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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
Before the society was twenty years old, over three thousand children a year were being sent to homes in the country. They fell into various categories; some were “persons, mostly children in families, assisted to reach friends and employed in the west.” The latter included many newly arrived immigrants who were seeking to rejoin those who had gone before them. The peak year was reached in 1875, when a total of 4,026 children, adolescents, and a handful of adults were escorted by agents of the society to their new homes. Although the society emphasized the West as the land of opportunity, many children continued to be placed in upstate New York farms, and by the 1880’s they were also being taken to southern states.
Still, not everybody was enthusiastic about the work of the society. Many Catholics took a jaundiced view of the society’s notion of what “a good Christian home” should be. There were rumors that the society turned all its wards into Protestants; that children’s names were changed—“thus even brothers and sisters might meet and perhaps marry”; that some were sold as slaves, enriching agents of the society. Eventually it was decided that the best way to save New York children from the pernicious influence of the society was to offer them opportunities to go west under Catholic auspices. By the end of the century orphan trains sponsored by the Catholic Church were pulling into states as far west as Nebraska.
In charity and prison circles Brace’s program became increasingly controversial. At the National Conference of Charities in Madison, Wisconsin, in August of 1882, the society was vigorously attacked by a number of delegates. One asserted that a score of New York City boys, brought west by the society, had ended up in the Industrial School at Waukesha. “These thieves, liars, vagabonds, as we call them, they bring them West and turn them loose without any after supervision: it would be as well to cut their jugular veins in the first place.”
The society promptly made an investigation of the Waukesha reform school’s inmates, past and present, and found that only two boys—out of the hundreds of children sent to Wisconsin—had been sent there. One was a ten-year-old sent up in 1862 for “incorrigibility”; the other, an eleven-year-old committed for stealing.
Perhaps more serious were charges that children were ill treated, that they were placed in unsuitable homes, and that they received little or no supervision thereafter. “Bosh,” said Charles Loring Brace to these reports of ill treatment. “We would be the first to hear of such cases, and such are scarcely ever reported to us.” In a letter to the editor of the New York Tribune in 1883 Brace vehemently defended the work of the society: We admit, of course, that the large boys change their places, that sometimes a boy is placed in a home where he does not suit the family, or the family him, and in such cases we seek immediately to replace the lad and to make things right in regard to him. We carry on an immense correspondence with the boys and their Western employers; we hear from the committees who are responsible gentlemen of the place, and our own agents are continually travelling through the States where the children are placed. The agents also employ clergymen or other responsible persons in these villages to visit these children.
In 1898 Brace’s son Robert made a thorough check of children from fifteen different groups placed in Iowa, northern Missouri, eastern Nebraska, and Kansas. His conclusion was that “ninety percent were doing well.” In 1900 the society went through its records of all the younger children they had placed in foster family homes up to that time and found that 87 per cent were doing well. Of the remaining 13 per cent some had been returned to New York, some had died, some had left their homes, and “one quarter of one percent committed petty crimes.”
These investigations were confined almost entirely to the foster children. They did not include the equally large group of teen-agers who were “placed in situations at wages.” The bigger boys were restless and frequently moved from place to place. For most of them the Children’s Aid Society simply represented the promise of a free ride to a new part of the country where wider job opportunities were available; once there they could strike out on their own. They were far more difficult to keep track of, but the available evidence suggested that on the whole they too were “doing well.”
The Children’s Aid Society had other yardsticks for measuring the success of its work. One was the decline in juvenile crime in New York City. In the 1870’s Brace noted that police statistics showed a striking decrease in arrests for female vagrancy, thieving, petty larceny, and juvenile delinquency—this in a period when the population had increased about 13.5 per cent. Likewise the number of boys imprisoned, and male arrests for petty larceny and pick-pocketing, had declined sharply during this period when the society’s emigration work was at its peak, with over three thousand children being shipped out each year.