Society's across the generations have had to make hard decisions regarding how to handle children that are left destitute when parents die, abandoned by parents, when parents were not able to provide for their children, or parents who were not fit to raise children due to alcohol abuse or physical abuse of the children. As a result these abandoned children were left to their own devices to obtain shelter and food, often stealing, begging, selling matches and/or papers to support themselves. These children were labeled as "Street Arabs", "the dangerous classes", and 'street urchins" to name a few. In the mid 1800's and early 1900's of the United States history, these problems escalated and led Charles Loring Brace, a minister in New York, to found The Children's Aid Society in 1853 in New York City. Orphanages or asylums as they were called back then, did exist, but Charles L. Brace felt that it was not the best environment for children to grow and develop. Brace thought that the children would benefit from fresh air, work and a loving family and resulted in the birth of the Orphan Trains. Unfortunately the loving family life was not always the case and the child would have to be moved to another family.
In 1865, the New York Foundling Asylum was founded by the Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul. Beginning in 1872, the Asylum began to send children in trains out to families in the west. Indentured forms were filled out by the people accepting the child with indenture lasting until they were 18 years of age. The New England Home For Little Wanderers (NEHFLW) in Boston, Chicago Home Society, Minnesota Home Society, and other such societies also placed children with families on the frontier. Most children were never adopted into the families they went to but became indentured servants.
These trains were in existence from 1854 to 1930. During this time, approximatley 200,000 children were transported on The Orphan Trains to various destinations across the country. Please refer to the map on the right or you can view the map in a larger format by clicking on The Orphan Train Map. This map shows in numbers how many of these children were transported to each state. It was common to have children separated from their siblings, to not have birth certificates, and no further contact with their parents or siblings. In many cases the only legal document for the children would have been their baptismal certificate. By the age of 18, the children were released from their indenture and were expected to make their own way in life. Many of the states that received children from The Orphan Trains have sites that contain extracted information regarding the children that came to the state and who sponsored them as in the examples of the states of Kansas and Nebraska. The best way to determine if your state has a list would be to search on Google, Yahoo, or your favorite search engine.
The Orphan Train Collection and National Orphan Train Complex websites are available to read for further detail regarding these lost children of the United States. If you would like to read some personal accounts of a few of the children that were affected click The Stories of the Orphan Train Riders designed by D. Bruce Ayler one of the descendants of the Orphan Train Riders.
Below is a video about the Orphan Train Riders discussing the ancestor of D. Bruce Ayler. Enjoy!