The term orphan trains refers to the mid-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century method of placing destitute, urban children in the homes of largely rural families. Mid- and late-nineteenth-century reformers were increasingly concerned with the accumulating social ills of an advancing industrial society, including child poverty. Growing numbers of mostly immigrant, poor children filled the streets of nineteenth-century urban America. For instance, in 1849 approximately 3,000 homeless children lived and sometimes worked on the sidewalks of New York City. Charles Loring Brace was one of the most well-known of the reformers to respond to the plight of these children. In 1853 Brace established his famed Protestant child welfare organization, the Children's Aid Society (CAS) of New York, that provided an alternative to the almshouses, orphanages, and jails where destitute and vagrant children were typically housed. Initially, the voluntary CAS developed shelter and lodging centers for urban youth, provided vocational and religious instruction, and looked to place children in family homes within the city. Yet these solutions alone were not alone sufficient and the CAS soon began its experiment with its "Emigration Plan," which later became known as the orphan trains. The trains challenged the conventional practice of institutionalizing dependent children, and their advocates argued that children were best cared for in family settings. Most scholars consider the trains the origin of modern foster care.
Children who rode the orphan trains were usually sent in groups out to rural America where local residents greeted them and took them home via an informal auction. The term orphan is actually a misnomer, as less than half of the children who rode the trains were actually orphans and approximately 25 percent had two living parents. Brace believed that country living and training could prevent the development of negative habits and vices characteristic of the evil city. This partially reflected the period's romanticization of rural America and the West. The system deeply resembled earlier indentureship practices, although Brace and the CAS rejected this term. In contrast to indentureship, the CAS or the natural parent remained the guardian of the placed children and children were theoretically able to leave if problems arose. Like indentured children, those who rode the orphan trains were expected to work in their new family homes, which mirrored other informal nineteenth-century fostering arrangements. Many of the boys performed farm labor and many of the girls engaged in domestic work. Yet the new families were also expected to treat the children like "one of their own" and provide love as well as shelter.
Brace enjoyed great fame for his placing-out system, but he was far from alone in his practice. Agencies such as the Children's Mission to the Children of the Destitute of Boston actually developed a rural placing-out system before the CAS did and many other groups followed in Brace's footsteps, some even as far away as Western Europe. The New York Foundling Hospital, a Catholic organization, was one of the largest American agencies to employ a like system. Catholic agencies were highly critical of the CAS and accused the agency of placing Catholic children in Protestant homes in an effort at conversion. NY Foundling was successful at finding Catholic homes for Catholic children, but its task was more difficult given that fewer Catholic families lived in rural areas.
Along with religion, the racism of the period shaped the fate of children riding the orphan trains. As author Stephen O'Connor argues, the CAS and other orphan train programs generally neglected the African-American community, although the nationally known Colored Orphan Asylum developed a similar program and placed their wards with African-American farmers close to New York. There are instances of the CAS placing African-American children, but these were generally children who could "pass" for white and many of them encountered racism within their host families. A national scandal erupted when NY Foundling placed white Catholic children of European descent with Mexican families in Arizona. The children were forcibly removed from their placements by a group of local Anglo men, the incident almost erupted into violence, and NY Foundling endured highly negative press as a result.
Thus, while the orphan trains enjoyed significant support, they were not without their critics. In addition to sectarian rivalries, others challenged the quality and outcomes of the orphan train placements. The CAS often boasted of astronomically high "success rates" by noting the significant accomplishment of some of its children. Although it is difficult to evaluate the orphan trains as the agencies engaged in little systematic research, historians suggest that many children served through the programs found loving families and went on to distinguished careers. For instance, John Brady, the governor of Alaska, was a CAS ward. Yet historians also recognize that many children were exploited and abused. Nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century critics argued that orphan train programs and the CAS in particular provided little oversight of their placements. CAS agents rarely visited homes after the children were placed, partially due to a lack of funds and logistical complications. Although agents claimed to maintain communication through writing, it was not uncommon for the agencies to lose all contact after initial placement. Critics also argued that the foster families were rarely well screened and agency representatives briefly interviewed the families–if at all–and collected only the most superficial information about them. While CAS and other agencies became more careful about family screening and oversight, this did not appease detractors and by 1900 several midwestern states adopted legislation limiting and regulating the placement of children. In the Progressive Era a new generation of children's advocates suggested that dependent children should remain with their families of origin whenever possible, striking a deep blow to the placing out philosophy. Although the trains continued to run through the first decades of the twentieth century, they served relatively few children in these later years. The last CAS orphan train ran its route in 1929. By then, the orphan trains had served more than 200,000 children. Like the child welfare system of the late twentieth century, the orphan trains leave a mixed legacy and speak to the complexities of assisting children in need.
Holt, Marilyn. 1992. The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
O'Connor, Stephen. 2001. Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Tiffin, Susan. 1982. In Whose Best Interest?: Child Welfare Reform in the Progressive Era. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.