Orphan Trains in Context: History, Culture, and Law

Orphan trains represent a transitional period in American history. Many threads from the past became entangled as American society struggled with issues of greater freedom and social justice.

In the early US, there obviously wasn’t much in the way of welfare, for families and for children without families. It didn’t take long for an era of reform to follow after the era of revolution. Shifting conditions, economic and demographic, forced change to happen. The stress on society was immense and new systems were put into place to offer a relief valve. This is the context in which I wish to speak of orphan trains.

These orphan trains operated from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s. Children without parents (or without what judges deemed capable or “worthy” parents) were considered a major problem in the big cities, and this problem grew with the influx of immigrants, often poor and unemployed. Industrialization brought people to the cities and built the railroads, simultaneously exacerbating the problem and offering a possible solution, a pathway for moving a perceived excess of youths elsewhere.

It was a time when the Westward expansion and rural farm life was being idealized to a greater extent. It just so happened that sending unwanted kids West also made them someone else’s problems, but it worked out well since those out West often were looking for cheap labor. The kids, however, didn’t always benefit from this deal… not that urban poverty offered them much hope either.

It was natural for trains to be used in dealing with orphans, juvenile delinquents, and “street urchins”. Large numbers of children from the cities on the Eastern seaboard were sent west on trains. The kids were pulled off the trains in rural areas and, in the early phase of this system, anyone who wanted a kid could take one or two or three. Some people were actually looking to adopt children, but others wanted extra hands on the farm or around the house. The main obligation supposedly being that a “good home” was provided, although this was defined loosely and not enforced to any great degree.

* * * *

The early waves of reformers were a product of their time. The first orphan trains operated prior to the Civil War. The slavery debate was heating up and it touched upon every aspect of society, orphan trains included. Some abolitionists feared that the orphan trains were being used as an extension of slavery, and there was reason behind their fear. Not all the orphans were being adopted. Many were being indentured, a term I was unfamilliar with:

“When a child is adopted, he/she become equal to the natural children in all respects – including inheritance.

“Indenture was a legal means to remove a child from an unsatisfactory home without a long court procedure.  The child was not given inheritance rights.  People tended to use the two terms interchangeably but they are not the same thing.  Many people simply did not know the difference.”

The legal background to adoption and foster care has its roots in indenture, which is a practice and a legal construct many centuries old and having continued into the early 20th century. This indenture of orphans is basically the same indentured servitude that preceded and was the precedent for slavery. In fact, the out-placing of children with the orphan trains has its origins long before the Civil War, having been inspired by the out-placing of British children to the American colonies where they were sold into indentured servitude. Besides Africans, the first generation of indentured servants in America include the Irish. Interestingly and unsurprisingly, Irish children were a major target of the welfare societies operating the orphan trains.

Indenture diverged from slavery as a new racial order took over in the late colonial period. This was a sore point in American society, for it showed the class war at the heart of the American experiment, an experiment ruled by a plutocracy. This is why the debate of how to deal with the welfare of children was mixed up with the debate of slavery and capitalism. Defenders of slavery feared the expansion of indenture for similar reasons they feared industrialized capitalism as it was practiced in the North, as both were seen as competition for the slave system, making slaves less valuable and bringing whites down to the same level of slaves.

* * * *

The orphan trains were at the heart of all this. There was great debate about them, about how the process was being implemented and its results. The debate only ended when the orphan trains themselves ended, seventy-five years after they began in the 1850s.

During that time period, some reformers sought to go beyond indenture, but new legal systems were slow to develop. Initially, there wasn’t much legal framework upon which to base adoption and foster care. Trying to avoid the problems of the old ways of doing things, many new problems took their place. Getting rid of indenture without creating new legal protections for children simply created a system that was haphazard and lacked oversight.

No one knew what happened to many of the children who were neither indentured nor adopted. They simply slipped through the cracks, sent away and lost to all records. Abuse, no doubt, was rampant. Many children were used as cheap or even free labor. Still others became victims, whether of violence or sexual exploitation… or who knows what else.

It was upon the groundwork of colonial practices of indenture and slavery that capitalism was built. And it was against such practices that the struggle for democratic freedom was fought. The 1800s was the time when our society sought to get beyond old forms of social control and oppression, both indenture and slavery, the remnants of which continued well into the twentieth century with child labor in factories and the chain gangs of prison laborers.

* * * *

Protection of the defenseless took a long time to become established in law. Our modern sentiments about the innocence of childhood and the universality of human rights is a fairly recent invention.

Another recent invention is our present conception of whiteness. One of the most interesting stories of the orphan trains relates back to one of the main protagonists of this story, the Irish. They weren’t always deemed white. The English and Anglo-Americans were known to compare the Irish to Africans and Native Americans. The Irish were savages and foreigners, partly because they were mostly Catholic. Unlike today, Catholicism wasn’t seen as just another variety of Christianity. Protestants, specifically WASPs, saw Catholics as an alien culture. One of the names given to poor Irish children was “street Arabs”.

How did these Irish become white and hence “real Americans”?

