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Orphan Trains a forerunner to the foster care system

Kay Vasilakis
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

PARACHUTE, Colorado ” New York City was a main port of entry for immigrants in the 1850s. Circumstances such as the death of one or more parents and relatives, alcoholism, an influenza epidemic and financial hardship caused many parents to abandon their young children.

Times were tough for orphans and neglected children in the big eastern cities. Swarms of homeless children roamed the streets for food and shelter, and faced horrible living conditions.

Charles Loring Brace, a young minister, founded the Children’s Aid Society in New York City in 1853 to raise the funding and arrange the trips for children to be sent to homes and farms in the West. After the Civil War and slavery was abolished, farmers needed help with their crops. One theory was that Orphan Train children would have the opportunity to learn a good work ethic.



Children were taken from the streets and ” between 1854 and 1929 ” more than 250,000 children rode Orphan Trains to unknown western locations. The children had no idea what “going out West” meant because most had never been outside the city streets.

When they arrived at a farming community, children would be lined up like cattle before crowds to be chosen by prospective parents. Children who were not chosen would continue riding the Orphan Trains, going from town to town, until they were chosen.



Some farmers used the children as hard laborers, and children were sometimes moved to other families because they just didn’t fit in.

The goal of the Orphan Trains was to provide children with a better life. Some of the children did find loving homes and were adopted. But some were not so lucky.

Brothers and sisters were broken up, and were terrified at facing new families alone. Many never saw their brothers or sisters again. Older children had no way to contact relatives, and they were told to never speak or think of their families.

During this period of American history, children had no rights. Child and welfare laws did not exist. The Orphan Trains were not the best answer to the huge orphan problem, but they attempted to find a solution and the children were given a chance to grow up in a better situation. The Orphan Trains concept helped form the laws that would protect future children.

The last Orphan Trains ran in 1929.

Information was compiled from The American Experience website, Outfitters.com, and the Children’s Aid Society website.


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