In the mid-19th century, it was estimated that approximately 30,000 abandoned children were living on the streets of New York. They were a mixture of orphans, foundlings, waifs, half-orphans, and street urchins.
But the term "orphan" is used loosely in many cases. Some children were true orphans, no parents, no other family to look after them, living on the streets, sleeping in doorways, fending for themselves by whatever means necessary. But many of these children had parents. The half-orphans, where one parent had died and the remaining parent could not care for them, were placed in an orphanage. Some children still had both parents, but were merely turned loose by the parents because the family had grown too large and they couldn't care for all the children. Some were run-aways...from abuse, drunkeness and other sad situations. And some parents believed their children would have a better life if sent to a caring family in the farmlands of the West. Also, many of the parents and children were immigrants who found life in America harder than they anticipated.
There were many more factors involved that placed the children in this situation, such as:
- Parental death due to disease, industrial accidents, starvation and the like.
- Neglect, abandonment, and prostitution.
- A huge over-population in the New York area due to massive immigration in the mid-19th century.
- The higher society generated an attitude that those in the lower classes didn't deserve help and that they were poor because they chose not to help themselves...therefore they "got what they deserved".
There were two main organizations that arranged for these children to be sent West. One was The Children's Aid Society and the other was The New York Founding Hospital. It was hoped by these organizations, that by sending these "orphans" out West to find new families they would have a better chance of leading a happy and productive life, than if left to fend for themselves on the streets of New York.
The name Orphan Train originates with the railroad trains that transported the children to their new homes. Their goal was to provide the children with a better life. Many of the children were not babies, but were in their teens when they were sent West. The results were mixed. In some cases, as adults, the orphan train riders were very positive about their adoptive family...they felt they were treated well and loved. Some of these children were actually adopted by their new families, but many were not. In some cases, the children were taken into a new home only for the work they were expected to do. Some were mistreated. Sadly, most of the time, siblings were separated from each other and consequently, from the only family they knew.
This Orphan Train movement began in 1854 and continued until 1930. It is estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 children were relocated to new homes via the Orphan Trains.
Family History research about Orphan Train riders is often a difficult undertaking. Records can be scarce. As adults, children often did not remember or did not discuss their previous life in the East. Many feel that contact with siblings and living relatives was discouraged...perhaps in an attempt to help the children adjust to their new home.