Orphan Trains: have they Gone out of the Way

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In the 1850s, there were a large number of orphans on the streets of New York. A man named Charles Brace wanted to change that, so he proposed the idea of placing children on trains and sending them West. The barrier Brace faced was the fact that nobody wanted to help, or thought it was a bad idea and considered it as selling children for labor. Brace overcame this by satisfying the people through social programs which led to the creation of child labor laws, and later, the foster care system we have today.


Before the orphan train movement, the streets of New York were overruled with crime, poverty, and a whole generation of orphans who had no education or morals. In the mid 1800’s, there were an estimated 34,000 orphaned children on the streets of New York. Many of these children were technically not even orphans, they were either unwanted or their parents were unable to care for them due to poverty, so the children had turned to the streets to care for themselves.

After the end of the Age of Revolution in Europe in 1849, many European immigrants had been coming to America to start new lives, and settling in New York. This created a fluctuation in the economy, since there were thousands of immigrants arriving up through the early days of the revolution and into the 1900’s. Many of these immigrants were already in poverty when they arrived in New York. Though poverty had always been an issue, the amount of children on the streets in New York had been greatly increasing due to the amounts of immigrants arriving from Europe.

The Children’s Aid Society and the New York Foundlings Hospital were two organizations involved in attempts at creating a plan to help remove these children from their environment and get them help. In 1869, the New York Foundlings Hospital had begun taking in orphaned infants and young children, and later sending them to the CAS(Children’s Aid Society) The number of orphaned children continued to increase after the civil war, and many small groups also started taking these children into group homes, which would become what is known as an orphan asylum.


The barrier that was being created was the attitudes of the people of New York towards both children, and anyone trying to immigrate children. No one wanted to associate with what they considered to be “street rats,”, but the uneducated, moraless children were becoming an issue, and became known as the “Dangerous Classes of New York.” Since these kids had no one to take care of them, they took care of themselves by partaking in criminal activities such as theft or street violence. There were an estimated 4,000 imprisoned criminals in New York under the age of 21, consisting greatly of orphaned children. The issue was that people did not want all these homeless children on the streets, but at the same time no one wanted to step in, nor knew how to, or the people who were trying to do something were looked down upon. Charles Loring Brace once said, “When a child of the streets stands before you in rags, with a tear-stained face, you cannot easily forget him. And yet, you are perplexed what to do. The human soul is difficult to interfere with. You hesitate how far you should go.”

Charles Loring Brace was born in Connecticut on June 19th, 1826, to Lucy and John Brace. He was raised by his father due to his mother’s absence in his childhood. In his mid twenties, Brace attended Yale, and was later ordained in 1849 as a congregational minister. In 1854, Charles Brace was living in New York with his wife, and writing columns for the New York Times. He had been writing about poverty in New York. As he continued to explore into the situations of the class of people living in poverty, he realized that he would much rather be doing something about it rather than write about it, so he began working towards finding a way to give the street children better lives. What inspired Brace the most was his desire to help and give orphans a decent chance at turning their lives around. Seeing all these children every day most likely pushed him to do something about it. He described it as his “Christian Duty.”

Charles Brace was a minister in the 1850’s, during the same time that Harriet Tubman had escaped slavery, and as conflict was increasing between the north and south, which would soon become the Civil War. He came to New York to be a reverend, but once he saw the extreme poverty and the large number of youth on the streets uncared for, he knew that he had to do something about it. In his book, Brace says “ the cheapest and most efficacious way of dealing with the 'Dangerous Classes' of large cities, is not to punish them, but to prevent their growth.

Breaking Barriers

Some people thought that Braces’ intentions to immigrate children west on trains was just to rid society of young criminals in a selfish way, and Brace once described his plan as, “moral and physical disinfectant.” They were not happy with him and his idea to immigrate children west. They saw it as a quick easy way to solve a problem that would benefit themselves more than the destitute children they were trying to save. The Orphan Train Movement was not an original idea, but it had never been done in America. “Placing out” orphans on trains was first done in Europe, and did not work very efficiently, resulting in more abuse than help. Looking back at the other orphan trains from Europe, trying this in America did not look promising. But what choice did they have? The amount of orphans was a strain on New York’s society, and something needed to be done to fix it. But would “placing out” really be beneficial, or would it be an invitation for abuse to the orphans and free labor for farmers out west, where the demand for labor was extremely high?

Before Brace could place out children on trains, he needed to create an organization to organize and fund the trains. He founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1853, which was a group of social reformers, including Brace, who wanted to begin putting orphans on trains as soon as possible. Reverend W. C. Van Meter, a friend of Charles Brace, was arrested in Illinois, 1857, for “bringing paupers into the state.” He had only brought two children to Illinois, so how was Brace supposed to bring thousands?

The reason that people were so upset about Charles Brace wanting to send orphans west was that it could result in farmers adopting them just to use as free labor on farms, and result in overwork and neglect, which is what happened in Europe. As secretary of the Children’s Aid Society, Brace had began planning the first orphan train. The CAS had been working with the Five Points Mission, another group of social reformers looking to help orphans, and they had created an adoption plan that would allow children to be adopted into families that would be notified of their arrival, and waiting for them to arrive on the trains. Members of the CAS would than meet the families to see if they were decent people that would not mistreat the children. They also planned to have the CAS members visit regularly in order to check up on the children.

Knowing that there was a plan to ensure children’s safety, philanthropists, including members of the Roosevelt, Astor, and Dodge families began coming forward with the intentions of supporting the CAS and the orphan trains. Now that Brace had the plan and the funds, all he needed was a group of orphans to send out. Brace had overcome the barrier that was the people of New York who did not agree with and would not fund the trains, by creating a plan that would attract well to do people so he did not have to go through the public. Now all that was left was to find people that were willing to take in the orphans once they were sent west. 

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Orphan trains: have they gone out of the way. (2021, Oct 12). Retrieved April 18, 2024 , from

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