Boy and Girl Tramps of America

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In 1933 and 1934, Thomas Minehan, a young sociologist at the University of Minnesota, disguised himself in old clothes and hopped freight trains crisscrossing six midwestern states. He joined the bands of boys, and more than a few girls, who formed the ranks of a roving army of 250,000 children torn from their homes in the Great Depression. Over a two-year period, Minehan associated on terms of intimacy and equality with several thousand transients, collecting five hundred life histories of the young migrants. The result was a vivid portrayal of their harrowing existence, Boy and Girl Tramps of America, a work unique in its ability to reach beyond statistics and reveal the opinions, ideas, and attitudes of the boxcar boys and girls.

Grinding poverty, shattered family relationships, and financially strapped schools that locked their doors were among the reasons most kids went on the road. They usually did so with the blessing of parents at their wits end to feed and care for them. The first weeks away from home could be euphoric, filled with a sense of romance and adventure. Minehan observed that after six months on the road, however, the boys and girls lost their fresh outlook and eagerness. Trips across the country were no longer educational, but were quests for bread. "There comes a day when the boys are alone and hungry, and their clothes are ragged and torn," wrote Minehan; "breadlines have just denied them food, relief stations an opportunity to work for clothes. A brakie [brakeman] has chased them from the yards. An old vagrant shares his mulligan with them and they listen."

Riding with the road kids, Minehan estimated that 10 percent of those he met were girls, dressed in overalls or army breeches and boys' coats. They traveled in pairs, sometimes with a boyfriend, sometimes with a tribe of ten or twelve boys. Minehan described "Kay," who was fifteen: "Her black eyes, fair hair, and pale cheeks are girlish and delicate. Cinders, wind and frost have irritated but not toughened that tender skin. Sickly and suffering from chronic undernourishment, she appears to subsist almost entirely upon her fingernails, which she gnaws habitually."

For African-American youths, the road was even rockier. They were often turned away from a door where a white hobo would get a handout; on occasion, too, black youths riding the rails in the South were threatened with a lynching.

Danger was a constant companion that could turn deadly in an instant. Railroad detectives, called "bulls," handled illegal riders savagely. By 1932, the Southern Pacific Company reported 683,457 trespassers on its property, 75 percent of these estimated to be from sixteen to twenty-five years old. In the first ten months of 1932, the Interstate Commerce Commission recorded 1,508 trespassers under twenty-one killed or injured.

Minehan completed his research even as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was being established by the Roosevelt administration, the single most vital program to meet the needs of the roving army. By July 1933, a quarter of a million young men were serving in the CCC in 1,468 forest and park camps. The National Youth Administration later provided fifty camps that offered job training and education for girls.

Minehan found that desperate as their lives were, the child tramps remained defiant: "I can't get a job anywhere," said a boy called Texas. "I can't get into the CCC because I have no dependents. I can't remain in any state unless I go to a slave camp. What chance have I got? Less chance than a man with two wooden legs in a forest fire. I've seen a lot of the country in the last year and I'm glad I've seen it but if a guy travels too much he becomes a bum, and I don't want to be a bum."



Abbot, Grace. Children's Bureau, Washington, D.C. Statement on Relief for Unemployed Transients. Hearing before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Manufactures on S. 5121, United States Senate, 72nd Cong., 2nd sess.

Anderson, Nels. "The Juvenile and the Tramp." Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology. (August 1, 1923): 290–312.

Carstens, C. C. Child Welfare League of America. Statement on Federal Aid for Unemployment Relief. Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Manufactures on S5125. United States Senate, 72nd Cong., 2nd sess.

Lacy, Alexander. The Soil Soldiers: The Conservation Corps in the Great Depression. 1976.

McMillen, A. Wayne. "An Army of Boys on the Loose." The Survey Graphic (September 1933): 389–392.

Minehan, Thomas. Boy and Girl Tramps of America. 1934.

Uys, Errol Lincoln. Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the MoveDuring the Great Depression. 1999.

Errol Lincoln Uys