The Orphan Trains of America

‘And what an example of the power of dress young Oliver Twist was! Wrapped in the blanket which had hitherto formed his only covering, he might have been the child of a nobleman or a beggar;—it would have been hard for the haughtiest stranger to have fixed his station in society. But now he was enveloped in the old calico robes, that had grown yellow in the same service; he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once—a parish child—the orphan of a workhouse—the humble, half-starved drudge—to be cuffed and buffeted through the world, despised by all, and pitied by none.’

– Charles Dickens


During the difficult times of this 75-year stretch between the years of 1854 and 1929, American and new immigrant parents found it financially difficult to care for their children. This resulted in many parents abandoning their offspring; left on the streets of (mainly) New York to fend for themselves. Now subjected to disease and other dangers of living on the streets, children were left to beg, steal and in search of safe shelter for the night.

Thousands of children became part of The Orphan Train Movement, (also known as Mercy Trains) and were shipped to the Mid-Western states  where they became ‘house children’, or ‘workhouse children’. Some  were sent to good, loving homes and were cared for adequately, while many others found themselves in the most dreadful of homes where they endured many forms of abuse.

“Our Gang”, which became known later as “The Little Rascals” was a comedy television show created between 1922 and 1944 by Hal Roach, depicting what life was like for poor, neighbourhood children in  lighthearted fashion.



Between 1854 and 1929, nearly a quarter of a million orphaned children were resettled under what came to be known as the Orphan Train Movement.



It is estimated that between six and ten thousand children were settled in Iowa, with many Midwestern states taking similar amounts.



In 1849, New York’s chief of police decided to bring attention to the street children as the city simply did not have the infrastructure and services to deal with thousands of homeless children.



In 1853, Charles Loring Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society and the first Orphan Train left New York in 1854 with a goal of placing children in homes.



People who wanted a child could request specific attributes of the children they wanted to adopt.



Since many families did not want to take more than one child, some brothers and sisters riding on the Orphan Trains during the late 1800s and early 1900s had to be separated.



After being placed in six different homes,  3 brothers were placed with a family in Texas who raised them.



Eventually she was surrendered by her mother, allowing the Sisters of Charity to arrange for her travel to her new home on what was known as a Mercy Train.



It is estimated that there are now over two million descendants of Orphan Train riders.


Educational resource published by Iowa Public Television.
The West by Orphan Train documentary was produced by Colleen Bradford Krantz and Clark Kidder.
Video excerpts provided courtesy of Colleen Bradford Krantz and Clark Kidder.
© 2014 Colleen Bradford Krantz and Clark Kidder


– altered by Hystoria

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