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  Cover Story November 11th, 2010     



by lyle e davis

Societies 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."

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 these ideas 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. Most children were never adopted into the families they went to but became indentured servants.

Between 1854 and 1929, an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 impoverished, orphaned, and abandoned children were placed on trains by the Children's Aid Society and The New York Foundling Hospital and sent by "Orphan Trains" to farming communities, primarily in the Midwest, to be adopted out to good homes. In fact, many of these children were not orphans at all, but had parents who were unable to care for them.

Some orphan train riders found loving families and were adopted; others were regarded as cheap labor and worked long hours at home or in the fields. Changing attitudes toward keeping families together, new state and local laws funding foster care and prohibiting out-of-state placement, and child labor legislation brought about the end of the orphan trains in 1929.

Harper's New Monthly Magazine, August 1873, praised the "placing-out system" of the Children's Aid Society in New York as "an ingenious effort for the benefit of the destitute children of the city."

Over 3,000 children arrived in Minnesota from The New York Foundling Hospital alone. Minnesota is believed to have the largest number of surviving Orphan Train riders of any state. Nebraska had 3,442 children arrive on the Orphan Trains.

These are some of the stories:

My great grandfather and his older sister rode on the Orphan train from Brooklyn New York to Ottawa, Kansas, in 1914. He was only 4 1/2 at the time. He says he remembers the walk across the stage to be selected from a large pool of children. He remembers the flyers that informed the towns people that the trains of orphans were coming. It is really a sad story, but my great grandfather insists that his experience is different from most of the others he has heard over his lengthy life. He is 99 years old and still living. My great grandfather credits the experience of the orphan train for his family outcome. He and his sister were adopted by a childless couple and raised in a loving enviornment! He is lucky. In his own words "The trains should be remembered for the good they did." - - leslie

My grandfather and his brother rode the orphan train from NYC to Kansas in 1906. When I speak to genealogical societies, community groups and schools, it is amazing how many people have never heard of the orphan trains or if they have heard, they know very little. My prayer is that the over 200,000 children who were forced onto the trains and told not to speak of it, will regain their place in history.” Donna Aviles

In 1925, my brother Fred Swedenberg and I were removed from our home in upstate New York because of neglect. I was three and my brother was six.

We went to an orphanage and were later shipped to New York City and placed on a train with several other children and sent to the Midwest to live in a foster home. We were separated and went to different homes at Osceola, Nebraska. He was placed in Clarks Nebraska. I went to Stromsburg Nebraska. We both received good homes. We were lucky. Some children were not so lucky, as some were abused.

There were around 150,000 to 200,000 children who were dispersed in this fashion between 1854 and 1926. We are becoming extinct as all of us are now over the age of 75.”

Howard Hurd. Howard Hurd died 17 January 2002.

My grandmother, Rose Sedlacek Marlin, never told us much about her life. She had mentioned once or twice that she once had brothers living around the Omaha, Nebraska area, but that was about it. After her death in 1982, while going through a box of things left to me, I came across an old picture post card of the Turkey Creek. On the back was inscribed "This is near where I used to play as a young girl while in Pawnee City". How had she gotten THERE? Why had she been there? My quest for information had started!

I had heard about the Orphan Trains so on a whim contacted the Children's Aid Society in New York City and to my amazement Mrs. Helen Steinman replied to my letter. "I am writing in reply to your request for information about your grandmother Rose or Rosa Sedlacek and her two brothers, Charles and Frank. According to our records they came into the care of The Children's Aid Society on or about August 6, 1906 when their father surrendered them. Their mother had died on October 2, 1905, and their children had been at a children's home, Five Points House of Industry, for about eight months. At that time the father's health was poor, and he could not support them. The father was Anton or Anthony Sedlacek, a brushmaker, born in Bohemia. The mother's maiden name was Rosa Mutuchik. She also was born in Bohemia. The three children were born in New York City. We have Rose's date of birth as February 11 1895; but in a letter from her father he said she was born on February 8, 1895. Charles was born in May 1900; and Frank was born in May 1902. All three children were placed with families in Pawnee, Nebraska.

Rose was placed with Mr and Mrs. C.R. Miles who were described as well to do retired farmers. They bought a piano for Rose, and she learned to play very well. In school she was at the top of her class. Not only was Rose musical, but her brother, Frank, was said to be a musical prodigy. He also did well in school. Charles, too, was a bright boy.

Through the years their father wrote numerous letters to The Children's Aid Society. He was living and working in Chicago, Illinois and he was in good health. He wrote to inquire about his children. His letters were answered, and he received pictures of the children."

(Rose died in 1982 at the age of 86, Charles in 1995 age, 95, and Frank, 1992, age 90.)

