The Orphan Train Experience

Michael Tran

The Orphan Train (U. Utah Phillips)

What was the Orphan Train Experience?

The Orphan Train Campaign was an overseed welfare project that relocated about 250,000 homeless orphans from the eastern towns of the United States to the foster homes of the Midwest where they could live and work. The Orphan Train Campaign operated between 1853 and 1929, relocating homeless orphans ranging from one year to seventeen years of age. These homeless orphans came mostly from New York and Boston and were often separated from their siblings during relocation. Some never saw their siblings again.

Why did this happen?

Between 1847 and 1860, extensive numbers of immigrants overwhelmed New York. There wasn’t enough money circulating so poverty and illness crowded the streets. Parents would often become sick and perish, leaving thousands of homeless orphans to resort to crime to survive. Simultaneously, the midwestern farmers endured a horrendous labor deficiency.

Who were the Orphan Train Riders?

The Orphan Train Campaign was proposed by civil welfare anarchist Charles Loring Brace of Children’s Aid Society in New York. Brace gave the homeless orphans an opportunity to live and work with another family. The orphan trains were chaperon by Catholic nuns, relocating homeless orphans throughout Canada and forty-seven states. At each stop, the homeless orphans were selected by the people who were waiting for them. Sometimes, matches were pre-made in advanced. Most of the homeless orphans were ultimately adopted and some were not. These unfortunate souls were indentured to qualified farmers.

How were the riders treated?

The Orphan Train Campaign supplied countless homeless orphans with a home at an arduous time. Many were loved and treated very nice; however, many were not. Many were separated from their families for forever.