Thursday, January 31, 2013

Orphan Trains

                Orphan Train Museum, Concordia, KS
Between 1841 and 1860, America became home to 4,311,465 immigrants in search of a better life.  Some of them found exactly what they had hoped, but others found disease, over-crowding, unsafe working conditions, and lack of sanitation, especially in the cities where many of the immigrants remained.
The result was that many died or faced extreme poverty.  Older parents and siblings had not always immigrated with them, so when immigrants with children faced difficulties, there were no family members to help.  Children were orphaned or were placed in orphanages by desperate parents who could pay weekly or monthly for their childrens' care.  When the parents failed to make payments, the children became wards of the state.  Other children were left with no adult to care for them, and they roamed the streets, begging, stealing, and surviving however they could.  Some of the boys survived by selling newspapers. 
Donated Clock at Museum
After the Civil War many infants were abandoned along streets and in tenement hallways.  Mothers hoping to entrust their infants to others able to care for them often left their babies on the door steps of the wealthy and of churches.  Because of the need, foundling hospitals were created.
As cities became overwhelmed with the number of these adandoned and orphaned children, the idea of sending them West, to towns and farms with fresh air, was coupled with the expansion of railroads.  The Orphan Train movement began.  Between 1854 and 1929, it is estimated that 250,000 orphaned, abandoned and homeless children were placed throughout the United States and Canada.  Research indicates that 1 in every 25 Americans is somehow connected to an Orphan Train rider.
The research building at the Orphan Train Museum

In doing my research about Isaac Werner and his community, I never found a mention of an Orphan Train arriving in any of the nearby towns, nor did I find any mention of an adoption; however, there were many such children placed in Kansas.
Imagine being a child, perhaps as young as three or as old as sixteen.  You joined a group of from ten to forty other children of all ages, entrusted to an adult you probably did not know, called a "western agent," responsible for transporting you and the other children to a location in the West where you would know no one.
Partial view of plaque beneath clock
If you were such a child, you would eventually reach a town where you and some of the other children would be lined up in a row on the platform of the train depot.  Flyers would have been sent to the towns along the way of the planned stops of the train.  A screening committee would have been formed to assist the western agent in selecting who among the people gathered to obtain a child were suitable prospective guardians.  The screening committee was probably composed entirely of men, typically the town doctor, a clergyman, the newspaper editor, a store owner or a teacher.  You might be too young to remember many details about yourself, so your name and age might be embroidered in your dress, if you were a girl, or your jacket, if you were a boy.  If your birthdate were known, it might be included.
The prospective guardians might be a loving couple unable to have children, or they might be a couple needing a helper for their farm work.  You would have no say in the selection process.  If you were chosen, your parent guardians were required to sign a contract regarding your schooling and your care, and if you were one of the older children, your guardian would be required to provide certain clothing and cash to give you a start when you reached the age to be on your own.  Whether the requirements of the contracts were fully kept was difficult to insure, since the western agent would continue on his or her journey with those children not selected.

Some of these children were ill treated, chosen primarily for their labor, but even those were taken from the hard lives they were living in the cities.  Many of these children were adopted, formally or informally, and became a part of loving families.
You may visit the museum website to read more about the history, as well as letters of some of the children and newspaper articles from the period at
You may also request research if you think you might have a family member who was one of the riders.  Consider a visit to Concordia to see the museum and other local sites.  The 2013 Annual Orphan Train Riders' Celebration & Depot Days will be held June 7, 8 & 9.
Remember, you can enlarge the images by clicking on them.  If you have a family story about the Orphan Trains, please share it in a comment.



Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

I'm hearing from blog visitors on facebook and in e-mails about family and others they know who were Orphan Train riders who found homes in Kansas. They are wonderful stories, and I hope some of you will add them to these comments! I would love to have them in my research.

Anonymous said...

Having read books about orphan trains, including ond about children who were selected by Kansas couples I was interested in this blog.

Some stories were shocking tales of overwork and abuse. Others had much better outcomes.

Imagine the uproar if something like the orphan trains were proposed today!

The Blog Fodder said...

A wonderful story. One hopes that most of the orphans found loving families to care for them. The desperation of parents who had to abandon their children as the only hope that they would survive is heart wrenching. Such a world we live in.