We Rode The Orphan Trains
These days when an adoption can take quite a few months, involve
reams of paperwork, and cost as much as a brand new truck it may be
hard to imagine a time when one could go to a public building to view
a group of prospective sons and daughters and return home with a
child. In the not so long ago past that was state of the art. Andrea
Warren's We Rode the Orphan Trains explores a fascinating chapter in
United States history through the stories of some of the children and
one of the agents responsible for their safe delivery.
In 1850 New York City it's estimated that between ten and thirty
thousand children resided in crowded, underfunded orphanages or bedded
down on the cruel streets of the Big Apple. Decades before the
importance of municipal sanitation was known, epidemics of diseases
like typhoid and yellow fever orphaned many. Poverty and substance
addictions would leave others parentless or cause them to be
abandoned. The bloodshed of the Civil War would later leave many
youngsters fending for themselves.
In 1853 Charles Loring Brace, a minister, became aware of the
plight of these familyless children. "...Some children sold rags or
matches, trying to earn a few pennies to buy bread. Others became
thieves and pickpockets. They slept wherever they could, on sidewalk
steam grates, in makeshift shacks, or under bridges..."
Brace believed that homes were better for children than
institutions...and, of course, far better than the street. He had
heard about orphan relocation programs in Europe. Surely there were
small town and farm families in the west who could make room for one
more child. Train loads of youngsters were sent to towns and cities,
posters announcing their arrival in advance.
"The object of the coming of these children is to find homes in
your midst, especially among farmers, where they may enjoy a happy and
wholesome family life, where good care, good examples, and moral
training will fit them for a life of self-support and
usefullness...The conditions are that these children shall be properly
clothed, treated as members of the family, given proper school
advantages and remain in the family until they are eighteen years of
age...The Society (Children's Aid Society) retains the right to remove
a child at any time for just cause and agrees to remove any found
unsatisfactory after being notified."
Among the train riders profiled in this fascinating book you
*Ruth who was taken to an orphanage when she was three by her widowed
mother who could only take her younger child to her job as a live-in
housekeeper. She was five when she rode the train. After a bad night
with an unsuitable family she was transferee to an understanding
father and a mother and two unmarried aunts who doted on her;
*Twins Nettie and Nellie who were removed from their home at the age
of five by the authorities following the death of a little sister.
They were six when they rode the train. Fortunately their agent knew
that they needed to stay together even though separate placements
would have been easier. A "temporary" home turned into a permanent
haven where there mother vehemently defended against prejudice against
*and Howard who was removed from his home because of "scandalous
neglect" on the part of his mother. He and older brother, Fred, were
placed in families close enough to maintain the sibling bond. When he
needed a birth certificate for the navy he was startled to learn that
his birth parents were still alive.
The most fascinating and relevant aspect of history, in my
opinion, is not the memorizing of names and dates of battles and dead
white men, but the lived experience of "ordinary" people. This book
and others about the orphan trains make an excellent introduction to
this concept for children. Youngsters and concepts like home and
belonging are central to this narrative.
On a personal note, the book's theme that real family does not have to
be biological has become very personal to me. My mom had pressured me
to produce grandchildren to the point where at times I felt like
merely the vessel for this acheivement. I was not going to do that to
my kids. Well I found myself captivated by my friend Ed's
granddaughter, a very bright and energetic strawberry blonde toddler.
With my sterling ethics and abilities to bake and read aloud with
expression I figured I was prime great aunt material. I adopted Ed as
my brother. At our stage in life there was no need to involve DHHS.
Now I am happily planning what to give my new great niece for Christmas.
A great big shout out goes out to all who realize that real family is
not limited to blood or marriage kin.
Julia Emily Hathaway
Sent from my iPod