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Throughout the generations America has transformed and evolved drastically to become the nation it is today. Many can argue that several things have happened in America that are what shaped it to the country it is today industrially, socially and economically. A man by the name of Charles brace had a dream of getting underprivileged children off the streets and gave them the tools and opportunities to live great normal lives.
Between 1854- 1929 an estimated 200,000 American children, some orphaned or half-orphaned, others abandoned- but all in need of families- traveled west by rail as part of a “placing out” program started by Charles, called the Children’s Aid Society.
(Warren, 4) This dream exploded around the U. S into what is now known as The Orphan Train Movement; a movement that sparked opportunity and new life for underprivileged children. Early on in American History, children who were left by their families were usually left to be cared for by their relatives or neighbors.
There were very few services at the time to help struggling families in need, or to even rescue children. It was in the late 1800’s and even as late as the 1900’s where laws advocating children’s rights were being enacted. The only places where children could be left at the time were Orphanages and most were extremely overcrowded and uncomfortable. Children were not given much time or attention or even food. Adoption was not yet universally popular at the time, and there were not many laws protecting the rights of children.
Often times in a lower to middle class household a family relied on its children to work in order to make ends meet.
For many families it was a struggle but manageable, however, for others it was just too much and this lead to many children being left on the streets of major cities, like New York and Manhattan. Charles Brace originally arrived in New York City in 1848 to study Theology but could not help but notice the overflow of abandoned children living on the streets. Brace had made a trip to Europe, where he saw first-hand how orphans were being taken by charitable organizations to areas where they were better off with families that would raise them as their own children.
After this trip Charles decided to take that concept and start his own. By 1853 Charles Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society, which was derived from the same principles he witnessed in an Institute during his time in Germany. Charles’ goal was to give children access to education as well as jobs who would not have had the opportunity otherwise. A quote from Charles Brace says “The best of all Asylums for the outcast child is the farmers’ home. The great duty is to get these children of unhappy fortune utterly out of their surroundings and to send them away to kind Christian homes in the country.
In 1854 Brace sent the first group of forty six children to Michigan. Within a week of arrival, they all had homes to live in. It was clear that his idea would be extremely promising. Pretty soon thousands of children were being placed out, from the streets, even from jail. Later, Charles derived a plan to be able to send kids where they could learn a skill, contribute to society, and (ideally) be a part of a family. This sparked a huge movement for the early stages of modern adoption. Charles Brace was the first to really come up with the idea of a “relocation program” on a major scale.
The ultimate goal for Charles Brace was for the children to have the opportunity to be transformed out in the country as opposed to the desperate living conditions they would face in the City. It may seem as though Charles Brace just stole an idea he once saw in Europe and later made a fortune of it here in America, however this is not the case. Brace put in a lot of his own effort before placing out children in masses. Charles truly cared for the well-being of every child. In the City, he sent out physicians and nurses to offer medical care and started a daycare center for mothers who had to work.
Brace set up lodging houses for newsboys and set up schools to teach children trades or occupations to support themselves. He also made it possible for underprivileged children to receive free school lunches. (This now exists to today as free or reduced lunch, based on family income). A big contributing factor to the idea Brace came up with as far as ”placing out west”, was that he felt families with good hearts in small towns and on farms, would take the children in as their own, educate them, and also provide them with a religious upbringing.
In return, these children would contribute their hard work and labor to the family which was expected from any child at that time. The only exception to this was extremely privileged children who were brought up from wealth. There are numerous positive outcomes that came from the orphan trains but also a few negative ones. Usually, groups of about thirty to forty children would travel together on the trains. When the orphan trains arrived to their designated towns, everyone in those towns would gather around for the “viewing”.
The most common way the children were viewed, were at churches or big buildings that included stages or a way to see the children from afar. This process was the most daunting and humiliating for the children. In the book We Rode the Orphan Trains by Andrea Warren she writes, “As Hazelle Latimer, now deceased, who rode an orphan train to Texas in 1918, she remembered, “We were lined up on the stage and all I could see was wall-to-wall people. They surrounded us, made us turn around, lift our skirts to see if our legs were straight, and open our mouths to show our teeth.