This was a long process. In the early colonies, Africans and Irish indentured servants lived together, worked together, and I suppose had children together when the opportunity allowed. The racial order of slavery came later and that was the beginning of the Irish transition toward whiteness, initially simply being represented by their legally defined non-blackness. This shift of racial identity was solidified during the era of orphan trains.

WASPs, in their fear of Catholics, intentionally placed Catholic children into Protestant homes. In response, Catholics began to implement their own programs to deal with Catholic children in need of homes. One such case involved nuns bringing a trainload of Irish orphans to Arizona to be adopted by Catholic families. The problem was that the Catholic families in question were Mexican-American. The nuns didn’t understand the local racism/ethnocentrism involved and were taken by surprise by the response of the local WASPs. The “white” population living there took great offense at this challenge to racial purity. Suddenly, when put into that context, the Irish children were deemed to be innocent whites to be protected against an inferior race. This is ironic because where those Irish children came from in the big cities out East they were considered the inferior race.

This is the just-so story about how the leopard got his spots… er, I mean, how the Irish got his whiteness.

* * * *

This is key to understanding America. It was in the East where hyphenated ethnic Americans were minorities, seen as outsiders and threats to the status quo. But it was out West where the American Dream took fuller form and part of this was emergence of broader notion of whiteness. Old stigmas of ethnicity and class could be left behind and a new life begun. Out West, the right skin color and work ethic were what mattered. Whiteness offered great privilege for those willing to leave the East or else who, like these orphans, were forced to leave.

The untold part of this story is, as always, the indigenous perspective. Every ethnic group was being pushed elsewhere, in the contest for power and social control. The British sent the Scots-Irish to Ireland and the Irish to America. The welfare reformers then tried their best to send the children of the Irish and other ethnic minorities to the West, a place many ethnic minorites already had escaped to. The Native Americans, of course, were pushed ever westward finally ending up in reservations. Like the children of ethnic minorities, many children of Native Americans were removed from their homes and sent to boarding schools where every aspect of their culture was forbidden.

It was all about forced assimilation through cultural genocide. It never fully succeeded in all cases, but it succeeded well enough to undermine the power of most minority groups that sought to maintain their political, economic, and cultural independence. Quite an ugly process, oftentimes motivated by good intentions based in the belief in the power of environmental influences, a rather modern understanding of human nature. Reformers wanted to save people from themselves, going so far as to save children from their own parents and communities. Orphan trains were one tool in the battle to defend WASP identity and so-called real American values.

This is the background for what American became in the 20th century, everything from the Ku Klux Klan to univesal public education. The question was always how does one make immigrants and minorities into good American citizens, even against their will if necessary.

* * * *

The deeper challenge that Americans have never been able to face is that of the problems of the social order itself. The various minorities didn’t cause their own poverty and all the issues related to poverty, such as homelessness and orphaned children. The social order was built on high economic inequality and low economic mobility. This is obvious when one sees that the prejudices and oppressions of American society have their deepest roots in British imperialism and colonialism.

Shipping poor kids out of poor neighborhoods and communities does absolutely nothing to solve the problem that caused those kids to be born into poverty. Get rid of one generation of kids without changing the conditions and new generations will continue to be born into poverty. So much of welfare has always focused on results, instead of causes. The fear that the poor were a threat to the social order was a real fear, but sadly reformers were often the least likely to be in a position to understand that the social order itself was a threat to much of the population. When a system of conflict, oppression, and social control is created, almost everything becomes a potential threat.

A new country was founded with the American Revolution and yet all the old problems of the British Empire were carried over. Reformers are interested in reform for the very reason that they wish to defend the social order. But because they are invested in the social order, they aren’t in the position to see clearly the problems of the social order that need to be reformed. That is the eternal failure of reform. Hence, that is the frustration of social justice advocates across all of American history.

This country still struggles with poverty and inequality, all of the problems that have plagued this society from the beginning. We are no closer to dealing with these problems than were the 19th century reformers. In many ways, the problems have grown worse as wealth and power have been concentrated even further.

* * * *

Orphan Train Myths And Legal Reality
Rebecca S. Trammell

“The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction” by Linda Gordon
Debra Dickerson

In Arizona, all social significance hinged on the differences between “whites” and the inferiors: Mexicans, “Chinamen,” blacks and Indians. Closest to white in appearance and comportment, Mexicans were at the top of the list but remained (then as now) non-white. Intermarriage (or more often, intercourse) between whites and Mexicans was common and largely accepted in the Southwest, but there were limits — Mexicans adopting white children, for instance. Gordon’s convincing analysis of the nuns’ mistake and the debacle that followed points up some potent racial ironies that are still worth savoring today: The Easterners didn’t understand that the same train ride that would bring their Irish charges parents and homes would also make them white. Of course, had they been white in New York, there would have been no need for the arduous journey west.

