Orphan Trains: Sent Children Away for Slave Work

Jhemmylrut Teng


The United States of America in the nineteenth century was a time of tremendous growth and change. It was a newly independent nation shifting from a farming economy to an industrial one. It was also the era of westward expansion, displacement of native people, civil war, and major advancements in technology.

It was also the time when overpopulation became a predicament to key cities in the country, such as New York. But the people who suffered most were children. American youth was not treated with much care and importance in society. Consequently, the number of orphans and homeless children ballooned rapidly.

At that time, the government did not have laws about foster care, but an independent system paved the way for the current one. And that was the Orphan Train Movement.

The operation took orphans and homeless children from New York and sent them to the Midwest, Canada, and Mexico. Sadly, these children may have found a new home, but not a family. They ended up being slaves, making up for the lack of labor force in America’s agricultural sector.

The industrial revolution, civil war, and the labor movement

Before the Orphan Train Movement occurred, we need to understand first what triggered the system to develop such a welfare program.

In the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, the United States experienced the industrial revolution, civil war, and the labor movement. These three events significantly contributed to the nation’s economic and social transformations.

Men involved in the civil war in the South left their wives alone, or even worse, widowed. Additionally, free land in the West was taken over by wealthy businesspeople and corporations.


Large cities on the East coast were crowded by immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and England to work in machine-operated factories. Due to capitalism, the “money aristocracy” was formed, creating a substantial social division, making the rich wealthier while the working-class stayed impoverished.

The injustice soon led to the labor movement, wherein industrial workers created unions to fight for their rights to get a wage increase, reasonable hours, and safe working conditions. The campaign orchestrated several protests and riots across the country, particularly in New York.

At that time, New York was the largest metropolis in North America, and it was the center of import and export trade. The town was too dense, and there were not enough jobs available because machines replaced thousands of human resources. As the City’s economy thrived, its social welfare sank horribly.

Poverty was evident in New York’s streets, filled with beggars, criminals, prostitutes, gamblers, and homeless people. The City’s condition reflected the gruesome consequences of capitalism, and the children, the most vulnerable population, suffered the worst.

Hiring children for austerity measure

At that time, child labor was standard practice in the United States. However, it had its zenith during the industrial revolution. Business owners hired children because they could be paid less; hence, they were less likely to organize unions. Their small stature enabled them to complete tasks in factories or mines that would be challenging for adults.


Children working in factories unavoidably lost fingers, arms, and legs as they were not equipped to operate heavy equipment.

“Workdays [for children] would often be 10 to 14 hours with minimal breaks during the shift. Factories employing children were often very dangerous places leading to injuries and even deaths. Machinery often ran so quickly that little fingers, arms, and legs could easily get caught. Beyond the equipment, the environment was a threat to children as well because the factories put out fumes and toxins. When inhaled by children, these most certainly could result in illness, chronic conditions, or disease.” — Eastern Illinois University

Working children were unable to attend school — creating a cycle of poverty that was difficult to break, especially in New York City.

Street children of New York

As many rural immigrants also flocked to New York, children had their competition in the job market. Affluent families started hiring local migrants as servants instead of children because these adults desperately accepted cheap labor. Consequently, it pushed children to live and work on whatever jobs they could find on the street. Some of them were as young as three years old.

Boys were usually seen selling newspapers, and they were called the “newsies.” They slept outside publication companies across New York, forming a queue at dawn to purchase newspapers and resold them to pedestrians.

Girls, on the other hand, were selling matches, flowers, or rags. These street children’s daily grind only earned pennies, and some of them even shared their earnings with their families.


The final decades of the nineteenth century were desperate times for working-class Americans. Parents could no longer provide food and shelter for their children. Therefore, these ragamuffins crowded the City’s streets, surviving on their own.

On October 3, 1869, the New York Times published an article that portrayed the City’s homeless kids as a “dangerous class.”

“Undoubtedly a multitude, powerfully large, of little orphans or half-orphans, or children cast out from their homes or who have been dropped here by the tide of emigration or have drifted in front the whole country around about, or who have run away, or are the offspring of drunken parents, and who live a vagabond life, preying on the community themselves by half-idle employment in the streets and docks.
From these come the pickpockets, petty thieves, small burglars, cotton baggers, copper stealers, young prostitutes, peddlers, street sweepers, and bootblacks that swarm in various parts of the City.”

