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the Orphan Train Movement 1854 - 1929

From 1854 to 1929, an effort was made to place homeless children, mostly from New York City, in homes across the western United States. The main organizers of this movement were Rev. Charles Loring Brace's Children's Aid Society, and The New York Founding Hospital, operated by the Sisters of Charity.

The method of placement was unique. The children were taken by train to predetermined towns along the rail line. At each stop, the children were encouraged to sing or perform, and then were lined up to be looked over and adopted or indentured by interested townspeople. Those not selected went on to the next stop. While many children found new families and better lives, background checking was minimal, and many children were subsequently abused or exploited as unpaid labor.

Almost as bad, there were children on the orphan trains who weren't really orphans. They were children in temporary foster care, or sometimes just children who came from poor or homeless families. There is evidence that some parents were deceived into letting their children go, and that some children were falsely told that their parents were dead.

During the 75 years that it operated, somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 children were sent west. Billy the Kid was one of them.

  • 8,000 were placed in Iowa
  • between 5,000 and 6,000 were placed in Kansas
  • (more placement stats here as I find them)

In 1993, PBS aired an episode of The American Experience about the orphan trains and since then there has been a renewed interest in this chapter of US history. Today, there is even a series of children's books called "The Orphan Train Children" published by Random House.

The US wasn't the only country to have orphan trains: Many poor English children were forcibly or deceitfully emigrated to Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

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