Thursday, February 1, 2024

The Anomalies of Placing Out Children & Babies


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.  But this was a growing issue especially in overcrowded eastern cities. Two organizations took noticed: The Children’s Aid Society (CAS) led by  Charles Loring Brace; and The New York Founding Hospital. These two organizations worked to place orphans into suitable homes and other over crowded children's homes joined in these efforts. By transporting children by train across America all 48 states were participating in housing homeless children.

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.

This Orphan Train Movement, 1854-1929, placed over 150,000 orphaned and abandoned children, babies to teenagers, in homes of every state with the majority being placed in rural Midwestern homes. NY orphaned children moved across America, sometimes as many as 20-30 in a train with a couple of adult caretakers, and were presented to small town America donning new outfits, in hopes of being chosen by a family. Siblings were often separated in spite of efforts to keep them within one family unit.

Irish Orphans Placed in Mexican Homes, AZ
The largest conflict of placing out children was in the Arizona Territory. In 1904 Arizona Territory orphan train placements from a New York Foundling Hospital (Catholic) sent 40 white children, mostly Irish, between the ages 2 to 6. The Arizona French-born Catholic priest who led the Clifton, AZ Sacred Heart Catholic Church saw no issue with 24 of the orphan children being placed in reputable Mexican households. Less than 8 hours later, a mob of over 400 people gathered to "reclaim" babies from the Mexican families. This fight was escalated and Clifton vigilantes successfully kidnapped 17 more of the Irish orphans. The sensationalized legal battle that followed was taken to the Arizona Territorial Supreme Court. Many newspapers accused the children as having been taken to Arizona as part of a slave ring. Oh...this is a story in itself!

Children of Color, Italians, Armenian's and the Finish, were usually sent to orphanages that accepted them.  

Black Orphans Needed Homes Too
Black children were included but with a different process. Although they too travelled the country as orphans and half orphans, it must be noted there was usually an agency to receive them at the train station. Many of the Black children were placed in Leavenworth Catholic where a partnering Black Catholic Orphanage arranged housing and care for their wards.  As housing was not as plentiful, many of these orphanages were subsequently transported to institutions to learn a trade. 
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., others were merely cheap farm labor, housekeepers, cooks, or shop laborers. Some landed 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. 

Best Resources to Begin 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. I've heard stories of the abuse these children endured.

    1. Yes, there was a lot of scared children who came out of this system.