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Was Your Ancestor an Orphan Train Rider?
Published: 02 March 2010
By: Shirley Gage Hodges   Biography & Archived Articles

Shirley G. Hodges
If you have an ancestor born in the 1854 to 1929 time frame who just "appeared" in the United States in the Midwest, you might want to check into the possibility that he or she was an Orphan Train rider.

One of the important things that needs to be considered when we are looking for these individuals is the confusing label of "orphan train." Many of the children placed out were not true orphans. Most had at least one parent who was still living.

There were all kinds of reasons that people had given up their children. Some of these were:
  • The families were living in poverty.
  • One of the parents might have left the home.
  • One of the parents might have died.
  • Some children were illegitimate and didn't have two parents to care for them.
In some cases the courts removed children from their homes because they thought that they were being mistreated. They also removed children who they thought were turning into juvenile delinquents. The laws were different in the various states so some of these children weren't guilty of anything more serious than smoking to hanging out with people who weren't respectable. Some of the children who were classed as delinquent children were really orphans. They were living in the streets, and they didn't have any family that they could rely to help them. However, some children who were placed out had brothers and sisters and parents who were still living.

The first "train" went out from The Children's Aid Society on September 20, 1854, with 46 ten-to-twelve-year-old boys and girls. Their destination was Dowagiac, Michigan. They have gone to a lot of work commemorating this and getting a registry developed.

Two trains stopped at Albion, MI where we live. One left NYC on May 21, 1857, with 30 children on board, and another on June 30, 1857 with 31 children. Numerous children were placed from these particular trains at stops along the Michigan Central Railroad route at Albion, Marengo, and Marshall, MI. If you have ancestors who might have been on those trains I would encourage you to contact Frank Passic. He is one of the best authorities on those individuals that I know. Visit his web page.

I hope that you may have had the opportunity of seeing the Orphan Train video when it was televised by PBS. If not, try and get a copy to view. I will caution you to have a box of Kleenex by you though.

In order to understand the orphan train movement, we need to examine the life of Charles Loring Brace.

Charles Loring Brace was a young minister from a well-known Connecticut family. He had gone to New York to complete his seminary training. He became captivated by the plight of these children and he was determined to help them. He was convinced that there was only one way to help these children. Brace decided at age 26 that he wasn't cut out to preach. He found his calling instead among the cast-off children of New York City Charles Loring Brace founded the Children's Aid Society of New York in 1853. For more information about him consult this website.

Brace had an idea. He wanted to send as many children as possible west to find homes with farm families. Brace wrote: "In every American community, especially in a western one, there are many spare places at the table of life. There is no harassing struggle for existence. They have enough for themselves and the stranger too." Because Brace understood the need for labor in the expanding farm country in the West, he believed that farmers would welcome homeless children, take them into their homes and treat them as their own.

The children were rode the orphan trains were survivors.. There have been governors, doctors, lawyers, business men, teachers, laborers, farmers, etc. Many of these riders have been veterans who have defended America in her wars. They have built industry in our great country. Many of them have been have been loving parents and many have been foster parents or have adopted children. It has been estimated that these children's descendents number approximately two million.

In summary:
    Reasons children were placed out:

    • Some children were true orphans, no parents, no other family to look after them, living on the streets,
    • Some were "half-orphans", one parent had died and the remaining parent could not care for them,
    • Some were merely "turned loose" by the parents because the family had grown too large and they couldn't care for all the children.
    • Some were separated from their parents.
    • Some were given up by mothers and fathers who left them behind in their migration to the West to start new lives.
    • Some were run-aways - from abuse, drunkenness, etc.

    Reasons for sending children west:

    • to help populate the West by strong people
    • to provide a better future for the children
    • to rid eastern city streets of beggars and urchins
    • to help others who desperately wanted children

    Challenges faced by some of the riders:

    • Siblings were usually separated at the time of placement, as couples wanted only one child or perhaps two.
    • The children were instructed not to try to contact their birth parents. They were to break all ties to their past.
    • Some of the children were never able to get beyond the stigma of being an orphan.
    • There were a large number of individuals who had language problems, personal problems, and even literacy problems.
If you had an ancestor who rode the Orphan Trains make sure that you tell their story. Suggested Readings:
  • Brace, Charles Loring. The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years Work Among Them. Montclair, NJ (reprint): Patterson Smith, 1967.
  • Brace, Emma, ed., The Life of Charles Loring Brace, New York: Ayers Company, 1976.
  • Fry, Annette. The Orphan Trains. New York: New Discovery Books, 1994. For school-age kids. 96 pp. Ordering information: 1-800-848-9500.
  • Hodge, Robert A., Kansas Orphan Train Riders, These We Know (self-published index of newspaper articles of Orphan Train Arrivals in Kansas), Compiled for the 4th Annual Reunion of Kansas Orphan Train Reunion Group, Great Bend, KS, May 3&4, 1996.
  • Holloran, Peter. Boston's Wayward Children: Social Services for Homeless Children, 1830-1930. Cranbury, NJ: Fairleigh Dickerson Press, 1989.
  • Holt, Marilyn Irvin. The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America. U. of Nebraska, 1994.
  • Langsam, Mirian Z., Children West: A History of the Placing-Out System of the New York Children's Aid Society 1953-1890, Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1964.
  • Liebl, Janet, Ties That Bind: The Orphan Train Story in Minnesota, c 1994.
  • Orphan Train Heritage Society of America (OTHSA). Orphan Train Riders: Their Own Stories, Vols. I-IV. Baltimore, MD.: Gateway Press, Inc. 1992, 1993.
Until next time :)

Shirley Hodges, biography & genealogy lectures; email:

Editor's Note: Shirley Hodges is the author of the popular Guide to United States Census, 1790-1930

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