The Children’s Migration

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Among the thousands of homeless children deposited at the Children’s Aid Society in 1875 by orphan asylums, courts, and other institutions was a four-year-old named Willie, sent by the New York Prison Association. “Almost beyond hope” was the verdict of the society’s agent into whose care the “irrepressible young Irishman” was placed.

Soon the object of this despairing character sketch found himself among a group of forty orphaned and destitute boys and girls travelling by train nearly halfway across the continent, to end up at a little midwestern farm town. There Willie and the other children were taken to the local grange hall, where a group of farmers and their wives waited to look them over and to make some momentous choices.

As the story is told in one of the society’s annual reports, only one couple wanted little Willie. In a heavy German accent the farmer’s wife explained why: “Because he please my old man.” And Willie was carried away, struggling and protesting, in her fat arms.

A few months later the agent of the Children’s Aid Society returned to check on how his former charges were faring in their new homes. When the German farmer saw who had come to call, he bridled indignantly.

“Mr. Agent,” he said, “if you come to dake dot boy away, if you don’t got de biggest yob on your hants what you ever had, den I don’t know how it is. I wouldn’t dake de whole United States for dot boy.”

“I haven’t come to take him away,” the agent hastened to explain. “But how in the world do you manage him?”

“Oh, dot’s easy,” the farmer’s wife said. “You see, we all luff him.”

“This good German woman has given us in one line the key to the success of our Western work,” the agent wrote the society in New York. “There is an abundance of love and shelter and pity here that will never be exhausted. Send out the little ones in yet larger numbers. The work is a success.”

Willie was part of one of America’s great westerly movements—a movement of thousands of the city’s unwanted children to foster homes or paying jobs on the farms and in the villages of America’s heartland. For more than seventy-five years the prosaic Pied Pipers of the Children’s Aid Society led bands of children out of the squalor of New York City’s crime-ridden streets. Not since the tragic Children’s Crusade in the thirteenth century had there been such a movement of children over such vast distances. In all close to a hundred thousand boys and girls were given new starts in the country by the New York charity. Many of them grew up to become pillars of their communities—farmers and farmers’ wives, doctors and lawyers, preachers and teachers, a couple of governors and a couple of congressmen, mayors and judges—in short, solid citizens by the score.

Today thousands of Americans in every walk of life trace their origins to some homeless child who was “placed out” in the West by the society many years ago. Scattered throughout the United States there are hundreds of old-timers still alive who vividly remember the work of the Children’s Aid Society. They were among the New York orphans, half-orphans, and just plain abandoned children who were taken west on the “orphan trains”—a few as late as 1929. And the orphan trains are remembered, too, in countless communities where one of the biggest events of the year was the arrival of the cars bearing a company of eager, if often apprehensive, youngsters from the big eastern city.

This immense children’s migration was the inspiration and life task of a pioneering social worker, Charles Loring Brace, whose strong conviction it was that home care was far superior to institutional custody. Brace, one of the most dynamic and dedicated figures in the history of child welfare, was born in 1826 to a prominent Connecticut family. Educated for the clergy, he served as secretary of the New York Children’s Aid Society from the time he helped bring it into the world in 1853 until he died in 1890.

When hardly out of theological seminary Brace came to the conclusion that he could better serve God by working with the poor than by preaching from the pulpit. But he soon found that the adult poor were tough characters to redeem. “A Sisyphus-like work,” he wrote, it “soon discouraged all engaged in it.” The children of the poor, however, seemed more hopeful objects for reform. What struck Brace and his colleagues in their work on New York’s lower east side was “the immense number of boys and girls floating and drifting about our streets, with hardly an assignable home or occupation, who continually swelled the multitude of criminals, prostitutes, and vagrants.”