Orphan Train Riders: The White Slavery Movement
Our Future Rooted in Our Past

These children were labeled as “Street Arabs”, “the dangerous classes”, and ‘street urchins” to name a few. In the mid 1800’s and early 1900’s of the United States history, these problems escalated and led Charles Loring Brace, a minister in New York, to found The Children’s Aid Society in 1853 in New York City. Orphanages or asylums as they were called back then, did exist, but Charles L. Brace felt that it was not the best environment for children to grow and develop. Brace thought that the children would benefit from fresh air, work and a loving family and resulted in the birth of the Orphan Trains. Unfortunately the loving family life was not always the case and the child would have to be moved to another family.

In 1865, the New York Foundling Asylum was founded by the Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul. Beginning in 1872, the Asylum began to send children in trains out to families in the west. Indentured forms were filled out by the people accepting the child with indenture lasting until they were 18 years of age. The New England Home For Little Wanderers (NEHFLW) in Boston, Chicago Home Society, Minnesota Home Society, and other such societies also placed children with families on the frontier. Most children were never adopted into the families they went to but became indentured servants.

Book Review: Orphan Train
Literary Hoarders

Between 1854 and 1929, so-called “orphan trains” transported more than 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children between the ages of 2 and 14 from the East Coast to the Midwest for foster care and adoption. But their treatment often amounted to indentured servitude. Chosen first were infants, for more traditional adoptions, and older boys, for their manual labor; adolescent girls were typically selected last. While some children quickly found love and acceptance, many walked a harder road.

Orphan Trains of Nebraska

From 1854 to 1929, signs like this were posted and published all across the Midwest. Over 150,000 orphaned, homeless or neglected children were uprooted from the city and sent by “Orphan Trains” to farming communities, primarily in the Midwest, to be adopted out to good homes. In this way, the city of New York was not only drastically reducing their orphan problems, — they were also aiding others who desperately wanted children. The children were taken by train and often lined up at predetermined stops to be “looked over” and adopted (or in many cases indentured). Those not selected were taken to the next stop in hopes of finding a new home. For many children, life improved because they found homes with loving adults to care for them. Others, however, were not so fortunate, and their lives became more miserable as they found themselves in homes where they were used chiefly for slave labor. (in 1927, there were still 12 states, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Virginia, West Virginia, Nebraska and Kansas allowing indenture of children who had been turned over to poor farms or county authorities) And even though the “Orphan Train” brings thoughts of poor orphaned children, this was not always the case. Many of the children still had parents, but their family could not care for them and put them into state run homes, until they could get back on their feet. When the official transporting of children was ended in 1930, the migration of these children encompassed 47 states!

Orphan Trains (1854 – 1929)
Angelique Brown

In the 1920s the number of Orphan Trains decreased sharply. It was at that time that states began passing laws that prohibited placing children across state lines. Additionally, there was criticism from abolitionists who felt that the Orphan Trains supported slavery. Pro-slavery advocates criticized the practice as well, saying that it was making slaves obsolete. In 1912, the U.S. Children’s Bureau was established with the mission of helping states support children and families and alleviate many of the factors that led to children living on the street. As state and local governments became more involved in supporting families, the use of the Orphan Trains was no longer needed.

Riding the Orphan Train: What we can learn about modern slavery from our own history
Beyond Borders

Between 1853 and 1929 roughly a quarter million American children were swept off the streets of New York and other east coast cities and sent westward on trains to live with and work for farm families. Some were true orphans. Many others were not. Many landed in loving homes and were cared for and sent to school. Many others were not and essentially became child slaves.

In fact, before the civil war opponents of this practice in the south argued that the real purpose of the orphan trains was to reduce demand for slavery in midwestern states. Then, after slavery had been outlawed, abolitionists in the north opposed the practice, arguing that many families were now using the free labor of these children in place of slaves they had lost or could never afford.

Trains would stop in midwestern and southern towns, and the children would file off and parade before the assembled townspeople, often on hastily constructed stages. Locals would inspect the children, feel their muscles, look at their teeth, and question them. Contact between the children and their families back east was strongly discouraged. Many of these children ran away from the abusive new homes they were placed in, and a few even found their way back to their families in the east.

Questions remain for orphan train survivors and descendants
ECM Publishers

An ad in an 1882 edition of the Albert Lea newspaper stated, “A company of boys from the Children’s Aid Society of New York City will arrive in Albert Lea on Friday, November 17, for the purpose of finding homes and employment with farmers and others. There will be a meeting for the distribution.”

An article in the November, 19, 1913 St. Cloud paper reported that 100 children from New York, ranging in ages from one to four years, would be distributed in tearns County. (Pictured are Betty Murphy and Sister Justina Bieganek, both of whom were riders, Barb Noll, Gen Gustafson and Colleen Murphy. Staff photo by Joyce Moran)

Distributed?? Today, one sometimes hears about pumpkins being distributed … or, seedling trees. But children?

Such was the case, however, when, from 1854 to 1929, an estimated 200,000 children were transported by train from the Children’s Aid Society Orphanage and the New York Foundling Orphanage, both of New York City, bound for distribution to homes across the United States.

