The mid-1800s wasn’t a good time to be a kid in New York City. Mud and excrement puddled in the streets. Children and adults slept in sagging, damp shacks. Dirty homes, dirty roads, dirty clothes, and modern sanitation waited decades away. Only the luckiest of these immigrants escaped, since few businesses paid this first wave of American immigrants—mostly Irish, British, and German—a living wage.
In these conditions, it was no wonder disease and famine spread like wildfire. Parents died with no social welfare system to assume custody of their children. Parents abandoned their children with no legal repercussions. Among the half million people crowded into New York City in the 1850s, 30,000 were children without homes, without parents, and without caregivers. Those wandering the alleys became “street rats” to locals. Churches adopted a few, but none had the manpower or resources required to help all the children in need.
Charles Loring Brace, a Yale-educated minister and social reformer, saw this firsthand and dedicated his life to changing it. His efforts, funded by dozens of philanthropists, would become the first organized foster care system in the United States, now called the Orphan Train Movement. Although the term “orphan train” was frequently used in the periodicals at the time, Brace avoided it; half the children shuttled west had living parents that either couldn’t afford or didn’t want their children. He preferred the term “family placement.”
Until the mid-1800s, the only government sponsored aid offered to homeless children were found in asylums or workhouses. There, children would find shelters and meals, but no education or means of earning wages. Any labor they could find was usually low-paying and hazardous. Brace knew simply feeding these children wasn’t enough. They needed healthy, loving homes far away from the “debauchery” of New York City. For those on the East Coast, that meant sending them to the farms of the Midwest.
The Midwest, being the settled frontier of 1800s America, had gained a reputation as the pastoral ideal of healthy living. Wide, open spaces, hard work, and fresh food. Charles Brace wasn’t a blind idealist either. He also knew that farming families trying to made good in homesteading their land would need all the labor they could get, and having a few extra children couldn’t hurt. Win-win.
From 1854 to 1929, these trains, sponsored either by government funding or sponsorship by wealthy philanthropists, sent roughly 200,000 children to the Midwest (with most to Indiana in the first decade). Brace accepted applications from virtually any area except those in slave-owning southern states.
This first attempt at organized foster care wasn’t perfect by any means. Families looking to adopt children had no background checks to pass; they only needed the word of an upstanding citizen (a landowner, a business owner, or an official) to vouch for them. Religious affiliation became an issue as well. Most of these children were leaving Catholic families in New York City and destined to be adopted by Midwestern families, which were predominately Protestant. Catholic officials condemned the practice.
For some families, these adoptees would become little more than free labor. Their origins also haunted them throughout their lives, with “train children” viewed by their peers with dislike and distrust. Some adults saw them as the offspring of morally-corrupt urban living. Children required more than food and shelter, but also caring and compassion. One veteran of the orphan train, a Missouri Orphan Train veteran described her foster parents in clear terms: “They weren’t mean, they were cold, and they showed no feeling toward me. When I was 15 or 16 I decided I’d live in a garbage can before I’d stay there any longer.”
As the population of the United States grew and the overcrowding of New York City became mirrored in other cities across the Midwest—Chicago or St. Louis—citizens realized the Orphan Train Movement wasn’t enough. Government and charitable agencies began working in tandem to address children’s welfare issues directly rather than waiting until they were turned out into the streets. They established the U.S. Children’s Bureau. Founded in 1912 and still in service today, the bureau’s mission includes “…all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life among all classes of our people….”
Ultimately Charles Loring Brace’s inspiration would called a success by the standards of his day. Of the roughly quarter million children that rode the Orphan Trains, nearly 90% were successfully placed.
Of course, while that number is heartening, it also makes us wonder about the 20,000 unsuccessful placements.