‘Sent West’: An American orphan storyPosted: April 23, 2010
While studying a 19th-century record book of children from the orphanage in my old New Jersey neighborhood, I noticed that a number of them ended up a long way from the Garden State.
Every so often a group of names appeared with repeated notations in the “where sent” column:
To Columbus, Missouri.
With J.P. Brace to Columbus, Missouri.
To Warrensburg, Missouri.
In one case, six children all carried the same notation:
Sent West With Children’s Aid Society.
Anyone familiar with studies of foundlings in 19th-century America would look twice at that.
Founded in New York City by Charles Loring Brace in 1853, the Children’s Aid Society promoted a radically different vision of child welfare from what prevailed before. Brace rejected the almshouse/workhouse model of warehousing the poor. Instead, he believed programs should nurture children and encourage self-sufficiency. He championed free kindergartens, job training, reading rooms, supervised lodging houses for boys — and the Orphan Trains.
The basic plan, begun in 1853, was to relocate impoverished urban children to farm families in rural areas. New England and rural New York State were early destinations. After the Civil War, the emphasis shifted westward. Between 1865-74 nearly 1,000 children per year were sent to Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Michigan and other Midwestern states.
Missouri and Kansas are the two states specifically mentioned in the ledger for the Children’s Home in my neighborhood, and several other entries say only “West.”
In a few entries, a “J.P. Brace” is listed as accompanying the children westward. This strengthens the possibility of the home’s link with the Orphan Trains. James P. Brace was Charles’ brother, and one of the most prominent of the “Western Agents” who shepherded Orphan Train children to the West. When James died in 1881 of a fever contracted in Missouri during one of his Orphan Train trips, the New York Times eulogized him: “The thousands of boys who journeyed with him from the great Metropolis, where sin and temptation abound, to the West, where through his influence, bright and happy homes awaited them, will ever remember him with thankful hearts.”
Not everyone agreed with that, even during the Brace brothers’ lifetimes. Some modern scholars contend that the Orphan Train movement often equated poverty with bad parenting, pressuring the poor to surrender children to the trains to “give them a real chance,” rather than emphasizing ways of keeping families together. Some children were abused and exploited. (There were also success stories. Two Orphan Train boys, John Brady and Andrew Burke, eventually became governors of Alaska and North Dakota, respectively.)
The ledger I studied contained both kinds of orphanage stories — those that ended with a parent finding their feet and reuniting the family, and those that ended with a child being surrendered to adoption and, perhaps, a journey west. Although the Children’s Home worked closely with the Orphan Train movement, it didn’t seem to rely on its philosophy totally.
When I was a child, the big Victorian was a place where we played hide-and seek and rode our bicycles. I never would have imagined it as a staging point for the frontier. But that, apparently, is what it was for some of the children who came there long ago.
Further reading: The National Orphan Train Complex website includes wonderful illustrations and educational materials. The Children’s Aid Society’s official site contains an overview of Brace and his career. Finally, here is a detailed look at the orphans and how they ended up on the trains.