, Orphan Train,  tells the story of two orphan train riders.

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