Memories of Frank Sedlacek Booth:

One case worker from the Children's Aid Society of New York took us to Nebraska by train, commonly known as the Orphan Train. According to Aunt Nellie Thieman, there were seven children brought to Pawnee City, Nebraska by one caseworker. I don't remember why, but I remember having a fried egg for breakfast.”

We were all taken to the Opera House, which was the largest public place in town. Traveling operas and entertainers played there. It was like a theater and real nice. We were put on the big stage and sat on the chairs placed there for us. Aunt Nellie said I was the last child to be selected as I was the youngest. Not very many people wanted a four year old. Aunt Nellie said she skipped school one day to go look at the children to be given away. She knew her brother and his wife wanted one of them, preferably the youngest. She watched us play violins with the corn stalks we found. This is probably true, as I understand it we were a very musical family. Everyone sang and played musical instruments. I was selected by Louis A. Booth and his wife Mary (May) Price Booth. I can't remember going home with them, but I do remember not liking the food so well. Mother Booth said I didn't like gravy at all.

The Memoirs of Charles Sedlacek, Frank’s brother:

Charles SedlacekAbout the only thing I remember about the trip to Nebraska was crossing the Mississippi River. Our train, an engine and four or five cars, was put on a barge and taken across the river.

I think there was eight of us kids on the stage to be given away. I was selected by the Slack family and remember going home with them in a spring wagon behind a team of mules. I was six years old. Mr. and Mrs. Slack had lost two daughters before they took me. Later they had three boys, Bill, Harold and George (Reed). Mother Slack died in childbirth when I was twelve years old. The youngest boy, George, was adopted by the Reed family as he was too little for Dad to care for. When I was about eighteen years old, Dad bought a pair of mules. I told Dad they were mean, that they had tried to crush me between them, but I had jumped out of the way just in time. The very next day Dad was killed by those mules the same way they tried to get me. Now I was an orphan, AGAIN!

During the orphan train trip, children were accompanied by a placing agent. The trains stopped in scheduled locations. Children usually lined up in front of prospective takers on a platform or at a meeting hall. They were encouraged to look and act their best. Inspection sometimes involved poking and prodding; an attempt to ascertain their value as workers on farms or in local shops and businesses. Children that were not selected returned to the train to travel on to another stop.

Children sometimes moved from family to family, until they finally were on their own. And some of the children were difficult, incorrigible, and delinquent. Billy the Kid was an orphan train child.

Elliot Bobo was eight years old when he was put on a train. His mother had died when he was two. "Far as I know, my father hit the bottle pretty heavy, and they took us away from him." The Children's Aid Society gave him the small suitcase he still has. "I had all my possessions in there, which wasn't much. No shoes, just a change of clothes."

He did not know--no one knew--where he or the other children would wind up.Wanted

Placement into new families was casual at best. Handbills heralded the distribution of cargoes of needy children. As the trains pulled into towns, the youngsters were cleaned up and paraded on makeshift stages before crowds of prospective parents. Elliot Bobo remembers the ordeal:

A farmer came up to me and felt my muscles. And he says, "Oh, you'd make a good hand on the farm." And I say. "You smell bad. You haven't had a bath, probably, in a year." And he took me by the arm and was gonna lead me off the stage, and I bit him. And that didn't work. So I kicked him. Everybody in the audience thought I was incorrigible. They didn't want me because I was out of control. I was crying in the chair by myself.”

Elliot Bobo eventually found a warm and loving home. The Children's Aid Society liked to point with pride to other success stories, like those of street boys Andrew Burke and John Brady who grew up to become governors of North Dakota and of Alaska, respectively.

Historian Rene Wendinger of rural Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, tells of many incidents in her recent book, "Extra! Extra! The Orphan Trains and Newsboys of New York," "I included the New York newsboys because I don't believe they've been given the attention that I do in my book," she said.

That's because the newsboys were most often orphans who had taken to the street to earn money the best way they could.

A major reason was that many people were willing to take a girl to be a servant while many didn't feel that boys could be of good use, she explained.

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.

In her book, Wendinger paints a picture of New York City when immigrants by the thousands crammed themselves into tenement housing, clamoring for employment.

Immigrants' dreams of America were dashed by the harsh reality of the streets. Families were forced by simple economics to give up their children, Wendinger wrote.

Newborns were handed off to churches, and mere youths were left to fend for themselves as newsboys or bootblacks.

Times were challenging, but those people with vision found ways to make a difference in those children's lives, she wrote. Indeed, Wendinger’s own mother, Sophia Kral, was one of those children who ended up alone and riding the "orphan" trains in search of a better life in the Midwest or the western United States.

