Orphan Trains of the USA and Adoption

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National Orphan Train Complex
Between 1854 and 1930 between 150,000 and 200,000 children were shipped from the eastern USA to western states and territories. The operation was in some respects similar to that involved in the Child Migrants movement, but seems to have been more humane.

The children were not necessarily orphans: there were also children of single parents, street children, runaways, prostitutes, etc. Efforts were made to get parental consent where relevant, and the children were sent to individual foster and adoptive families, not to institutions.

The motivation was three-fold: to help populate the West by strong white people, to provide a better future for the children, and to rid eastern city streets of beggars and urchins. In some cases children were sent in batches, collected in a local opera house or similar large venue, and prospective parents (usually informally vetted beforehand by town worthies) would come and pick the child they wanted, just as one would chose a dog at an animal shelter, or the way slaves were sold.

The train would start out full, make a number of stops along its chosen route (advertised in the local newspapers in advance), gradually discharging its human cargo. This degrading treatment was avoided in other cases by attempting to match adopters' wishes with children selected by social welfare workers prior to shipment, so that each child was sent to a previously identified family.

Children were sometimes sent as indentured servants, little better than slaves, but most were destined for fostering and adoption, with the intention that they be fully absorbed into their new families. At least two children who were sent West under the scheme became successful, influential adults. Coincidentally they were sent to the same town in Indiana and were boyhood friends: Andrew Burke, later governor of North Dakota, and John Brady, later territorial governor of Alaska.


Warren, Andrea. Orphan Train Rider: One Boy's True Story. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996) Patrick, Michael; Sheets, Evelyn, and Trickel, Evelyn. We Are a Part of History. (Virginia Beach: Donning Co., 1990) Vogt, Martha Nelson, and Vogt, Christina. Searching for Home: Three Families from the Orphan Trains. (Grand Rapids: Triumph Press, 1986) Orphan Train Riders: Their Own Stories, edited by Mary Ellen Johnson. (Baltimore: Gateway Press, 1992-96) DiPasquale, Connie. "A History of the Orphan Trains." Available at: "The Orphan Trains: Transcript." Available at: There was a film made in 1979 called Orphan Train, starring Jill Eikenberry, Kevin Dobson, John Femia and Linda Manz Ayler, D. Bruce, editor. "The Orphan Train Collection." Available at: The Orphan Train Heritage Society of America publishes material about the children and the program