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.
The 1910 census entry about the orphanage down the street confirmed a story we’d only sort-of believed about the big Victorian barn of our suburban New Jersey neighborhood.
It was the Children’s Home, operated in my hometown of North Plainfield, N.J. by the Children’s Home Association, based in neighboring Plainfield. (This group has existed in various forms since the 1870s, and today, as the United Family and Children’s Society, it’s one of New Jersey’s oldest family service organizations.)
In 1880 the home was in Plainfield. A staffer at the Plainfield Library’s excellent local history archive mentioned a news item from 1885 about the house on my street being renovated for use as a children’s home. From 1900 through 1930, censuses place the home in North Plainfield. The big Victorian was still an orphanage in 1938, according to city directories, but by 1943 (the next available listing), it was a residence plus antique shop. By 1949 it was the apartment house I remembered.
Fortunately for me, the Plainfield Library had a fascinating artifact: a listing of children received between 1877 and 1892.
This ledger apparently was compiled from earlier records. A covering letter says, in part, “I send you the names of the children as I had written them in my diarys [sic].” It is signed C. [initials illegible] Nevins, who could be the Catharine Nevins listed in the 1880 census as matron of the home.
The ledger includes the names of the child, the father and mother, arrival date and departure date, a space for “Where/how sent” and a “Remarks” column. Though a few children are listed only by first name or as “baby,” there are full names for most, ages for some. The oldest listed is 11. Most of the ages are between 2 and 8.
Only a few entries list a reason for a child’s arrival. “Two children brought by father; mother intemperate” was one. These children left the next day. Leaving with a parent wasn’t unusual: 21 children were reclaimed by one of their parents. A few of the others were claimed by someone they knew — a sister, grandparent or family friend.
Four of the children in the ledger died in the home, all of them in either May or June of 1882 (an epidemic, perhaps?).
While some children stayed only long enough for their relatives to work things out, others went to new homes, at least temporarily. Eighteen children were placed in New Jersey, or elsewhere on the East Coast — Connecticut, New York, Maryland.
For 18 more, there was another notation: “Sent West.” It seems they became part of a famous chapter in the history of orphans in the United States.
Next: A ride on the “Orphan Trains”?
Two doors down from the house in which I grew up sat a big, unusually imposing Victorian house on a huge lot.
“House” doesn’t do it justice; it wasn’t what you’d call a Victorian charmer. It was subdivided into five apartments, but truthfully, it was hard to imagine a single family rattling around in that big barn. It also had the widest, flattest driveway in the east end of town, where every kid on my street learned to ride a bicycle, provided the landlord wasn’t looking.
The grownups called it “the orphanage,” a description I didn’t take 100 percent seriously. It sounded made up. Why would an orphanage be sitting in the middle of a suburban neighborhood, anyway? The grownups also said that our property, and our neighbor’s, too, once belonged to the orphanage. This was interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the odd objects we found now and then, digging around in our backyard — patent medicine bottles, bits of crockery and once, something that looked like a toy doll’s bottle. We thought they were buried treasure. The grownups said they were from the orphanage. We rolled our eyes.
A few months ago I was doing census searches on Ancestry.com, trying and failing to break through one of my brick walls. To give myself a break, I decided to browse the 1910 census for my hometown. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what the big Victorian barn really was in the olden days? Answer: The Children’s Home. In residence were a superintendent, an assistant superintendent and a female domestic servant, plus 11 girls and 10 boys.
The grownups had it right, after all.
How strange that I’d grown up practically next door to an orphanage — a real Victorian orphanage. How long was it an orphanage? How many children passed through its doors?
Since I have at least one adopted relative in my family tree, the topic of orphanages and adoptions in the 19th and early 20th centuries has always interested me. I was mainly interested in the history behind the landmark of my childhood, but I also hoped that studying it might give me insight into my own family’s encounters with adoption.
My curiosity led me to look at more census records, some old news clippings and, eventually, at a detailed register of the children who passed through the home in its first few years of existence. The orphanage’s story is the story of children whose families fell through the cracks in a time of no safety nets. Sometimes the fall was broken, sometimes not. I will share more of what I learned in my next post.
Next: Why did children go to the orphanage? Not always for the reasons you’d think.