The children generally arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs. A cloth patch attached to their shirts contained their names. Some carried birth and Baptismal Certificates—some did not. Most did carry an indenture paper which legalized their adoption.

“The children went through the most traumatic experience of all,” said Renae Wendinger of Sleepy Eye, MN, the daughter of one who rode an orphan train—”the breaking of family ties.”

Wendinger was in Little Falls August 25 and 26, participating in the 40th annual reunion of Orphan Train Riders who came to Minnesota and nearby vicinities. The reunion took place, as it often has over the years, at the St. Francis Center.

“Some children went to good homes,” continued Wendinger. “Some did not. Some people just wanted a servant or someone to take care of them in their old age. This was not considered cruel because our country was still familiar with servants and slavery.”

Going on, Wendinger related that some children were legally adopted while others were not. And often, she said, siblings were not kept together because a family only wanted one child.

Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed
Stephen O’Connor

Most of these charges were not new. Editorialists and critics had compared outplacement to slavery practically since the departure of the first train, and these were far from the first examples of abuse that had been brought up in a public forum. What was different was that so many joined so vocally in the criticism, a signal both that a new consensus was emerging among a mostly younger class of child welfare professionals and that Brace’s power and prestige had begun to erode.

Brace was being attacked partly because of his prominence, especially after the publication of The Dangerous Classes. T/he sins that the CAS was being accused of were, after all, true of virtually every organization that placed orphaned or vagrant children in families. The New York Department of Charities relied on correspondence from the foster parents to monitor even children placed in the city and, as Mary Ellen Wilson’s case demonstrated, did not do a much better job than the CAS of checking up when required reports did not come in. In-city placements by a well-regarded Philadelphia agency were visited only once a year, while children placed by the Catholic Protectory were visited once every two to five years. Those children placed by the Randall’s Island House of Refuge were never visited at all. The attacks on Charles Loring Brace were clearly part of a much-needed self-correction of the entire American child welfare system. And he was singled out for attack because he was the exemplar of the old consensus — the main idol who had to be toppled.

“Philomena’s” story is just one example of the forced adoption of Irish children
Tom Deignan, Irish Central

For a people so passionate about the past, an Irish American’s longing for roots he never knew might seem unusual. But over the course of Irish American history, there are unfortunately many stories of children separated at young ages from their parents and compelled to grow up in strange, sometimes abusive, new surroundings.

And even if they were relocated to loving homes (as Michael Hess seems to have been, raised by a Catholic family in St. Louis), these Irish children were forced to grow up detached from the faith and culture into which they were born.

Perhaps the most prominent and controversial symbol of this was the Children’s Aid Society, which ran so-called “orphan trains” for Irish and other immigrant children in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Supporters argued that large numbers of Irish kids were wandering big city streets homeless, and that relocating them to loving families in the mid-West was a blessing.

Critics, however, note that the children were often exploited for their ability to labor on farms.

“At its worst it was not much better than slavery,” author Christina Baker Kline said in a recent NPR interview.

Earlier this year, Kline did extensive research for her novel “Orphan Train,” which features a young Irish girl named Niamh who loses her family in a tenement fire.

Orphan train children “were all between the ages of mostly two — but sometimes as young as babies, baby trains were called ‘mercy trains’ — and up to the age of 14. Those 14-year-old boys, 12- to 14-year-old boys, were the most in demand because obviously they were labor,” Kline said.

It also did not help that Children’s Aid Society founder Charles Loring Brace had an extensive record of anti-Catholic writing, and was open to the charge that he was taking Catholics off the dirty city streets in order to convert them into Protestants.

According to Kline, the extent of the era’s anti-Irish sentiment went to bizarre lengths.

“I came across a newspaper article from The New York Times about how the trains that were being sent were not allowing redheads,” she said.

During a heated exchange of letters in The New York Times back in 2001, Irish American novelist and historian Peter Quinn said the Children’s Aid Society “was not merely a compassionate agent of charitable relief…but an active partner with the courts and Protestant proselytizing societies in seeking to ‘redeem’ Irish Catholic children from a cultural-religious identity considered destructive of personal virtue and moral behavior.”

Of course, many Irish “orphan train” children grew up to live happy and productive lives. But the pervasive sense of dislocation and loss these children must have felt – especially after their own parents endured the trauma and uncertainty of emigration – is a rarely-discussed aspect of the Irish experience in America.

The Orphan Trains Transcript
American Experience, PBS

NARRATOR: Children drifted from farm to farm. Some even made their way back to New York. There were stories of children landing in reform school in Michigan; from Indiana, rumors of children on the dole. A southerner named J. H. Mills claimed that “men needing labor, their slaves being set free, take these boys and treat them as slaves.”

