The recently rescinded Trump administration policy of separating migrant families at the US border has made headlines lately. Reports of progress towards family reunification, or lack thereof, and of new policies of indefinitely detaining families together are still coming out. While some defend these practices, 69 percent of Americans disapprove of at least some of them, according to the most recent poll by the Washington Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Before the border separation policy, our nation was also debating increases in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids, including deportations that took otherwise law-abiding undocumented people away from their US-born children and other relatives.
When we turn to history, we see many examples of US authorities separating families, predominantly families of color. Between 1929 and 1936, our government raided and forcibly “repatriated” about 1.8 million people of Mexican descent, most of whom were actually American citizens, breaking up countless families in the process. US laws also allowed the removal of up to one third of Native American children from their parents between 1941 and 1967, according to a 1976 report commissioned by the Association on American Indian Affairs. They were largely sent to institutions like the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where the school administration tried to erase the cultural identities of the children in their care. Of course family separation was also one of the most brutal, criticized and yet common elements of domestic slavery in the United States before the Civil War (1861–1865).
Today, many Americans, particularly those in power, resist shedding light on these historical examples and their lasting impacts because they don’t present an image of the United States as benevolent, progressing, and constantly improving. At DiMenna Children’s History Museum, we believe in exploring difficult parts of our past. We believe young people deserve to know about all of our history, including the hard parts that don’t have happy endings—or endings at all.
In light of the current conversation about immigrant families being separated, we wanted to explore a little-known part of US history—Orphan Trains, which transported tens of thousands of homeless, poor, and only sometimes-orphaned New York City children on trains to new homes in western states as part of the first organized “placing-out” program, the precursor to the modern foster care and adoption system. These children were mostly first-generation Americans born to European immigrants or were immigrants themselves. Below is a history of the orphan trains taken from DiMenna Children’s History Museum curriculum. We invite you to read it here and to explore additional lesson materials in the curriculum, which can be found by clicking the link on pages 37–42.
We encourage you to talk about today’s policies and the history of the orphan trains at home and in school. Make this blog post part of a larger historical exploration of the following question: When and how should the government or local authorities be allowed to separate kids from their parents?
One morning in 1854, a group of children arrived in a Michigan town with a name they could hardly pronounce: Dowagiac. Most were 10 or 11 years old, but one was only six. They had been on the train for hours and hours, all the way from New York City. Their brand-new clothes were wrinkled and spilled on. Mr. Smith, who had traveled with them, told them to neaten up and remember what he had taught them. As he led them off the train, they had their first look at this tiny town. It was nothing like New York City, which was their home just days ago. But no more.
Mr. Smith took them into the meeting house, where the benches were crowded with people from the town and nearby. They did not look or dress like anyone the children had known in New York. Mr. Smith said he was from the Children’s Aid Society, and he repeated what the people already knew: that the children were orphans and were there to be placed in new homes. The children smiled and tried to look appealing. They answered questions politely. They let people squeeze their arms to see how strong they were. Over the next two days, most of them were taken home by one farm couple or another, strangers they prayed would be nice. The others, mostly too young to be good workers, went back to the train and continued on to the next town.
They were the first group, but later there were many others who rode what was called the Orphan Train. It is not a very accurate term. There was no single train that delivered the children around the country. They rode regular trains, most leaving New York from Grand Central Station. And while some of the children were true orphans, many others were not. But all were poor, and life was going badly for them.
In the 1850s, New York was bursting at the seams with new people, many of them poor immigrants. They struggled to make enough money, and crowded into neighborhoods where they could afford to rent a tiny apartment. The children worked for whatever they could earn. At age five or six, they were polishing shoes, or sweeping streets, or selling matches or newspapers. Sometimes they begged, and a few stole or picked pockets. The families could not always stay together. If parents died or neglected them, children were on their own. Some slept on the streets.
At the time, there were no government programs to help them, but there were private charities. The Children’s Aid Society was one of the biggest. Started by a Protestant minister, it opened special hotels where homeless children could spend the night for a few pennies, or get a meal. It ran schools where they could learn sewing or shoe repair, or some other skill that would help them support themselves.
The Children’s Aid Society did not think highly of poor parents and did not try to keep troubled families together. But it did believe that their children would thrive in a new home far from a city, where they worked hard in the fresh air. So it set up what it called the Placing-Out Program—usually known as the Orphan Train—to relocate youngsters to new homes far from New York. Since most of the children would be working on farms, Children’s Aid set up special schools to teach city boys how to milk cows, pitch hay, and plow fields. Rich New Yorkers donated money for these programs because they felt sorry for the children—and also because they were afraid of the wilder kids, whom they saw as little criminals.
The Children’s Aid Society hired agents to go around the country and put up flyers announcing that children would be coming soon on a train. They looked for good people who would be willing to give a child a home, maybe even to adopt the child as their own. And in New York, the agents looked for children who needed rescue. They went to orphanages. They even went to prisons because children were sometimes jailed for being homeless. The agents encouraged poor parents to sign papers so their children could have new lives elsewhere. They held meetings where they talked to homeless children about the great West. One boy, listening, was so eager that he lied about being an orphan in order to board the train and escape his abusive father. His name was John Brady, and he later became the governor of Alaska.
Regardless of how the children came to be on the train, they were all transformed before they started their trip. The boys were taken to the offices of the Children’s Aid Society, and the girls to a house on Staten Island. They were told to shower and given new clothes. They were told how to make a good impression: to smile, to say “please” and “yes, ma’am.” Some agents taught the kids a few jokes or songs that might convince a family to take them. When the time came to leave, the children were given a small suitcase and a card that read “Children’s Aid Society” on one side, with the child’s name and birth date written on the other. The children traveled west in groups with an adult from Children’s Aid. Often they posed together for a photograph, either before they boarded the train or when they arrived at the place that would now be home.
Over the next 75 years, many thousands of children were relocated from New York and other Eastern cities to new homes in the West. In the program’s early years, “the West” meant the Midwest—states like Michigan, Nebraska, Kansas, and Ohio. But over time, the Orphan Train relocated children all over the country, and the experience was mixed. Some Western states feared that they were the dumping ground for kids who would always be problems. Back in the cities, Catholic parents complained that their children were being presented and raised as Protestants. And the children themselves did not always find the family life they were hoping for. Some were treated as little more than servants. One girl reported that she never had enough to eat or a glass of milk. A few clashed so badly with their new family that they either ran away, or were sent back to the Children’s Aid Society.
But for other children, things turned out well. One woman remembered being a frightened girl at the end of her long train ride. She saw a couple approach her with a strawberry ice cream cone. Later she said, “I could not have had more loving parents. They are the ones who wanted and loved me.” Another man, adopted at the age of six, said, “My life began when I got off that train. My mind is a total blank before that day. I don’t think the good Lord wanted me remembering those first six years.”
The Orphan Train continued until 1929. It is considered America’s first foster care program. The program is criticized today for not screening potential parents carefully enough, and for not closely monitoring children’s experiences. But the Orphan Train contributed to ideas we take for granted today: that children have a right to a stable home, and that it’s better for them to live in a family than in an orphanage.
Written by Rachel Walman
Assistant Director, DiMenna Children’s History Museum
Steven Mintz, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 2006.
David Nasaw, Children of the City: At Work and At Play. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
New-York Historical Society, A Guide to the Records of the Children’s Aid Society. Accessed 9/17/11, M. Waters
Stephen O’Connor, Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Andrea Warren, We Rode the Orphan Trains. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.