The Children’s Aid Society

In 1850, New York had recorded over 30,000 homeless children. Charles Loring Brace, a young minister, was concerned with the plight of street children. He then founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1853. The charity organization primarily offered street boys religious guidance and vocational and academic instruction.

Eventually, Brace and his colleagues attempted to find jobs and homes for every child. However, they were soon overwhelmed by the number of homeless children in the City.

Sending children to the rural area via trains

To unclog the crowded streets of New York, Brace came up with the idea of sending the homeless kids to rural areas for foster care.

He also thought that farmers needed more workers in the countryside. So, they would welcome homeless children and treat them as their own.

“The best of all Asylums for the outcast child is the farmer’s home… emigration as a cure for Pauperism.” — Charles Loring Brace.

New York’s wealthiest families donated money to make Brace’s program feasible; the organization then began gathering groups of children to be sent westward. By October 1, 1854, the Orphan Train (initially called the “Mercy Train” or “Baby Train”) successfully sent their first forty-five children from New York to Michigan.


Adoption processes and advertisements

According to the Children’s Aid Society, applicants wanting to adopt a child should have had recommendations from a pastor or justice of the peace to ensure they are eligible guardians. Towns had prominent local committees responsible for arranging a site for the adoptions, advertisements, and lodging for the orphan train group.

Brace’s system put its faith in the kindness of strangers. Their new families were expected to raise them like their own, providing home, food, clothing, education, and $100 when they turned twenty-one. However, legal adoption was not a requirement as these children were expected to work on the farm and do chores in their new homes.

Representatives from the society were supposed to visit each family once a year to check on their conditions. If these children experienced abuse, the organization had the right to take the child back and transfer them to another family.

In 1869, another foundation opened, the New York Foundling Hospital, which nuns ran. They sent children as far as Canada and Mexico.

Placed-out versus auctioned children

There were two sets of children riding the orphan trains, those who were already “placed-out,” which meant, had a sure family to go to. The other one was up for “auction” once they arrived in town.

Some placed-out were previously “ordered” based on their foster parents’ requested physical classification and features such as gender, height, eyes, and hair colors. This happened to Sophia Kaminsky when the Dudas family adopted her in Minneapolis.

“A Minneapolis couple wrote to the New York Foundling Hospital in 1917 asking for a “brown-haired, brown-eyed girl around the age of 2.” Sophia Kaminsky, who had been left at the hospital as an infant, fit the bill.
On June 26, 1917, Sophia and 74 other orphans, accompanied by two nuns and eight nurses, boarded a train at Grand Central Station. Four and a half days later, Sophia, her name sewn into the hem of her dress, arrived at the Milwaukee Road Depot… The Dudas signed a receipt, promising to raise her as a Roman Catholic, send her to school and “give her all the advantages that we would give to a child of our own.” — Twin Cities Pioneer Press.

However, for those children who did not have placements, they had to stand on a platform, wear their best Sunday dress, and introduce themselves. Some of them even showcased their talents to the crowd, hoping that someone would be interested enough to take them.


During the “spectacle auction-like atmosphere,” these children often had “unpleasant experiences” while they were being examined publicly by potential foster parents.

“People came along and prodded them, and looked, and felt, and saw how many teeth they had.” — Prof. Sara Jane Richter, Oklahoma Panhandle State University.

Advertisement for arriving children

Before the children arrived at their destination, the local committee had to advertise them in local newspapers. The ad placement included the date, time, and venue where these children would be displayed.


Most of the time, babies were easily chosen, while the fourteen-year-olds and above had a hard time being selected. Many families were reluctant to select teenagers as they believed that “they were too set in their ways or might have bad habits.” Those children with health issues and those with mental and physical disabilities were also unlucky to be picked.

The language was also a factor. If the child could not speak English, local agents had to find suitable foster parents who spoke a similar language.

