Between 1854 and 1929, “orphan trains” transported thousands of children from Europe and North America to the Midwest for auction at train stations, where townspeople would inspect teeth and eyes before selecting infants and older boys for traditional adoption or indentured servitude contracts.
Christina Baker Kline weaves history and fiction together seamlessly in this powerful novel set in contemporary Maine and Depression-era Minnesota. This moving tale depicts the upheaval and resilience of second chances and unexpected friendships.
The Orphan Trains and Newsboys of New York
By the mid-1800s, New York City had become home to many homeless and orphaned children; some suffered under poor living conditions in slums, while others had been abandoned by their families upon migration to America. While some found shelter in orphanages or sanitariums, most survived with assistance from family, strangers, or simply nature itself.
Charles Loring Brace envisioned an ambitious plan to rescue these children, known as orphan trains. In reality, this social experiment became part of America’s social experiment in child relocation and adoption between 1854 and 1929. These trains transported over 200,000 orphaned and unwanted children from eastern cities to rural towns in the Midwest for adoption or foster care placement – some were placed with loving parents, while many experienced abuse or neglect as they navigated adulthood.
Mail-Order Kid by Christina Baker Kline, one of bestselling author Christina Baker Kline’s debut novels, takes us on an orphan train journey seen through the eyes of an orphan girl as she comes to terms with both her past and future. A powerful yet touching narrative, Mail-Order Kid illuminates an often unheard-of yet historically significant event in American history.
This book chronicles the history of orphan trains over one century, from their introduction in the 1880s through state involvement in child welfare as they gradually replaced orphan trains in child welfare efforts in the 1920s. Additionally, this work examines any controversy that might have arisen regarding orphan train efforts, particularly from pro-slavery advocates who believed orphan trains supported slavery.
Orphan Trains is an engaging blend of history, biography, and fiction that provides us with a deeper understanding of America and its past. Told through two orphan train children’s accounts of cultural identity formation through everyday acts, its orphan train system was intended to give these children a sense of belonging while teaching them that their voices had a place in this world – thereby shifting our thinking of America itself and how its past was perceived.
Orphan Train Myths and Legal Reality
Charles Loring Brace was one of the first to recognize this problem and implement a solution with The Children’s Aid Society in New York City; orphanages already existed, but Brace wanted to relocate these street kids away from urban environments to farms so they could experience family, work, and fresh air that was otherwise lacking in big city living.
Finding homes for these children was no simple task, but society had an impressive track record in finding suitable ones. Orphan trains began in 1854 and operated until 1929 due to the declining need for farm labor; Midwestern towns could no longer support so many foster kids, and foster care services helped maintain families together.
Orphan train riders have reported on various experiences within their new families; some were loved deeply, while others were viewed as indentured servants. Later in life, orphan train riders shared their perspectives about life lessons they had gained as a result of riding this journey.
Though the orphan train era eventually came to an end, these children remain part of our history and culture. Estimates suggest there may be over two million descendants of these children today who can trace their lineage back to The Children’s Aid Society or New York Foundling Hospital and the trains that transported them to new families in the Midwest. Orphan train research helps families connect with these stories while uncovering their shared histories. The Genealogy Detective offers helpful tips, records, and links for researching orphan trains, New York City records, genealogy in general, or any related topic. Sign up now to get the latest NY records news as well as expert genealogy advice delivered twice monthly via our newsletter!
The Orphan Trains of the West
As American cities expanded, poverty followed suit – impacting children of all ages. Many went without jobs, food, or housing and turned to illegal acts as they struggled for survival – leading them down an unfortunate path that ultimately resulted in the Orphan Train Movement as one means of providing relief.
In 1854, 46 ten to 12-year-old children were transported from the New York Children’s Aid Society to Dowagiac, Michigan, via what became known as an orphan train. Both institutions were responsible for placing orphans from urban areas into rural families – often taking in offspring of poor parents unable to provide for them and putting them with permanent families in Dowagiac.
As each train stopped in a town, a hall or other location would serve as the place for the distribution of children. Once inside, children would be paraded through to meet interested individuals looking to adopt them and were often displayed so potential parents could prod and check teeth and assess the strength of these orphaned youngsters.
Some individuals, particularly leaders and politicians in philanthropic communities, were opposed to orphan trains. Many children who would have died due to urban poverty were saved thanks to riding the orphan train and went on to lead productive lives, raising children themselves. Although orphan trains weren’t the answer to urban poverty in themselves, they did provide some measure of relief, with many children who otherwise would have perished having gone on to lead productive lives with many descendants following in their wake.
The Orphan Train Era concluded in 1930 for various reasons. Many states passed laws restricting how many children could work at once, and programs were established to help families remain together. Today, the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America (OTHSA), located in Springdale, Arkansas, is working to spread knowledge about this vital piece of history as well as identify descendants of orphan train riders and connect them with descendants who may still exist today. Here, you can learn more about them and their efforts!
The Orphan Trains: A Story of Hope and Resilience
From 1854 to 1929, thousands of orphaned and abandoned children from cities like New York and Boston were transported on “orphan trains” westward for “adoption” by families who believed in hard work, education, and firm yet compassionate childrearing as the path to their success.
Christina Baker Kline has created an unforgettable novel of friendship and second chances in Orphan Train, the story of Molly Ayers and Vivian Daly. Through their shared experience and heartfelt conversations, these women find the strength to heal from deep wounds in themselves and each other.
Orphan Train will capture students’ interest with its fascinating subject matter that is both intriguing and historically significant to our country. A thrilling and engaging novel, Orphan Train shows students that stories have the power to change lives – showing that individuals truly do make an impactful difference!
Kline’s book will allow students to explore both historical and contemporary migration. Gaining a more excellent knowledge of immigration and integration into society will enable students to comprehend our nation’s current immigration debate better.
Students looking to expand on Kline’s novel may benefit from reading nonfiction works about orphan trains such as Marilyn June Coffey’s Mail-Order Kid, which offers a firsthand account from one rider’s point of view. This captivating and heartbreaking novel by Kline provides the perfect accompaniment for anyone interested in orphan trains and is an absolute must-read for students of history and literature. The author draws upon interviews with orphan train riders as well as institutional records and newspaper stories to create a comprehensive picture of their experience as Americans. Students will have an opportunity to compare and contrast challenges experienced by orphan train riders of differing ages, religious beliefs and family situations while exploring all facets of this remarkable 75-year phenomenon.