During the Roaring Twenties: Orphan Trains

Children's Aid Society

In the 1853, the New York Children’s Aid Society sent out letters to various individuals to see if they would be willing to house an orphan child in exchange for that child working on their farm, in their home, or in their place of manufacture. If the people were willing to accept a child, then the Children’s Aid Society would send an orphan out by train. This is where the nickname “Orphan Trains” came from, although officially the program was called the “placing-out system” because the children were being placed out to these individuals. Through the following decades, more and more children were sent out to these places. By the end of 1890, the Children’s Aid Society had sent out a total of 92,292 children from New York City and the surrounding area, to various farms and families that lived in places from Florida to Texas.

Placing-out System

The children who were sent out using the “placing-out system” were not sent out blindly. Six weeks before the children were sent to a particular area, ads were placed in the local newspaper to see if there was interest amongst the people in the area in receiving kids in order to put them to work on a farm or in the house. The Society would also send out circulars to the local churches looking for individuals to care for the children. Once the Society found an area where individuals were interested, the children were usually sent out in large groups and were usually accompanied by a respectable adult, such as a pastor or a banker. This respectable adult would act as an agent of the Society. The agent and the child would then meet with the family and make the appropriate arrangements for the child to stay with that family for a night to see if the child would get along with the family. If the family or the child had any problems, the child would either go to another family or the child would return to New York with the agent. If the family and the child got along, then the child stayed with the family. The family that received the child agreed to provide for their education and other various needs. The family and the child were both asked to maintain correspondence with the Society to let the Society know how things were going with the family. If for any reason the family or the child were not able to fulfill their side of the agreement after the family received the child, the Society would pay to have the child sent back to the Society so that the child could be placed with another family.

Outcomes of the System

The outcomes of this placing-out system varied, but were generally positive. Among those who were counted as alumni, also known as “Orphan Train Riders,” of the placing-out system were 946 soldiers, 450 businessmen, 81 teachers, 34 lawyers, 26 bankers, 17 doctors, two state governors, one territorial governor, one United States Commissioner, and one member of Congress. Stanley Cornell, one of the last surviving “Orphan Train Riders,” recalls his journey with his younger brother, Victor Cornell, as one that felt like the people were inspecting you “like cattle farmers.” Their mom had just died and their dad, who was a WWI veteran, was suffering from “Shell Shock” (now diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD). Their dad felt like he could not properly raise them in his mental state, so he contacted the New York Children’s Aid Society to place his children in a good home. Stanley explained that at each place they stopped on their journey, they were dressed in their best clothes and people inspected them to see if they wanted to adopt them. If they were not chosen, then they moved onto the next stop. A farmer in Texas named J.L. Deger, along with his wife, adopted Stanley and Victor and raised both boys on a farm. Stanley speaks fondly of the life that he was given. "I did have to work and I expected it, because they fed me, clothed me, loved me. We had a good home. I'm very grateful. Always have been, always will be" said Stanley. Partly because of his experience as an adopted child, Stanley and his wife, Earleen, have adopted two more children.

Experiences of the Orphan Train Riders

Not everyone had such a happy story. There were stories of abuse or neglect, but there were very few of those. Many of those who did suffer abuse after being placed with a family would be relocated once they either wrote to the Society themselves or the agent who placed them came back to check on them later. One example of a child being moved from such a situation was Claretta Miller. She was born in New York and suffered neglect from her alcoholic birth mother. According to her information at the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, reprinted in the book We Rode the Orphan Trains, her and her sisters were undernourished, covered in lice, and slept on dirty mattresses that rats ran across while they slept. Eventually, after she was rescued by the New York State authorities, she was placed with the Society. At first, she was sent to live with a German family that was simply looking for a servant to help with the nine kids they already had. The Society removed her from that family and, after a few more attempts to place her with a decent family, she ended her Orphan Train journey with the Carman family. Claretta remembers the first night she spent with the Carman family. “When I was put to bed that night, the floodgates opened wide and I cried my heart out. Mrs. Carman had never had any children of her own. She had a heart as big as all outdoors. She stayed with me until the tears were over and I at last fell fast asleep.”