It is estimated that around 443,000 children are currently in foster care here in the United States. Around 123,000 of those children have been put up for adoption. What does it mean to be “put up for adoption?” Well, let’s take a look at United States history. 

What is an Orphan?

By definition, an orphan is “a child deprived by death of one or usually both parents.” While this may have been true in the 1800 and 1900s, today, any child placed into foster care can be considered an orphan. As stated in the article “Are Adoptees Orphans” many different situations can render a child an orphan. A child can be rendered an orphan even when the parents are still alive. In today’s society, parents who feel unfit to care for their newborns can take them to a hospital or fire station and just leave them there. These places are considered safe places because they can permanently give up their child without fear of prosecution. Children given up at these safe places are considered orphans. A child can be rendered an orphan when he or she is grossly neglected as is evident in the book Matilda

Not too long ago, my parents fostered a newborn who was abandoned at birth. While it was a very sad situation, it made it easier for the newborn to be put up for adoption. This baby is now living with his forever family and is thriving. If I were to define the term orphan by today’s standards, I would probably define it as “a child deprived of a parental figure by gross neglect or abandonment.” 

Who is Charles Loring Brace?

In the mid-1800s, roughly 250,000 children were found unattended throughout the United States and Canada. These children were orphaned, abandoned, and homeless, but not by any fault of their own. Some were abandoned by unfit parents while others were orphaned as a result of illness that swept the nation during this time. Often, these children turned to crime as a way to survive. According to Melissa Giarrosso, this became quite a problem in New York City. In 1853, a man by the name of Charles Loring Brace came along to see if he could solve the problem of unattended children. He believed that these children should have a stable home, education, and engage in gainful work. He founded the Children’s Aid Society as an effort to help these children find homes. 

The Orphan Train Movement 

In an effort to find homes for the 250,000 children, the Children’s Aid Society placed the children onto trains and relocated them to homes throughout the rural midwest. The trains stopped at predetermined locations where the children were “put up” for adoption. In some places, children would be put up on stage to perform or on stumps for invasive inspection. At each stop, families would choose children to “adopt.” Children were literally “put up for adoption.” 

Why So Many Children?

The need for the orphan trains arose out of an effort to reduce the number of children living on the streets. But why were there so many children? There are three main reasons for this: mass immigration, insufficient living conditions, and limited aid. In 1853, the United States saw a surge in immigrants from Europe as a result of political unrest, poor harvests, and famines in their homelands. These immigrants desperately wanted to live in the land of “milk and honey.” They were attracted by the railroad companies who promised opportunities and second chances. 

When they arrived, chaos ensued. Port cities such as New York City became overcrowded leading to scarce jobs, limited food supply, and disease. Young families fell apart and children began working to support the family. Job safety was not important, which left many men to be killed in accidents. Mothers became overworked and died from disease, leaving many children without families. Orphanages were built to house these children, but these became overcrowded as well, leading to many children being disposed of. Other forms of aid were available but many of the private organizations made up their own criteria for those that could seek aid. They discriminated based on race, nationality, religion, gender, marital status, and birth legitimacy, leading many families to not seek help. 

Conditions on the Orphan Trains

When the orphan train movement to put up children for adoption began, the cars that children rode in were just a little better than cattle cars with seats and make-shift bathroom facilities. As more money became available, better cars were able to be purchased. The last riders rode in Pullman cars. 

There were 30 to 40 children riding in the cars and they ranged in age from babies to teenagers. These children did not know what was happening to them. They were often told that they were going west, but they did not understand what this meant. The children were confused and frightened. In some ways, life was better as a result of these trains. Some children had the opportunity to attend school. For some children, though, riding these trains to be put up for adoption led to more hardships. 

Orphan Train Riders

Between 1853 and 1929, nearly 200,000 children rode the orphan train to the Midwest to be put up for adoption. From those 200,000 children, we can hear many stories. Below, you will find five stories of orphan train riders. Some of these people had a good experience and some endured many hardships. 

Charles Frederick 

On September 6, 1888, a 6-year-old boy who only spoke German arrived in Rockford, Illinois to be put up for adoption. Frederick, along with other children, was picked up in a covered wagon by a Durand farmer by the name of John Nelson. The roads were very rugged, which made it hard to travel overnight, so they stopped at a stage way station on Trask Bridge Road. They arrived in Durand the next day where they were put up for adoption by different farmers. Charles was “adopted” by an Irish family, the Lennons. 

Even though Charles had the opportunity to attend school, he was not happy. The Lennon family was not a warm family. Charles did not feel loved. When he was 17, Frederick ran away. Telling the Lennons he was going to the outhouse, he threw his clothes out the window and left. 

Charles was a hard worker, and he eventually worked for some farmers around Shirland and Harrison, ending up in Rockford later where he found his wife. They got married in 1911 and moved into a house in 1913 where they lived for 47 years. In 1960, the Frederick family moved to California and Charles died two years later at 80 years old. 

