September 25th, 2013

All Aboard the Orphan Train

The thing I like most about genealogy is that there is always something new to learn. Researching our ancestors puts us in touch with so many historical events and information we would probably not otherwise know. Something very interesting that I discovered recently was how orphans were placed on trains running out of New York City, and transferred to different areas around the country where they were put on display to prospective parents. Many were blessed with a wonderful new life with a loving family, but others were not so fortunate. Some disappeared along the way,; others went on to become prominent citizens and politicians.

The project of the Orphan Trains was the brainstorm of the Rev. Charles Loring Brace of the New York Children’s Aid Society. His idea was to move homeless and helpless children from the streets of the city to more family oriented rural areas around the country, specifically the west and mid-west. Before long other charitable organizations in New York and Boston joined the program, which by the end of the 19th century had spread to charities in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. It is estimated that between 1853 and 1929 that more than 200,000 orphans rode the trains.

On arriving at their destination, orphans were displayed very much in the manner that slaves were. This is revealed in the description relayed by one such orphan who rode the train. He said; “They put us all on a big platform in some big building while people came from around the countryside to pick out those of us they wished to take home.” This type of scenario was especially popular during the period between the civil War and the Great depression, when many became orphaned due to the death of one or both of their parents, or who were abandoned by parents who could not afford to care for them.

Of course, records were created in the process, and in the early history of the trains these records were generated in county courts by town and county clerks. Many were bound out to learn a trade, while those who were too young to work were sent to county institutions, usually maintained on a local level. Thus, county court records or probate records may provide the date that the child was apprenticed or institutionalized.

Orphanages maintained by state or local governments often kept better records than private agencies, and their records usually include:

  • Name of the child
  • Age of the child
  • Name of birthplace
  • Names of parents
  • Date of admission
  • Name of next of kin (if no parents)
  • Date of discharge
  • Name of person indentured to

These records are generally well maintained, and if the orphanage still exists, they can usually be found there. The records of state operated orphanages can be found in the state archives, or with the state’s Department of Social and Welfare Services. If you need to search for the records of an orphanage that operated privately or below state level, you may find them with the town, city, or county clerk. Local historical and genealogical societies may also be of tremendous help.

The information found in orphanage records can be critically important to the family historian. It is important to orphans seeking their birth family, and those trying to find relatives who were adopted by another family. A lifeline for adoptees in tracing their birth families is a registry known as The International Soundex Reunion Registry. It is a registry where by mutual consent, people who are either searching or would like to be found, can enter their personal information in order to be connected with those searching for them, and of course like all of our resources, it is free!