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This article originally appeared in "Business, Institution, and Organization Records" by Kay Haviland Freilich, CG, CGL, and Ann Carter Fleming, CG, CGL in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy
“They put us all on a big platform in some big building while people came from all around the countryside to pick out those of us they wished to take home. I was four years old, and my sister was only two . . .”
The Orphan Trains moved children out of New York City, traveling to the midwest and beyond. Some children had a wonderful life with their new family, while others were not so fortunate. Some children disappeared into the countryside; others became prominent citizens, politicians, and family members. The Orphan Trains were a project conceived by the Rev. Charles Loring Brace of the New York Children’s Aid Society with the goal of moving the homeless and helpless children from the streets of the city and finding them homes in more rural areas of the midwest and west. Ironically, the Children’s Aid Society did not itself operate any orphanages during the placing-out period (see this site). Before long, other charitable organizations in New York and Boston had joined the program, and by the end of the 1800s, charities in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois adopted the program and sent children to states farther west. Between 1853 and 1929, some two hundred thousand children rode the trains.
Records of the transfers may be found at the city asylums that participated in the project or in the deed books of the courthouses of the counties that received the children. Deed books were commonly used to record the adoptions of children (usually males under the age of ten and young females) or the apprenticeships (usually males ten and over). But, do not overlook justice of the peace dockets, guardians’ records, county order records, and board of supervisors minutes, among other county records.
An indenture dated 15 December 1860 and recorded in Marion County, Illinois, is between the New York Juvenile Asylum and a farmer named Clifton R. Wills. The agreement outlines the duties of Wills, who is accepting ten-year-old Cornelius Shay as an apprentice. Wills is to instruct Shay in “the art of farming” and in “reading, writing, and arithmetic, as least as far as and including Compound Interest.” Wills also agreed to “carefully watch over and guard the morals of the said apprentice, and prevent him from frequenting taverns, porterhouses, play-houses, or gaming houses of any kind.”
The Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, Inc., P.O. Box 322, Concordia, Kansas 66901 functions as a national clearinghouse for all information about the program. Recollections of Orphan Train riders have been published in several sources; one example is Johnson’s Orphan Train Riders: Their Own Stories. Several websites are available to help researchers trace those who might have ridden the trains.
Other sites offer a history of the program and are valuable to understanding how the trip away from home and all that was familiar affected these children. A good history can be found at http://www.kancoll.org/articles/orphans/or_hist.htm and http://www.ancestry.com/library/view/ancmag/701.asp includes eyewitness accounts.
Contact information for some of the organizations that participated in the Orphan Train follows:
- Children’s Aid Society
- Office of Closed Records
- 150 East 45th Street
- New York, NY 10017
- New England Home for Little Wanderers
- 850 Boylston Street, Suite 201
- Chestnut Hill, MA 02167
- New York Children’s Aid Society
- 105 East 22nd Street
- New York, NY 10021
- New York Juvenile Asylum Alumni Affairs Children’s Village
- Dobbs Ferry, NY 10007
- New York Foundling Hospital Records Office
- 113 Third Avenue
- New York, NY 10021
- Researching Business, Institution, and Organization Records
- List of Useful Business, Institution, and Organization Resources
- Marilyn Irvin Holt, “Orphan Train Genealogy,” at http://www.ancestry.com/library/view/ancmag/701.asp.
- Mary Ellen Johnson, comp., Orphan Train Riders: Their Own Stories (Baltimore: Gateway Press, 1992).