250,000 Rode America’s Orphan Trains: Were Your Ancestors Among Them?
Thank you to Barbara Lockard for this article.
From The Robinson Argus, February 17, 1886, Robinson, Illinois: A company of children, mostly boys, aged from seven to fifteen years from the New York Juvenile Asylum, will arrive in Robinson at the Robinson House, Thursday morning, March 4, 1886. Homes are wanted for them with families where they will receive kind treatment and enjoy fair advantages. They are mostly of respectable parentage, promising and desirable, and worthy of good homes. They may be taken on trial for several weeks, and afterwards, if all parties are suited they will be indentured until of age. Persons desiring to take these children on trial are requested to meet them at the Robinson House, Thursday morning, March 4. They will remain only one day. For further information inquire at your Post Office for a handbill giving full particulars. E. Wright, Agent
My husband’s grandfather was an Orphan Train child. I often have visions of this grubby little urchin rambling through the streets of New York City. I envision him scrounging through the garbage for a morsel of food, huddling in a corner to keep warm and getting into a fight over a penny.
My grandfather-in-law was left to roam the streets of Manhattan because he supposedly was the product of alcoholic parents. Long before coming of age, he was thrust into the mainstream of society. He was only nine years old!
Many articles have been written about the Orphan Train Children, and much research has been conducted through the efforts of the National Orphan Train Complex. It is the central clearing-house established to preserve the history of approximately 250,000 children placed out between the early 1850s and 1929.
In 1859 Charles Loring Brace, founder of the Children’s Aid Society, stated, “The best method of disposing of our pauper and vagrant children is emigration to the West. The children of the poor are not essentially different from the rich, the same principles which influence the good or evil development of every child in comfortable circumstances will affect in greater or less degree the child of poverty.” (OTHS Newsletter)
I doubt my husband’s great grandparents were paupers because the father was a cooper, a very desirable trade of the era. Yet their son became a vagrant due to their lifestyle. I can just imagine his elation upon being plucked from the streets. He was housed with a warm bed, hot food and clean clothes. His every need was met; unlike that which he had experienced in his natural home.
An announcement in The Ottawa Free Trader (Ottawa, Illinois) 14 Jun 1873
For twenty years I have pursued every lead, read every article printed and contacted the Orphan Train Heritage Society in regard to gleaning more information about the waif in question. Two major organizations, The Children’s Aid Society and The New York Foundling Hospital, were responsible for placing these children on the trains that took them to the rural areas of the West to find new homes. My personal research finally took a turn when I discovered that there were many other smaller organizations involved in the placement of these children. Some children were housed by these smaller organizations before being sent West through the services provided by the Children’s Aid Society and The New York Foundling Hospital.
Children’s Aid Society agents Clara Comstock and Anna Laura Hill with orphan children headed for new homes.
In placing these children with families living in the West, one must think in terms of the States of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and Pennsylvania. Some children were placed in homes in New York or New Jersey; yet, other children were placed as far away as Florida or Texas. For these twenty years, I continually hit the proverbial brick wall in assuming that my ancestor was placed through one of the two major organizations sponsoring the Orphan Trains. A breakthrough came when I discovered that Janet Coble of Illinois was attempting to accumulate the name of every Orphan Train child that had been placed in the State of Illinois. Upon discovering her book, I found that she not only was aware of my ancestor, but she was able to direct me to the institution from which he came.
I was fortunate in that I knew David William Nichols had been born in New York City on 1 October 1876. I knew that he had traveled on the Orphan Train in 1886 when he was nine years old. He supposedly had been placed with a family by the name of York in Robinson, Illinois. Fortunately for genealogical purposes, the family had let the child keep his birth surname.
By discovering the institution from whence he came, I became aware of the fact that there is a wealth of information available on the Orphan Train Children.
Prior to the arrival of the train carrying these children, the placing organization would submit a notice, such as the item found at the beginning of this article, advertising the arrival of these children in the local paper. Upon placement with a local family, the newspaper would then run another item stating with which family each child had been placed – like the one below.
The agent in charge of a company of children, nine boys and one girl, from the New York Juvenile Asylum arrived in Robinson Thursday morning and readily succeeded in placing them in good homes. There were several applicants for children who were disappointed, as they came too late to be accommodated. Several parties wanted little girls. They were placed as follows: _____E. Nickel with Simpson Raines, Hutsonville; George Durst with Jaines Buntin, Palestine; Jacob Durst with W. Sponsler, Duncanville; Frank Powell with Mrs. Isabel E. Kennady, Hutsonville; James Powell with Chalon Healy, Oblong; Wm. Powell with G.W. Titus, Robinson; John Bogart with James W. Hope, Flat Rock; Samuel Powers with Joseph Ford, Flat Rock; David and Minnie Nichols with Charles York, Robinson. Robinson Argus March 10 1886, Robinson, Illinois
Each youth was encouraged to write letters to his placing agent. In this way the placing agent could determine if the placement had been one of compatibility. Many of these letters were printed in the Yearly Report and remain as a genealogical resource.