Boys on TrainThe story of this ambitious and finally controversial effort to rescue poor and homeless children begins in the 1850s, when thousands of children roamed the streets of New York in search of money, food and shelter--prey to disease and crime. Many sold matches, rags, or newspapers to survive. For protection against street violence, they banded together and formed gangs. Police, faced with a growing problem, were known to arrest vagrant children--some as young as five--locking them up with adult criminals.

That’s when, in 1853, a young minister, Charles Loring Brace, became obsessed by the plight of these children, who because of their wanderings, were known as "street Arabs." A member of a prominent Connecticut family, Brace had come to New York to complete his seminary training. Horrified by the conditions he saw on the street, Brace was persuaded there was only one way to help these "children of unhappy fortune."

"The great duty," he wrote, "is to get utterly out of their surroundings and to send them away to kind Christian homes in the country."

In 1853, Brace founded the Children's Aid Society to arrange the trips, raise the money, and obtain the legal permissions needed for relocation. Between 1854 and 1929, more than 100,000 children were sent, via orphan trains, to new homes in rural America. Recognizing the need for labor in the expanding farm country, Brace believed that farmers would welcome homeless children, take them into their homes and treat them as their own. His program would turn out to be a forerunner of modern foster care.

Orphan Trains did have some difficulties. Things didn’t always work out as hoped.

Orphan trains were the target of law suits, generally filed by parents seeking to reclaim their children. Suits were occasionally filed by a receiving parent or family member claiming to have lost money or been harmed as the result of the placement.

A more complicated lawsuit arose from a 1904 Arizona Territory orphan train placement in which the New York Foundling Hospital sent 40 Caucasian children between the ages of 18 months and 5 years to be indentured to Catholic families in an Arizona Territory parish. The families approved by the local priest for placement were identified in the subsequent litigation as “Mexican Indian.

Nuns escorting these children were unaware of the racial tension between local Anglo and Mexican groups, and placed Caucasian children with Mexican Indian families. A group of white men, described as “just short of a lynch mob,” forcibly took the children from the Mexican Indian homes and placed most of them with Anglo families. Some of the children were returned to the Foundling Hospital, but 19 remained with the Anglo Arizona Territory families.

The Foundling Hospital filed a writ of habeas corpus seeking the return of these children. The Arizona Supreme Court held that the best interests of the children required that they remain in their new Arizona homes. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court found that a writ of habeas corpus seeking the return of a child constituted an improper use of the writ. Habeas corpus writs should be used “solely in cases of arrest and forcible imprisonment under color or claim of warrant of law,” and should not be used to obtain or transfer custody of children.

These events were well publicized at the time with newspaper stories titled “Babies Sold Like Sheep,” telling readers that the New York Foundling Hospital “has for years been shipping children in car-loads all over the country, and they are given away and sold like cattle.”

Charities attempted to guarantee successful orphan train placements by agreeing to remove children from failed placements and, where necessary, transport the child back to the charity’s Eastern office at the charity’s expense.

The need for the orphan train movement decreased as legislation was passed providing in-home family support.

RifenburgCharities began developing programs to support destitute and needy families limiting the need for intervention to place out children. State and local governments funded foster care for orphans while compulsory education and anti-child labor statutes were also being passed. Social work had become a profession and social workers began to focus on keeping families together.

Hull House and other similar programs were established in urban areas to provide in-home assistance for families and children. In 1909, Theodore Roosevelt called the first White House Conference on Children, which directed state and federal bodies to implement programs designed to aid destitute children and their families.

Urbanization of the western states together with the growth of other programs, and strategies to support these needy children eliminated the need to use railroads to move children to the west.

In 1929 the orphan trains stopped running.

The orphan train movement has been credited with establishing modern day adoption laws.

During the 75 years of the orphan train movement, adoption laws grew and evolved as part of society’s growing recognition of a need to protect and nurture children. The orphan trains served as a placement vehicle for thousands of children who found homes in at least 45 states. Studies indicate that only a small percentage of these children were formally adopted, despite enacted statutes and equitable adoption, and “the great majority of placements seemed to be characterized by a desire for a teenager’s labor, even if warm feelings subsequently developed
between the parties.”

Today, Orphan Trains are remembered, mostly by descendants of those who traveled from New York to the many different states. Most of the original train travelers have since died.

Some of the travelers never left New York state, 33,053 having been " placed out.” In other states, Illinois, 9,172, Ohio had 7271, Missouri had 6,088, Iowa, 6,675, Michigan, 5,326, Nebraska, 3,442 and Minnesota, 3,258. Many other states received lesser numbers. California only had 168, New Mexico had only one.

Many of the children “placed out,’ would later reunite . . . but the vast majority of them, once separated from parents and siblings, never saw them again.

Orphan Trains . . . another story from our American past.

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