ELLIOTT HOFFMAN BOBO: There was one boy. I refused to go home with this farmer, too. He took this other boy, Albert– maybe I shouldn’t name him, but– and they kept him on the farm, wouldn’t send him to school, worked him eighteen hours a day in the field and he just lost his mind. And he died at an early age, less than thirty years of age. And he finally ran away from home, but it was too late. They wouldn’t let him go to town and see people, afraid he’d tell them how badly he was treated. And he never saw anybody. Didn’t– once– I saw him about two times during the whole time he was there, about ten years. I just saw him twice and he was afraid to talk to me. And I couldn’t– I couldn’t help him. I didn’t know enough to help him. But my dad always thought that he was abused, so he was afraid to talk about it, afraid he’d be abused some more.

NARRATOR: The record books are filled with names and dates, details of departures and arrivals, but say little about the quality of the children’s treatment. The extent of abuse is unknown.

The Society’s goal was to visit each child once a year, but there were only a handful of agents to monitor thousands of placements. With reports of children drifting through the countryside, Brace consented in 1883 to an independent investigation. It found the local committees were ineffective at screening foster parents. Supervision was lax. Many older boys had run away. But its overall conclusion was positive. The majority of children under fourteen were leading satisfactory lives.

READER: [Ann] “Dear Mr. Brace: When I lived in New York, I had no bonnet and now I have more bonnets than I can wear. And I get no whippings and I have a father and mother and brothers and sisters here and they are kinder to me than my own ever were. I think I will never be happier than I am now.”

NARRATOR: In New York, the children of a new generation of immigrants were facing deprivation and homelessness. Brace continued to insist that removal from the city was the street children’s best hope for deliverance. he used photographs like these, made by his protégé, Jacob Riis, to dramatize their plight.

The Society boasted about the story of two street kids, Andrew Burke and John Brady, who were sent to the same Indiana town on the same day. On arrival, the judge who adopted Brady considered him “the homeliest, toughest, most unpromising boy in the whole lot.” He said, “I had a curious desire to see what could be made of such a specimen of humanity.” John Brady grew up to be governor of Alaska. His friend, Andrew Burke, grew up to be governor of North Dakota.

But many rural people viewed the orphan train children with suspicion, as incorrigible offspring of drunkards and prostitutes. The children spoke with the accents of Ireland, Germany and Italy. Unlike most Midwesterners, many were Catholic. One official said, “What was good for New York was very bad for the west.”

READER: [farmer] “I have known several of these city Arabs being provided with homes and never heard of but one that proved to be honest. I believe it is the blood and not the education that tells.”

ALICE AYLER: Bad blood. That’s what they used to consider it. We kids from New York were of inferior stock. Bad blood is what’s running through those veins and some people have bad blood and others have blue blood. Well, the bad blood is supposed to carry the bad things down from your parents. Through your life, all the bad things are supposed to come through that bad blood and you don’t have a chance to do better.

Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed
Stephen O’Connor
pp. 95-7

“The most significant antecedent of all, however, not only for Brace’s orphan trains  but also for both of the earlier American “placing out” efforts, was simply  the indenture system. Indenture even had a long history of being used for the reform and removal of undesirable or potentially criminal children. Beginning in the seventeenth century, the British routinely gathered up — or kidnapped — poor children from the slums of London and sent them to the colonies to be bound servants. For much of that same period American commissioners of the poor had sought to “reform” destitute children by placing them in supposedly “respectable” homes at great distances from their depraved parents. The Philadelphia House of Refuge, where John Jackson had been incarcerated, commonly indentured boys to sea captains and had even placed one child as far away as Peru.

“By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the indenture system was in its final phase, having succumbed, on the one hand, to the looser employer-employee ties fostered by wage labor and the market economy, and, on the other hand, to the changing attitudes toward children and — under the influence of abolitionism — bonded servitude itself. In a way, the orphan trains were an attempt to modify an increasingly outmoded system, or at least to rescue that system’s best elements.

“Under the standard indenture agreement, a child was “bound,” generally until the age of twenty-one, to a master who, in exchange for labor, was expected to train the child in the “art and mystery” of his craft and to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, and a “common” education. At the termination of the indenture, the master was also supposed to give the apprentice a suit of clothes and often a bit of money and a Bible.

“The agreement between the CAS and prospective families was identical in its general outline but differed in ways designed to give the child more freedom and protection. The most important difference was that orphan train riders were not “bound” to the families they went to live with. Unless the child was adopted by the new family, the CAS or the child’s birth parents retained guardianship. Also, the relationship between the child and the family could be dissolved at any time if either party was dissatisfied, and the CAS would attempt to find the child a new placement and arrange for the child’s transportation, either to that new placement or back to New York City. And finally, the head of the family with which the child was placed was not the child’s “master” but his or her “employer.” This did not mean that the child was paid wages — although many children, especially the older boys, were in fact paid for their labors. The term was testimony to the looser nature of the placement, by comparison to indenture, and to the legal equality of the two parties. “Employer” also implied, of course, that the child was still expected to work, as a farmhand domestic, or in some other capacity. But the relationship was not meant to be a cold exchange of labor for basic necessities. From the beginning the ideal consummation of any placement was held to be the child’s incorporation into the family.