From David William Nicols, Aged Seventeen, Came to Illinois in 1886
“ I have been getting along well in my home, and I expect to remain here until I finish my apprenticeship. I do not think half the Asylum children have so good homes as I and my sister Minnie have. I visited my sister in the spring, and she told me you had visited her, and I wish you would visit me and see how you like my home. I think there is no place like it. I attend Sunday school and day school, and I have six studies. My guardian has given me a colt for my own, and he is talking about giving me another. We have two hundred acres, and I have five acres of wheat to raise for myself. Last year I raised thirty bushels of wheat for my own, and sold it for sixteen dollars. I have learned to plough with three horses, and I can do all kinds of work. I left the Asylum eight years ago, and I think it would be well for all the boys and girls to come West, where they could learn to work. We have fourteen horses, thirteen cattle, fifty sheep, and thirty hogs.” 1893, PO. Eaton, Illinois
Mrs. Charles York, Guardian’s Wife writes:
“We think a great deal of David. He is a good worker and will make a good farmer. He is interested in his studies at school, and he enjoys the “Youth’s Companion” and took great interest in reading the annual report. He is well respected and honest and can be trusted with anything. He is small, measuring five feet and two inches high and weighing 115 pounds. He desires to get the address of his parents and sister, who lived not far from the Brooklyn Bridge when he left the asylum.” 1897, PO Eaton, Illinois
The above letters written by David William Nichols and his guardian, Mrs. Charles York clearly prove the quality of their relationship. David received the care of a loving family, as well as having the opportunity to learn the skills of farming.
Unfortunately, this was not necessarily true for all of the children placed through the Orphan Trains. For the most part those desirous of an Orphan Train child were seeking an addition to their families. It was a wonderful opportunity for childless couples. Granted, in these states where farming was a way of life, many families were also desirous of having another hand to help work the fields. These families still accepted the child as one of their own. Sadly, some families had this as their only goal, and a child placed with these families became nothing more than a hired hand without pay.
My ancestor was placed through the New York Juvenile Asylum. This organization has since become the Children’s Village, located at Dobbs Ferry., New York 10522. The records of this asylum are now housed at Columbia University in New York City, and they are available to the public for research.
I have found that the researcher of the Orphan Train child must be very persistent in discovering his ancestor’s records, as there were many placing organizations. If you fail to find the records of an Orphan Train ancestor through the two major organizations mentioned above, chances are that he was placed through one of the smaller institutions so keep searching. Finding the records of an Orphan Train child is not only challenging, but very rewarding. Claiming such an ancestor is a link to a very unique part of American history.
Orphan Train Resources and Organizations:
For a list of available records for researching orphan train ancestors please see this wiki from FamilySearch.
The Children’s Aid Society
Adoption and Foster Care Division
150 E. 45th Street
New York City, NY 10017
New York Foundling Hospital
1175 Third Avenue
New York City, NY 10021
Organized in 1869
The Home for Little Wanderers
10 Guest Street
Boston, MA 02115
Organized in 1865
New York Juvenile Asylum
Dobbs Ferry, NY 10522
In some cases I have been successful in locating addresses for homes caring for wayward children through the County Clerk’s office. Sometimes records of orphan asylums may be found in the County Commissioner’s Office.
Coble, Janet, Children of Orphan Trains from New York to Illinois and Beyond, Illinois State Genealogical Society, 1994, pp. 77-78
Orphan Train Heritage Society Newsletter, Vol 9, pp. 7-8
Robinson Argus Newspaper, Robinson, Illinois, 17 February 1886 and 10 March 1886
Yearly Report of the New York Juvenile Asylum, 1893, pp 53-54
A version of this article was originally printed in Heritage Quest Magazine.
About Barbara Lockard: I live in Longview, Washington and have been a member of the Lower Columbia Genealogical Society for over forty years. I have served as president, acted as book buyer for the genealogical section of the Longview Public Library, served on the society’s board and program committee, and have been a program presenter at society meetings. I have successfully traced descendency from the Mayflower, as well as several other patriotic and lineage organizations. I have been a freelance writer for Heritage Quest and a regular contributor to the society’s newsletter, The Key.