The Children’s Migration

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For most of the forty-six boys (rather forty-seven—in Albany they picked up an urchin with wanderlust) the trip was their first glimpse of the country. … you can hardly imagine [wrote the Reverend Mr. Smith] the delight of the children as they looked, many of them for the first time, upon country scenery. Each one must see everything we passed, find its name, and make his own comments. “What’s that, mister?” “A cornfield.” “Oh, yes, them’s what makes buckwheaters.” “Look at them cows (oxen plowing); my mother used to milk cows.” As we whirled through orchards loaded with large, red apples, their enthusiasm rose to the highest pitch. It was difficult to keep them within doors. Arms stretched out, hats swinging, eyes swimming, mouths watering, and all screaming—“oh! oh! just look at ’em! Mister, be they any sich in Michi gan ? Then I’m in for that place—three cheers for Michi gan !” We had been riding in comparative quiet for nearly an hour, when all at once the greatest excitement broke out. We were passing a cornfield spread over with ripe, yellow pumpkins. “Oh! yonder! look! Just look at ’em!” and in an instant the same exclamation was echoed from forty-seven mouths. “Jist look at ’em! What a heap of mushmillons !” “Mister, do they make mushmillons in Michigan?” “Ah, fellers, aint that the country tho’—won’t we have nice things to eat?” “Yes’, and won’t we sell some, too?” “Hip! hip! boys; three cheers for Michi gan !”

That Sunday morning, in the Dowagiac Presbyterian Church, the good people were startled by the presence of the Reverend Smith and his travel-worn but still exuberant crew. After the sermon Smith announced the purpose of their visit. And the following day the farmers returned to town to put in their applications for boys. By Saturday all forty-seven had been taken.

What happened to those forty-seven boys in later life, and where are their descendants today? This is the tantalizing question posed by the western placing-out program of the Children’s Aid Society. Records were skimpily kept in early days. And although record keeping did become more systematic later, the society has kept private what happened to most of its former wards, except for the enthusiastic letters—usually with names disguised—that they reprinted every year in the annual report or an occasional announcement about some distinguished citizen who publicly attributed his success in life to the opportunity provided by the New York charity.

Nobody seems to know what became of the ex-street Arabs in that first westward-bound party of Children’s Aid Society emigrants. But today, in Dowagiac, a few people remember a later arrival, George Moore, who with his brothers was shipped by the society to the little town shortly after the Civil War. George lived in Dowagiac until his death in 1938. He prospered, ran a successful grocery store, sent his two children to the University of Michigan, and realized his goal of buying the farm where he had arrived as a penniless orphan boy many years before.

As more and more groups of emigrant children left New York to find new homes and new lives in the West, the Children’s Aid Society devised procedures that remained virtually the same for three quarters of a century. Either through its agents or through direct requests the society learned about a town that was interested in taking in children and then set up a local committee of citizens to screen applicants. This committee made arrangements for the arrival of the children, including a place where they would be displayed. Notices about the meeting were placed in the local newspaper several weeks beforehand, and announcements were made in churches.

As Brace proudly described the procedure: The farming community having been duly notified, there was usually a dense crowd of people at the station, awaiting the arrival of the youthful travellers. The sight of the little company of the children of misfortune always touched the hearts of a population naturally generous. They were soon billetted around among the citizens, and the following day a public meeting was called in the church or townhall. … The agent then addressed the assembly, stating the benevolent objects of the Society, and something of the history of the children. The sight of their worn faces was a most pathetic enforcement of his arguments. People who were childless came forward to adopt children; others, who had not intended to take any into their families, were induced to apply for them; and many who really wanted the children’s labor pressed forward to obtain it.

During the early years Indiana received the largest number of children. One party that arrived in Noblesville in the summer of 1859 contained two boys from the Randall’s Island orphanage, both of whom grew up to become governors: Andrew H. Burke of North Dakota (1890–92) and John Green Brady, a missionary and trader, who was appointed by Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt to the governorship of the Alaska Territory (1897–1905).