“Brace’s reinvention of indenture was, however, only one of many ways in which American society was struggling to preserve this ancient and ubiquitous institution. Indenture was nothing like an outmoded profession — blacksmithing, for example —  that could disappear without a trace in a single generation. It was an  essential component of American family and social organization. Long after the notion of bonded servitude (at least of noncriminal whites) had become intolerable in a democratic republic, long after payment only in room, board, and on-the-job training had come to seem exploitative and unnatural, and even long after the legal apparatus of indenture — the contracts, penalties, and terminology — had fallen into neglect, there were still families that needed work done they were unwilling to do themselves, and there were still parents who could not afford or did not want to raise their children to adulthood, and there were still adolescents who could not bear to remain in the homes in which they had been born. Throughout the Victorian era and well into the twentieth century aspects of indenture survived as a social safety valve, as a source of cheap labor, and, most important of all, as a set of assumptions about the obligations of family, of adults and children, and of the rich and the poor. By looking closely at these assumptions, we can see not only yet another way in which the orphan trains were inevitable, but how they could also seem natural, normal, and good.

“Little Orphan Annie has come to our house to stay
To wash the dinner dishes up
And brush the crumbs away,
To shoo the chickens off the porch
And dust the hearth and sweep,
To make the fires, bake the bread
And earn her board and keep.
— James Whitcomb Riley”

The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America
Marilyn Irvin Holt
Kindle Locations 440-488

PLACING OUT In America was given form by Charles Loring Brace. Born in 1826, Brace was the product of nineteenth-century values and of old New England traditions. His family was comfortable in its financial and social status, and Brace grew up in Hartford, Connecticut. There he was influenced by the sermons of the renowned theologian Horace Bushnell who believed in the naturalness, the “unconscious influences,” of child rearing, deemphasizing the use of threats and coercion in the shaping of a child’s character. Bushnell also may have played a role in Brace’s decision to become a minister. Graduated from Yale in 1846, Brace then attended the Yale Divinity School and the Union Theological Seminary, but after completing his education, Brace was not sure that a church ministry should be his calling. He leaned toward missionary work and had his first introduction to life as a city missionary at New York City’s Five Points Mission. That experience was of great importance to Brace’s career, and he maintained ties to that institution and the Five Points district after leaving to become instrumental in founding the New York Children’s Aid Society in 1853.’

With the Aid Society as the vehicle, Brace devoted his life to working with the poor. His contributions were many and during his lifetime his tireless efforts brought him recognition as an urban reformer. Brace also received some measure of notice for his writings, whose topics ranged from his experiences among the lower classes to analyses of life in foreign lands and ancient civilizations. One theme that held a particular fascination for him was the evolution of civilization, or perhaps more accurately, the forces that led a civilization from one step of development and culture to another. Because of this interest, Brace was a student of the theories of Charles Darwin and greatly admired this man, whom he came to know. Seemingly Brace was intrigued by the implications of Social Darwinism, and, as evidenced by his Dangerous Classes of New York, believed that society could be greatly changed, if not brought down, by a growing poverty class. As Brace’s writings illustrate, he did not follow the school of evolutionists that argued for “natural” events to take their course. Brace disavowed survival of the fittest. Rather, he was convinced that society could create artificial social structures for improving the lives of the poor, and he sided with the evolutionists who argued for intervention programs that would change and benefit all society.2

Brace was convinced that just as humans had developed through an evolutionary process, their behavior could evolve, and be shaped, for the good. There was one qualifying point, however. After becoming a city missionary and working with adults at Five Points and later New York’s Blackwell’s Island, with its penitentiary and workhouse, Brace became convinced that any effort “to reform adults was well-nigh hopeless.” He therefore directed his energies to the salvation of children. His life’s work produced numerous social-welfare programs, and by 1894 the New York Children’s Aid Society supported forty-five major activities in New York City and its environs. Included among these projects were twenty-two industrial schools; six lodging houses (five for boys, one for girls); a farm school; and a children’s summer home on Long Island. These accomplishments, which gave help and support to many thousands of young lives, have been overshadowed by Brace’s best known legacy-placing out.3

Although Brace later wrote of placing out as if no other person but he or any, other country but America had used the system, it was an imported idea. Indeed, he was not the only American to have an interest in the system’s possibilities. At least two contemporaries are known to have considered placing out as an option for dealing with the urban poor. Robert M. I Iartlev, of the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, and John Earl Williams, of the Boston Children’s Mission, advocated the system; the association with which Hartley, was involved established the New York Juvenile Asylum, a later advocate of placing; out, and Williams was to become treasurer for the New York Children’s Aid Society. In fact, the Boston Children’s Mission, founded in 1849 and incorporated in 1864, began a modest in-state placement program under the direction of Williams in ih5o. It was Charles Loring Brace, however, who gave the concept definition in America.4

