The Children’s Migration


The same trend was apparent when the society reached its fortieth birthday in the nineties. In almost every category arrests were down, although Manhattan’s population had trebled and was even larger than it is today. While other ameliorating factors were undoubtedly at work, the society, which had now become the favorite charity for many rich New Yorkers, believed that their multifaceted program, especially the work of their placing-out department, was the key to this diminution of crime and juvenile vagrancy. In 1893 Charles Loring Brace, Jr., who had taken over the helm of the society on the death of his father, summed up its achievements: It is forty, years since Mr. Brace, the founder of the Children’s Aid Society, began his work in behalf of the poor and outcast in New York City. The fundamental idea upon which the society was founded, and which has been its governing motive ever since, was that of self-help—of teaching children how to help themselves.

The industrial schools, now numbering twenty-one, have trained and given aid and encouragement during these years to over 100,000 children of the very poor. In the Boys’ and Girls’ Lodging-houses about homeless and vagrant boys and girls have found shelter, instruction, and the kindly advice and admonition of experienced superintendents.

But, of all the efforts of the society to redeem juvenile humanity from the misery and suffering incident to a homeless life in a great city, the most inspiring is in connection with our system of placing homeless children in permanent homes in the West.

Despite what the critics had to say, there was no doubt that a large number of the child emigrants had succeeded far beyond anything Charles Loring Brace would have dared to predict in 1853, when his main concern was heading off the young of New York from joining “the dangerous classes.” For years the society kept score of the “noteworthy careers” of its former wards. In 1917, the last time it chalked up this scoreboard in an annual report, the roster went like this: A Governor of a State, a Governor of a Territory, two members of Congress, two District Attorneys, two Sheriffs, two Mayors, a Justice of the Supreme Court, four Judges, two college professors, a cashier of an insurance company, twenty-four clergymen, seven high school Principals, two School Superintendents, an Auditor-General of a State, nine members of State Legislatures, two artists, a Senate Clerk, six railroad officials, eighteen journalists, thirty-four bankers, nineteen physicians, thirty-five lawyers, twelve postmasters, three contractors, ninety-seven teachers, four civil engineers, and any number of business and professional men, clerks, mechanics, farmers, and their wives, and others who have acquired property and filled positions of honor and trust. Nor would the roll call be complete without mention of four army officers and 7,000 soldiers and sailors in their country’s service.


But times were changing. Social work, the care of the needy and dependent, had become increasingly professionalized. There was a growing knowledge of child development; in 1909 the first White House Conference on Children, called by President Theodore Roosevelt, was almost unanimous in recommending that wherever possible families be kept together. New state laws provided widows’ pensions, sickness insurance, compulsory education, and curbs on child labor—all of which served to improve the chances of a child’s “making it” in an urban setting.

Gradually the orphan trains became fewer. The public distributions of the children gave way to scouting trips by the society’s agents to match each child with a suitable family before bringing them together, and the society turned to other methods of providing children with stable family environments.

In the early twenties a family homes department was organized to care for those children whose homes were temporarily broken. Children were boarded with other families while the society made attempts to get their own homes back on firmer foundations. Later a housekeeper service was added to provide help before a break-up had a chance to occur. Finally, in 1930, the society’s trustees agreed to limit any placing out that was done to New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, except for children sent to other states to join brothers and sisters.

The orphan trains have long since puffed their last mile. But many of the orphans are still out there—getting on in years, to be sure, but able to remember vividly what it felt like to be placed on stage or platform in some small town, facing several hundred pairs of curious eyes, wondering who among all those strangers would make the all-important choice, and frightened half to death for fear no one would want them for “their own little boy or girl.” That seldom if ever happened; and in retrospect the children’s migration deserves to be commemorated as one of the most heartening chapters in the social history of America.