- 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
During the Civil War young Andy Burke ran away from his foster family to join the 75th Indiana Volunteers as a drummer. Later he worked his way to Casselton, North Dakota, where he became a bank cashier and an active Republican. From the governor’s executive office in Bismarck Burke called forth “God’s best blessings” on the Children’s Aid Society, reminiscing about “… the long railway ride on the Erie route, the tearful eyes, the saddened hearts, the arrival at Noblesville on that clear, sunshining day, the dread I experienced on awaiting to be selected by one of those who had assembled in the Christian Church at that place, and how my heart was gladdened by Mr. D. W. Butler, for his appearance indicated gentleness. All those scenes will live in memory. …”
Brady had fled his home in New York when he was seven. His mother was dead; his father, a longshoreman who drank, beat him whether he was drunk or sober. The police finally picked the boy up and deposited him in the city orphanage. One of those who had been in Noblesville on the day the train pulled in with the twenty-seven waifs from Randall’s Island was Judge John Green of Tipton. “It was the most motley crowd of youngsters I ever did see,” the judge was fond of telling in later years. “I decided to take John Brady home with me because I considered him the homeliest, toughest, most unpromising boy in the whole lot. I had a curious desire to see what could be made of such a specimen of humanity.” Judge Green lived to see Brady graduate from Yale and Union Theological Seminary; his widow saw her foster son become a three-term Alaska governor.
By a curious coincidence Burke and Brady ran into each other in 1906 in a Kansas City hotel. Ex-Governor Brady was then the Alaska delegate to the Trans-Mississippi Congress; ex-Governor Burke was the local representative of the Great Western Oil Company. Apparently they spent most of the day reminiscing.
Burke and Brady were not, of course, the only New York City transplants to Hoosierland who made good. For example, another member of the 1859 Randall’s Island crew, Thomas Burns, was cashier of the Citizens State Bank for many years. A number of those brought out to Indiana in the early years of the society went literally from rags to riches. Dr. William Flynn, professor of medicine at several Indiana universities, died a wealthy bachelor at the age of sixty-one. Dr. Michael Jordan of Logansport, a cantankerous but popular physician who was born in Ireland and both of whose parents had died on the voyage to New York, willed the society five thousand dollars. And Alfred Lowry, a businessman who once also served as mayor of Goshen, left an unclaimed fortune of a hundred thousand dollars when he died fifty-eight years after the Children’s Aid Society had deposited him in Indiana. Within a few years of its founding the work of the Children’s Aid Society was being acclaimed as an unparalleled success. In 1860 the editor of the New York Sun , hailing “True Philanthropy,” compared the asylum system with the society’s efforts: “Let but the two systems be judged by their fruits. … We mean no condemnation of the asylum system itself. As compared with the abandonment of children, it is an immense good. None can deny it. But a new system, we claim, has been discovered, which is nearly as much in advance upon the asylum system as that is in advance of nothing at all.”
Many of the new foster parents were equally enthusiastic. “I have often had occasion to bless kind providence for having wafted to me a child of so fair promise, both as regards moral and mental excellence. My unbounded gratitude to you and the Children’s Aid Society for having cast the dear one my way,” wrote a man in Elkhart County, Indiana. Some of the children also expressed their gratitude. In 1862 a fifteen-year-old boy in another part of Indiana wrote of “the great debt of kindness and humanity I owe to you. … What I would have been if I stayed in New York, God only knows. I had not gone far in vice when you rescued me, it is true, but I was rapidly sinking into that terrible pit of darkness.”
Not all the children helped by the society were orphans or waifs. Some were brought into the offices by parents who yearned for a better life for their offspring, even at the terrible sacrifice of being perhaps forever parted. The 1864 annual report of the society relates the saga of “Little N.”: Little N., with three brothers and an elder sister, was brought to our office by her father to get homes for all of them, the mother being a miserable drunken creature, who would pawn and sell everything for rum. N., when we got her (being a little over a year old), was much bruised from the falls she had received while with her mother. The father, a respectable mechanic, fearing that the evil course of the mother would set his children too bad an example, thought it expedient to remove them to Western homes. All the children have excellent homes.
To back this up the society reprinted an effusive letter from N.’s new foster parents, thanking them for sending “the little Treasure … so precious a gift,” whose “sweet winning ways” made all love her.