Part of the advertisement was to announce to the local community what to expect from the arriving children. Below is the example of a newspaper advertisement in 1893:

“All children received under the care of this Association are of SPECIAL PROMISE in intelligence and health, and are in age from one month to twelve years, and are sent FREE to those receiving them, on ninety days trial, UNLESS a special contract is otherwise made.
Homes are wanted for the following children: 8 BOYS: Ages, 10, 6, and 4 years; English parents, blondes. Very promising, 2 years old, blonde, fine looking, healthy, American; has had his foot straightened. Walks now O.K. Six years old, dark hair and yes, good looking and intelligent, American. 10 BABIES: Boys and girls from one month to three months. One boy baby, has fine head and face, black eyes and hair, fat and pretty; three months old.” — 1893 ad in the Tecumseh, Neb.

According to The Daily Independent report in 1912, the advertisements helped potential foster parents place their “orders” beforehand.

“Some ordered boys, others girls, some preferred light babies, others dark, and the orders were filled out properly and every new parent was delighted… They were very healthy tots and as pretty as anyone ever laid eyes on.”

Orphan trains: for better or for worse?

A study conducted by John Chiodo and Evette Meliza contested the ideals of handing children out to farm strangers. They said that only thirty-nine percent of these children were legit orphans, and the rest still had a parent alive.

Therefore, some children expressed “resentment” and “anger” once they discovered that they were being sent away.

When foster care meant farm work

In 1872, Thomas P. Norris, president of the Board of Commissioners of Kings County, complained that parents had been coerced into surrendering their children. Many were forced to board the orphan trains without the knowledge or consent of their parents.

At a Conference of Charities in 1893, an official from North Carolina charged the charity organizations of placing orphans with people who “treated them like slaves.”


Alexander Douthit was sent from New York to Iowa in 1922. His first foster parents abandoned him when they found out they were having a baby of their own. So, he was transferred to another farm family.

He said he was treated more like a “working slave instead of a son.” But he was given food, shelter, clothes, and primary education (although he was not allowed to play), so he can’t complain.

“My father ruled the home. It was not a home of family love. My father worked the farm and had no side interest. His belief was that young people were just workers and that he knew all the ways to work and how to work. I was really a hired man… At the age of nine, I was cultivating corn, harrowing, and plowing. At twelve years of age, I was following the threshing machine.” — Alexander Douthit

Orphan train riders were also instructed to forget their past and embrace their new identity. Siblings who rode the train together were separated from each other because each family generally accepted only one child.

At school, they were mocked for their situation. Most of the train riders kept their identity hidden for years to protect themselves from judgment.

Farm life was better than New York streets

Not all stories of orphan train riders were miserable. Most of them were grateful for their new lives, like Winefred Lorraine Williams, who adored her adoptive parents so much.

“ [I] couldn’t have been a more wanted or adored child. If I go to heaven, my eyes will search only for my adoptive parents. They gave me life.”

In this video, Bernadette Schaefer expressed her gratitude to her foster family. She was born in New York, and her mom was very sick. She was surrendered to the Foundling Hospital when she turned one in 1923.

The orphanage sent her to Nebraska, where the Nick family chose her; they soon adopted her when she turned eight. She loved her farm life playing with cats, dogs, pigs, and chickens.

“I couldn’t believe it. I felt wonderful because, for the first time in my life that I felt, I had home.”

End of an era

In the 1920s, the Orphan Train Movement was officially dismissed as more stringent laws were implemented against child labor. Also, the U.S. started executing a proper welfare system in taking care of orphans and abandoned children.

For seventy-five years of practice, the orphan train managed to send over 200,000 children all over the country to Canada and Mexico. The program did not only focus on New York but also other large metropolises on the East coast.


Some records claim that the Orphan Train Movement provided several orphans, abandoned, and homeless children a great life. Still, others argue it was a form of slavery, and in these modern times, it is easy to agree with the latter.

Cleaning New York’s streets and sending children to do farm labor was downright cruel. However, there were no clear regulations about children’s welfare at that time.

The Orphan Train Movement was an imperfect system, but it started to create a well-organized one. The orphan trains paved the way for the United States’ current foster care policies. Without it, imagine what sort of future New York would be offering to those children?

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I am a PR officer and a professional journalist with a master's degree in international development. I write history, geopolitics, food, and culture. Since I am a member of the API community, I make sure to highlight our stories to promote diversity and create awareness for cultural understanding.


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