What these men idealized was a theory, for removing the urban poor to the less populated and more rural areas of the country. Abstractly, they viewed placing out as a solution. They might personalize their arguments with sad human examples, but they’ were in fact creators of a particular view of what should he done with the poor, and more often expressed concern in terms of the immediate effect of the poor on society,. Familiar with traditional forms of charitable support, they knew that from the Colonial period children and adults had been indentured and that the institutionalized were commonly used as farm laborers to earn their keep. They shared a belief in the code, “labor is elevating and idleness is sinful.” Additionally, these men seemed to have little concept of life in the expanding west. Brace’s writings point to an idealized view of rural life, not unlike that expressed in popular thought. Supposedly the unlatched door of the country home offered hospitality to friend or stranger, and class or circumstance of birth had little meaning. The rigors of frontier life evidently went unrecognized, and as importantly, these city reformers seemed blissfully ignorant of the urbanization of western cities such as Cincinnati, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Chicago. No longer frontier outposts, these were by the 185os centers for commerce and transportation. Equally ignored was the far west, with its influx of emigrants, gold seekers, and entrepreneurs. Brace and his contemporaries certainly were aware of westward expansion but seemed oblivious to the growth of cities like San Francisco, which established its first orphan asylum in 1851, in part to house children orphaned on the Overland Trail.’ Instead, the focus of these men centered on eastern cities, and their romantic notions of the west remained steadfast.

Those who considered the idea of placing out were well aware of established forms for assisting the poor. Brace and his colleagues simply added a new dimension. It is quite possible that Brace shaped his ideas while on a trip to Europe in 1850. At that time he toured England’s “ragged” schools, which were based on the principle of reform rather than simple incarceration of children, a revolutionary idea for the times. No doubt Brace and contemporaries were already familiar with this work, but for Brace the experience of seeing programs in action allowed for a formulation of strategy. Also, Brace could not have failed to learn more about the British system of “transportation,” a well-known practice used as far back as the early 1700s. Under this system the country’s less desirable citizens were shipped to North America, Capetown, and Australia. Initially, transportation was a punishment whereby convicted felons were removed from their home country. By the time Brace saw the system, a new component had been added. Along with convicts, the poor, particularly women and children, were being resettled. The government transported many and gave approval to the British Ladies’ Female Emigrant Society to send more women out of country. The frontiers of the Empire needed labor, and in some cases prospective wives for male settlers. Transportation became a way, to supply that demand. Children and women were sent successfully to Canada and Australia, and at least one foray was made into the United States when London’s Home and Refuge for Destitute Children, in 1869, resettled twenty-one boys to the English colony of Wakefield, Kansas. In addition to what Brace saw in England, he encountered another form of relocation in the German states. There he observed a program established by prominent citizens, known as “The Friends in Need,” which placed vagrant city children with rural families. He also may have come into contact with the work of Pastor Andreas Brain, which did the same thing in Neukirchen, Germany. Bran’s work was inspired by his sermon text “The Christian Family-Parlour is the Best Reformatory,” a theme not unlike that taught by Bushnell.” It seems that Brace borrowed the basic idea of supplying labor while at the same time removing the destitute from high population centers, and tailored this to American society, sending thousands of children to experience lite in the West.

Kindle Locations 501-508

The plea for Christian charity went hand in hand with a warning. Brace’s writings, whether a society circular or his notable book, The Dangerous Classes o, f New York, paired charity with the caution that these children, left unattended, would some day threaten society. “The class increases; immigration is pouring in its multitude of poor foreigners, who leave these young outcasts everywhere in our midst,” warned Brace. “These boys and girls,” he wrote, “will soon form the great lower class of our city [and] if unreclaimed, [will] poison society all around them.” The solution was “a means of draining the city of this class.” Brace certainly had real concern for what happened to the children of the city, but his writings went beyond a simple appeal for help. Harking back to what Brace believed about social evolution, there was a desire to impose control over the possible ramifications of a growing underclass. Thus, Brace asked that support, financial and spiritual, he given the Aid Society to “drain” the potential threat. Meanwhile, he began the process “by communicating with farmers, manufacturers, or families who may have need of [child] employment.”‘

Kindle Locations 781-790

The ethnic backgrounds of those placed out reflect in part Brace’s personal prejudices. Brace believed that American and West European cultures were superior and that children from those backgrounds were more acceptable to receiving communities and families. When writing of children who came to the society for help, Brace gave approving descriptions of children such as the “yellow-haired German boy … with such honest blue eyes” and the “sharp, intelligient Yankee lad [who] comes in to do what he has never done before-ask for assistance.” To the Mediterranean and East European born, Brace was less receptive, particularly as he feuded with the Catholic community over placing out and as he believed Eastern and Southern European groups less advanced and civilized. In fact, when there were instances of Italian children being placed, the Aid Society pointedly described their earlier conditions, proving, at least to some minds, that this group was inferior: “Eugene M-, eleven years old, [was] found locked in a vacant room in a wretched tenement, deserted by his Italian parents.” After a stay at New York’s Home for the Friendless, the boy was sent to a “superior home” in Kansas .41

To a degree, Brace’s prejudices were those of American society. Robert Hartley, writing for the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (A I C P), expressed much the same thoughts, particularly against Catholics, and despaired of the “accumulated refuse” that “had landed in New York.” Reformer Jacob Riis did not share such sentiments, but he certainly observed them. Writing of New York’s Fresh Air Movement, Riis noted that rural communities were not willing to open their doors to just anyone:

Kindle Locations 840-843

One historian writing on childhood in America has concluded that the Civil War served as a dividing line in not only the nation’s history but for children’s history. A loss of a national innocence led adults in their desire for a less troubled time to project an aura of virtue around childhood. Children were seen as the only hope left to the country.47 This analysis provides a psychological framework in which to consider the continuation of placing out during and after the war. The innocence of children was to be preserved, and their protection became a national mission.

