Monday, February 22, 2010

Orphan Train Ancestor Research


Orphan Train Movement 1854-1929
Like any other massive immigration movement, the United States, although known as the land of ‘milk and honey,’ had the reality of tenements, scarce jobs, and insufficient provisions for the over four million arrivers. These newcomers faced unsanitary living conditions, diseases due to the lack of sanitary living quarters and work environment, and risky jobs without safety measures where many of the men faced their demise leaving overworked mothers at home with young children who may have begun working as early as age six. Due to the high death rate of parents, or their heavy burden, these children were often abandoned or orphaned, left to feign for themselves.

By 1854 there were over 30,000 children living in the New York City streets, interesting both Charles Loring Brace, the founder of The Children’s Aid Society (CAS), and The New York Founding Hospital. These two organizations worked to place the orphans into suitable homes. By transporting the children throughout the USA by railway and placing them in homes, The Orphan Train Movement began.

This Orphan Train Movement, 1854-1929, placed over 150,000 orphaned and abandoned children, babies to teenagers in homes of every state, except Arizona, with the majority being placed in rural Midwest homes. The 1880 US Federal Census New York Juvenile Asylum, NY, NY gives us an indication of the homelessness of some of these children who were placed in Illinois (as well as other states). For more information read: Children of Orphan Trains: From New York to Illinois and Beyond.

The NY orphaned children moved across America, sometimes as many as 30 in a train with a couple of adult caretakers, and were presented to small town America donning while donning new outfits, in hopes of being chosen by a family. Siblings were often separated.

Black children were rarely included.  There was a Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue between 43rd and 44th street in NY that was burnt down during the New York City Draft Riots of 1863, leaving 233 black children homeless. Brace of the CAS was able to assist these children in other ways, but avoided controversy of aiding the African American community as CAS depended on financial donations from those that did not embrace the black community.

Some of the adopted out orphaned and abandoned children were integrated into families, attended school, did chores, etc., but most were merely cheap farm labor, housekeepers, cooks, or shop laborers, many landing in what would now be considered abusive homes. It was believed, in spite of this, that they probably fared better than their street life in New York, which they no longer had any contact with and soon lost many of their memories of.

Best Resources for Research
  • Newspapers. The Orphan Train Movement was chronicled in every newspaper in the USA. You may wish to review Orphan Trains brought Homeless NYC children to Work On Farms Out West.
  • Historical Societies. Many of the local museums and libraries will have information on foundling hospitals and local orphans. Here's the New York Historical Society Museum & Library Foundling Hospital information 1869-2009
  • Midwest Repositories. The announcements of the trains expecting arrival and adoptions were not only in the newspapers, but organizations and churches also promoted and kept loose information on the orphans: where were they placed, what was the agreement, etc.  The National Orphan Train Complex, Museum & Research  Center in Concordia, KS is a good place to start.  

Accurate, Accessible Answers


  1. This is a good article. However, I was wondering about there not being black children on the orphan trains. On the genealogy site, Afrigeneas, someone said their friend's mother insisted she was an orphan train child. What came to my mind, is there were no black-identified children, meaning there may have been black children of mixed blood or very fair-skinned who were not identified as black. Whites, who were no doubt running this operation, often cannot identify race if is not presented as black and white. Just something to think about.

  2. Excellent article. Just watched a documentary about orphan trains…very unfamiliar with the history. I wondered about the orphaned AA children, as well. Will check out the above mentioned site. Good historical stuff! Thanks for posting.

    1. Thank you for your kind comment. We make it a priority to include AA impacts of history and genealogical research on all topics. It's amazing what we don't know! Let us know if a3Genealogy can help you with your project. Happy holidays!