January 25, 2012

Orphan Trains

Between 1854 and 1929 an estimated 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children were placed out during, what is known today as, the Orphan Train Movement. The name is derived from the children's situations, though they were not all orphans, and the mode of transportation used to move them across forty-seven states and Canada.  Many of these children were adopted and grew up in loving homes, but many were treated as servants and worse.

Our family was lucky, when Emily Gendron Thibault died between 1875 and 1879 she left behind  seven children, the oldest being between 12 and 16 and the youngest being between new born and  four years old.   Fabien was able to hold together the family, probably with the help of his siblings and his older children.  In 1879 Fabien married again to Celina Miville Deschenes who died sometime before 1884 leaving behind three young children as well as her step children some who were still fairly young.  Again Fabien managed to keep his family together and remarried a third time to Claire Banville in 1884.  

Life for many of these orphan children weren't good,  newspaper stories titled “Babies Sold Like Sheep,” telling readers that the New York Foundling Hospital “has for years been shipping children in car-loads all over the country, and they are given away and sold like cattle.”  Charities attempted to guarantee successful orphan train placements by agreeing to remove children from failed placements and, where necessary, transport the child back to the charity’s Eastern office at the charity’s expense.  Many children placed out west had survived on the streets of New York, Boston or other large eastern cities and generally were not the passive, obedient, respectful children that some families expected; this prompted placement changes and 
returns to the East.

Numerous factors came together to end the orphan train movement in 1929.   One factor was that railroad expansion in the United States was complete and most railroads ended subsidized fares provided to charities moving children. Another critical and underlying factor was that the need for labor which drove the initial success of orphan train placements in the West was no longer as great. The trains had relocated children to rural areas where their labor was needed on the frontier.  

Another factor that contributed to the end of the orphan train movement was the backlash from the Western states. They reacted to their role as “a dumping ground for dependents from other states” by passing legislation limiting or prohibiting placement of out-of-state children. Many of these states had become urbanized and were facing their own child care and child placement issues. Cities such as Chicago and St. Louis began to experience the same problems in caring for neglected and destitute children that New York, Boston and Philadelphia had experienced in the mid-1800s.  These cities began to seek ways to 
care for their own orphan populations. In 1895, Michigan passed a statute prohibiting out-of-state children from local placement without payment of a bond guaranteeing that children placed in 
Michigan would not become a public charge in the State.  Similar laws were passed by Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri and Nebraska. Negotiated agreements between one or more New York charities and several western states allowed the continued placement of children in these states. Such agreements included large bonds as security for placed children. In 1929, however, these agreements expired and were not renewed as charities changed their child care support strategies.

Lastly, the need for the orphan train movement decreased as legislation was passed providing in-home family support. Charities began developing programs to support destitute and needy families limiting the need for intervention to place out children. State and local governments funded foster care for orphans while compulsory education and anti-child labor statutes were also being passed.

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