Kindle Locations 1011-1019

It may be argued that the n i c P, Brace, and other reformers cloaked their fears of the lower classes, especially the foreign element, in the guise of charity. Certainly by standards of the late twentieth century their attitudes smack of bigotry and intimidation, but the times in which they lived must be considered, not to excuse, but to explain a viewpoint that allowed heartfelt concern for the worthy poor to coexist with apprehensions for what immigrants and a growing American-born class of poor might bring. This was the time of the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing party, a period of America for Americans sentiment, and a time when educated men and women still spoke of Native Americans as “savages” and debated the question of blacks as a subhuman species. If Hartley, Brace, and their contemporaries are today to be interpreted as racists, that label must be applied to much of society. Just as city missionaries labored among the immigrants, missionaries among the Indians attempted to impose the white work ethic and standards of conduct, and those sympathetic to the plight of blacks, including the strongest abolitionists, often viewed that group as children who could not progress without white guidance. These attitudes did not diminish real compassion. In fact, for the times, men like Brace and Hartley were viewed as forward thinking. They, at least, were willing to tackle the needs of the destitute and downtrodden, despite rhetoric that today seems to curse the very people they were sworn to help.

Kindle Locations 1589-1601

Despite the apparent increase in legal adoptions during the latter years of the system, implicit in debates over placing out was the question of the legal status of those removed from the cities. If placing-out institutions did not demand indenture, adoption, or agreements with families to serve as foster care parents, who accepted legal responsibility for a minor? Certainly, there were those who were indentured and had the contracts as proof of their status within the home. There were those who had been legally adopted, giving them the benefits of family name and rights of inheritance. It is apparent now, as then, however, that many of the placed out, and perhaps the majority, existed in a kind of no man’s land of legal status. The institution to release the child for resettlement may have verbalized the rights of “prior” guardianship, but most orphanages or asylums that worked with placing-out organizations, expressed little interest in the outcome. For those placed out and not indentured or legally adopted, it was a state of limbo. It is clear in placing-out accounts that many, unsure of their place, assigned themselves a status. Many twentieth-century accounts state that the child was adopted into the family or treated as one of the family’s own, but being treated as part of the family and having a record of adoption are quite separate things. It is probable that many receiving families were uneducated or unaware of the niceties of the law and therefore never considered or understood either option. When Peter Manachisa, for example, was placed by the Sisters of Charity in a Louisiana home, his new parents signed indenture, not adoption, papers; Peter was given his new family’s name and he later learned that his parents, of limited education, had believed they were adopting him.33 For a growing number of reformers and officials of state boards of charity and institutions, the rather cavalier attitude of placing agencies in ignoring the legal implications of status may have represented just another reason for the system’s abolition.

Kindle Locations 1990-2002

In this new world of educated social workers and theorists and progressive thought, indenture, one of the long-held social options for placement came under scrutiny and was found lacking. Indenture of children and adults was deeply rooted in American life. It routinely served as a means of reducing the inmate populations of institutions and as a way for parents to provide their children with board and the means of learning a trade. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, there were rumblings. The superintendents of the Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home in Atchison, Kansas, had seen heated debate when state approval was given for indenture, and they were not unique in suffering, as one writer put it, the “wrath of the parents and relatives of [indentured] children, and of the politicians who are, or think they are interested in them.” One of those politicians was Governor Arthur Capper of Kansas, who received this viewpoint from a private citizen: “In fact it is my opinion that both boys and girls in this Institution [Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home] if permitted to remain where they are until they can acquire the training and education in household and other vocations will be able to go out and take employment independently and without being indentured to their employers.””

Local complaints supported a growing national concern. In 1927, twelve states-Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Maryland, Rhode Island, Virginia, West Virginia, and Nebraska-still allowed indenture of their institutional charges and of children who had been turned over to county authorities or poor farms. These states were pushed into the national limelight when calls were made for them to abolish the practice for “more intelligient child care services.” Pressure increased when the national Children’s Bureau published its study of indenture in Wisconsin. That study reflected some of the same criticisms made of placing out, citing children who were “worked virtually as unpaid servants in households and on farms, often deprived of schooling and . . . sometimes cruelly treated.” The Children’s Bureau demanded abolition of all indenture, calling it “a relic of sixteenth-century England.” 29 If indenture, a much older practice than placing out, could be cited for its antiquarian principles, then surely placing practices that sometimes included indenture could be called into question.

One thought on “Orphan Trains in Context: History, Culture, and Law

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s