Friday, February 24, 2012

Orphan Train Lecture

My mother is concerned about her legacy. I think I've shared before that she has a hope chest she refers to as "her life" with mementos of her childhood, friends/family, and trips she has taken.

While working on our genealogy, she found one relative that was hard to trace back looking at census records. Something didn't look right.  After more research and consulting with others, it was decided that he and his sister were most likely transfers to Iowa from New York via the orphan trains.

Mom, Grandma, and I were fortunate enough to attend a lecture at the Aurora Historical Society given by Carol Chandler, a member of the Lee County (Illinois) Genealogical Society.  Carol's research had allowed her to collect a variety of stories on the experiences of orphan train children.

The orphan trains were started by a minister who witnessed child gangs running the streets of New York City in the late 1800s.  Many were true orphans who came though Ellis Island after loosing their parents during the journey to America, but some were simply abandoned by their parents battling their own demons (alcoholism, drug addiction, prostitution, etc.). Because of the lack of social services in those days, when these little gangs of children vandalized property or robbed merchants, police placed them in jails with adults.  I don't want to imagine what happened inside those jail cells!

Knowing the need for cheap labor existed in the ever expanding west, the minister arranged these orphan trains to shift children from the streets of the larger cities in the east to the farming communities in the west (as far as as the Mississippi River).  A few days before the train arrived, posters were placed around town announcing their arrival.  Families willing to take in a child or two were asked to come meet the train.

As you can imagine, the experiences these children had ranged from horrible to wonderful.  As a social worker in the field of child welfare today, I know we have improved but I wonder how the today's adopted children will report their experiences 50 - 100 years from now.

For more information on the Orphan Trains, you can check out the following websites:

The Children's Aid Society

The National Orphan Train Complex, Incorporated

**images from this post courtesy of The Orphan Train Complex, Inc.

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