A very humiliating day”. Warren, 49) On the other hand there were several children who found loving new families, and were raised with comfort and support. “For most of our history, until the twentieth century, the social worth of children was understood primarily in terms of economic rather than emotional value…. From the earliest age when a child could hold a spinning card, she was likely engaged in household industry. By the age of twelve or so most children were treated as adult producers’’(Jalongo, 2010) It was not always easy for some, children would be separated from their brothers and sisters a lot of the time.
There were several instances where children would grow up and later find their lost relatives after the sometimes, inevitable separation caused by the orphan trains. Even though the separation was wrenching, the majority of the children involved In the Orphan Train movement grew up to be well-rounded people and used the tools they learned growing up to carry on in their adulthood. Many cases of children being mistreated in their new homes, or treated as servants, could have been avoided.
The Children’s Aid Society had agents who’s duty was to make frequent checkups on the children in their homes but with poor documentation and increasing number of children it seemed to be a lost cause. The New York Foundling Hospital was second to the Children’s Aid Society in placing children. In these days, a hospital could mean more than just treating a bad wound or giving you medical attention. It could also mean receiving care other than medical. Sisters for Charity, lead by Sister Irene, were in charge of caring for the children left at the hospital.
They set up cradles where children could be left and in many instances, infants and toddlers would be left with notes on them. Notes would say things such as “Agustus, born October 16, 1879. Take good care of my darling. ” (Warren, 15) The sisters soon received countless children that were being dropped off by mothers or families who could not care for them. It was not long before they began to develop the same mindset as Charles Brace and only hope that the best situation for a child is to be living in a home with a family.
Soon, the sisters were sending many of their small children out west to pre-assigned catholic homes. Soon after, another type of trend of the orphan trains began and was known as “baby trains”. They were of great interest to the public and people often would come in crowds to watch children be united with their new families. The orphan trains and the baby trains were very similar in how they overall operated as a whole however, there were a few key differences. The Sisters worked in conjunction with Priests throughout the Midwest and South in an effort to place these children in Catholic families.
While the Children’s Aid Society requested that the children they place be given spiritual training (the choice of religion was left up to the “adoptive” family), the Foundling Hospital’s placements were strictly to Catholic families. “Probably the largest difference in how the Foundling Hospital placed their children is that the children were not sent out to be “randomly” adopted from a town hall or opera house, but were “requested” ahead of time by families who wanted a child. ”(Dipasquale) In a sense it was much more organized and civil the way the Sisters handled the infants.
The Orphan Trains ended in 1930 for numerous reasons, the most affective of these are; a decreased need for farm labor, and the onset of the Great Depression. Even though these two organizations were very different in some aspects they were both primarily the key functions of the Orphan Train Movement. Without a doubt this movement was life-changing and unfortunately resides as a much unheard of occurrence in our history lessons in the present day. Several people now have extreme mixed reviews about the Orphan Trains and what its true motives were.
Charles Brace was a man who sought to give opportunity to the lives of those which at the time were almost invisible to society or just a form of cheap labor. “When a charitable organization takes action, it is out of a desire to help its clients, yet a determination of whether those actions represented a stride forward often occurs much later, when subsequent generations take the long view back”. (Jalongo ) The Orphan Trains were not of much use anymore after the start of the Great Depression. Social Service agencies had begun placing children in foster homes with the intention of restoring them back to their original families.
Immigrants that were coming to America were making a much easier transition, and had new programs available to them that would help them get jobs and housing. Since the majority of the children of the Orphan Train Movement were from families of immigrants, this is a great indication of why the Orphan Trains were no longer in need. Today the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America exists and works to help spread the word about the orphan trains. A movement that is relatively unknown to our society today, could quite accurately be referred to as the same movement that was the beginning of foster care and modern adoption in America.
It is estimated that about 2 million people in America today are descendants of an orphan train rider. Charles Brace was a simple man with a compelling idea to give opportunity to those in need. His steps were extreme and often times ridiculed, but he was also admired for his works and even recognized as the father of modern adoption. He wrote, ‘‘when a child of the streets stands before you in rags, with a tear-stained face, you cannot easily forget him. And yet, you are perplexed about what to do. The human soul is difficult to interfere with. You hesitate how far you should go’’.
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