Irma Craig 

On June 25, 1898, in Manhattan, New York, a little girl was born to Walter and Lyda Steinberg Craig. A couple of months later, desperate circumstances left Lyda Craig with no choice but to give up her little girl, Irma. Craig’s mother took her to the New York Foundling Hospital, where she left Irma. 

When she was about three years old, Irma was put on a train with a group of children ranging in age from 15 months to five years old to be taken to the midwest where they were told they would find new families. Prior to their arrival in Osage City, the children were matched with their families. Irma was matched with a couple named George and Katherine Boehm from Schubert, Missouri. Irma got to attend St. Francis Xavier School where she found 10 other children from the orphan train. 

Seven years after arriving at the home of the Boehm family, Katherine Boehm passed away. When George realized how much Irma missed her momma Katherine, he decided to find her a new family. She eventually moved in with Adelheid Gnagi, where she had her own room and toys to play with. Irma eventually became a teacher and taught for three years before coming down with a chronic respiratory illness. She got married despite her frail condition and together with her husband, had eight children. She died in 1989 at the age of 91. 

Jean Sexton 

In 1912, a 35-year-old mother was widowed with five children after her husband died in an industrial accident in Brooklyn, New York. Six months later, she gave birth to her sixth child, a boy. The mother died 11 months after giving birth to her sixth child, leaving the grandparents to care for the six orphans. 

Unable to care for the children, the grandparents took them to the Children’s Aid Society, where they would eventually board an orphan train to be put up for adoption. At three years old, Jean Sexton was adopted by Walter and Margaret Landreth from Southwest Missouri. 

Jean lived a good life with the Landreths. They loved her. When Walter wanted her to have a pony, Margaret disagreed, claiming that Jean would get hurt. They compromised and got her a bike. When Walter’s niece moved in with them, Margaret helped the girls host parties for their friends. She taught both girls housekeeping and cooking. Jean had the opportunity to attend school and eventually graduated from business college at the height of the Great Depression. 

Jean lived a wonderful life. She married and had two sons. Her sons gave her four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. She died at the age of 94 in Longview, Texas. 

Clifton and Myrtle Jennings 

Clifton and Myrtle Jennings were born in Brooklyn, New York to Roscoe and Minnie Jennings. When Myrtle was 5, tragedy struck the Jennings family. Their father, Roscoe, died. It is unclear what caused his death. Due to their mother’s inability to care for the children, Cliff and Myrtle were admitted to the Home for the Destitute in Brooklyn. Three years later, in 1912, the Jennings children began their train ride. 

A home was found for the two in Wheeler, Arkansas with the Ben Shreaves family. Mrs. Shreaves had difficulty accepting the children as family and often punished them, leaving them to feel more like unpaid servants. Eventually, they left the home and found a new family to live with: the Porters. While living with the Porters, Clifton and Myrtle received an invitation from their grandparents to return to New York. Myrtle accepted the invite while Clifton declined. Clifton decided to move and lost contact with Myrtle. 

While Myrtle was living with her grandparents, she was able to reunite with her mother and older brother. It was not much of a warm reunion because Myrtle’s mother did not seem to want a relationship with her daughter. Myrtle eventually married in 1918 and Clifton married in 1929. Clifton and Myrtle endured some hardships throughout their lives, but they were also afforded some opportunities. Clifton passed away in 1984 and Myrtle passed away in 2002 at the age of 101. 

Alice Bullis Ayler 

In Cherry Valley, New York, Charles Bullis and Orena Woodbeck gave birth to their firstborn child, a beautiful baby girl. Born on June 29, 1919, Alice Bullis was the eldest of five siblings. Prior to being abandoned at the age of 9, Alice recalls living with her 4 younger siblings and her mother in a tent in upstate New York. She and her siblings were separated. Alice was taken to the Goodhue Estate where she lived for a year until she was taken to Kansas on an orphan train. 

Alice was one of the last three children to ride the orphan train. At eleven years old, Alice was considered too old to be put up for adoption. Instead, she was considered a “hired hand” and moved from family to family. These were some of the worst years of her life. She did not receive any pay and had no family or a place to call home. Alice eventually went to work for JC Penney at the age of 17 and married her high school sweetheart when she was 20. Though Alice endured hardship after being put up for adoption, she lived a wonderful life. She had two kids, one of which she adopted. Alice passed away in 2005 at the age of 85. 

Moving Forward

As we reflect on our history, we should be cautious as we put up children for adoption. While much has changed since the orphan trains, our foster care system could still use improvement. Many children move from home to home before finally finding a place to call home, but some children are never adopted, meaning they age out and have to find a place to live on their own with no family to support them. As we think about this, how can we improve our current foster care situation? 

Considering adoption? Let us help you on your journey to creating your forever family. Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98.