- Historic Sites
The Children’s Migration
It moved more boys and girls than the Children’s Crusade of the Middle Ages—and to far happier conclusions
December 1974 | Volume 26, Issue 1
Its objects are to help this class by opening Sunday Meetings and Industrial Schools, and, gradually as means shall be furnished, by forming Lodging-houses and Reading-rooms for children, and by employing paid agents whose sole business shall be to care for them. …
We hope, too, especially to be the means of draining the city of these children, by communicating with farmers, manufacturers, or families in the country, who may have need of such for employment. …
The response was immediate and astounding. As Brace described it in one of his books, The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years’ Work Among Them , first published in 1872: Most touching of all was the crowd of wandering little ones who immediately found their way to the office. Ragged young girls who had nowhere to lay their heads; children driven from drunkards’ homes; orphans who slept where they could find a box or a stairway; boys cast out by stepmothers or stepfathers; newsboys, whose incessant answer to our question, “Where do you live?” rung in our ears—“Don’t live nowhere!” Little bootblacks, young peddlers, “canawl-boys,” who seem to drift into the city every winter, and live a vagabond life; pickpockets and petty thieves trying to get honest work; child beggars and flower-sellers growing up to enter courses of crime—all this motley throng of infantile misery and childish guilt passed through our doors, telling their simple stories of suffering and loneliness and temptation, until our hearts became sick; and the present writer, certainly, if he had not been able to stir up the fortunate classes to aid in assuaging these fearful miseries, would have abandoned the post in discouragement and disgust.
Emigration—emigration to homes in the country—declared Brace, was the answer, the most sensible and economical way of getting children out of this frightful environment. And so, scarcely a month after the organization of the new society, a Mr. and Mrs. May of Woodstock, Connecticut, were presented with the first child placed out—a thirteen-year-old lad named Franklin Mathieson, whom they took to live with them.
Placing out was not in itself a new idea. The system had been used in France for centuries, with considerable success. But Brace proposed that the foster homes be free . On the farms of America, he felt, there was always room for one more pair of hands to help with the chores. With an abundance of good food and the prevalence of Christian charity, the addition of another child to a farm home could only be a blessing.
Under Brace’s plan families deemed suitable by representatives of the society could select a child from its roster of boys and girls. The prospective foster parents promised to take good care of the child, to provide him with a “Christian home,” and to see that he received schooling. The society did not pay them, nor did they pay the society. Brace insisted that this was not “binding out,” or indenture, a common practice under which a young person was bound by a legal contract to work for a certain period in return for board and keep. In fact, older children who were placed with farm families by the society were to be paid for their labors.
The whole system was remarkably informal. If at any time the new foster family or employer felt things weren’t working out, or if the child seemed unhappy or appeared to be mistreated when an agent of the Children’s Aid Society came back to check on him, the arrangement could be terminated and a new home sought for the society’s ward.
During the first year, 1853, children were placed in nearby New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania farm homes on an individual basis. Soon, however, it became clear that the demand for children from babies to husky teen-agers was so great and so widespread, and the number of homeless children in New York City so vast, that some other way had to be found to bring adults and children together. In September, 1854, one of the agents employed by the new society, the Reverend E. P. Smith, chaperoned west the first of the hundreds of groups of emigrant children who were to make the orphan trains almost a part of American folklore.
The destination of this trailblazing group, boys ranging in age from seven to fifteen, was the little town of Dowagiac in southwestern Michigan. To reach it they travelled by boat to Albany, by train to Buffalo, by lake boat from Buffalo to Detroit (“with the addition of a touch of seasickness, and of the stamping, neighing, and bleating of a hundred horses and sheep over our heads”), and from Detroit to Dowagiac in a car of the Michigan C.R.R. The juvenile emigrants embarked from New York on a Wednesday evening. At three A.M. on Sunday their train chugged into Dowagiac, where they spent the rest of the night sleeping on the station platform.