December 1974 | Volume 26, Issue 1
It moved more boys and girls than the Children’s Crusade of the Middle Ages—and to far happier conclusions
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.”
And the numbers were immense. At a time when New York City’s population was around five hundred thousand, the police estimated that there were ten thousand homeless children wandering about. Later, after close observation, Brace and his colleagues came to the conclusion that the number ran as high as thirty thousand. In 1849 city Chief of Police George W. Matsell warned New Yorkers of the perils posed by these “almost infants,” with their “degrading and disgusting habits in the school of vice, prostitution and rowdyism.” Ragged, verminous, barefoot, the vagrant children slept where they could: in doorways, under stairways, in privies, on hay barges, in discarded packing boxes, and on piles of rubbish in alleys and littered back yards. The older boys often became members of street gangs who terrified respectable citizens when they weren’t bashing one another’s heads in; many of the girls were accomplished streetwalkers by the time they were twelve or thirteen years old.
Even when they had families, the children of the poor were under fearful pressue. Crime, drunkenness in epidemic proportions, and unbelievable overcrowding made growing up in New York a hazardous gamble. In some wards of the lower east side several families frequently lived in a single cellar room, even renting out space to an occasional lodger. One huge barracks—the “Old Brewery” at the Five Points, where Worth, Baxter, and Park streets intersect—was “home” to an estimated fifteen hundred men, women, and children. Policemen feared to show their faces there, even though some luckless individual was reportedly done to death within its dank walls nearly every night.
Of course, unwanted and orphaned children were not new in the human experience. Since the dawn of history various methods have been used to solve the problems they pose. Some civilizations have favored exposure—putting the superfluous infant out to die in a wild spot—while others preferred infanticide or selling into slavery. By the early nineteenth century these practices, though socially unacceptable except for the selling of black children, still continued in America. Exposure was not uncommon, only now it was called abandonment and was sometimes refined by leaving the baby in a basket at the door of a dwelling or on the steps of a church. As for infanticide, in New York City in the middle years of the last century it was a common occurrence. Scarcely a day passed without the discovery of the body of an unwanted baby, suffocated in an ash can, thrown into a back alley, or floating on one of the rivers. “Birth control” was a term as yet unknown; and abortion, of course, was illegal and hazardous.
The unwanted child who was lucky enough to stay alive under these circumstances got treated in pretty much the same way as the destitute adult. In those days the authorities saw nothing special about children. One of the quainter methods of handling indigents was known as a poor vendue. At a vendue the town fathers simply auctioned off paupers—individuals and whole families—to the bidder who offered to care for them at the lowest cost for the entire year or per month. The almshouse, or poor farm, was considered an improvement on vendue; the idea here was that the able-bodied poor would work for their keep in public institutions. But not everybody was ablebodied. The almshouse saw children of all ages thrust in with the sick, the senile, the handicapped, and the insane. Then, here and there in the i83o’s, private orphan asylums started cropping up. Here at least children had a chance to get some schooling and learn “deportment” in a relatively clean environment.
But the notion of putting a child who had done no real wrong into an institution of any kind was anathema to young Charles Loring Brace. The impersonal custodial care of an institution, he felt, not only stunted children, it destroyed them. In those days most abandoned or illegitimate babies ended up in the Infant Hospital on Randall’s Island in the East River. In some years the mortality rate there soared as high as 95 per cent. The truth, in Brace’s opinion, was that “if you place these delicate young creatures in large companies together in any public building, an immense proportion are sure to die.”
Orphan asylums, Brace felt, were at best dubious solutions. The regimentation did little to build self-reliance, to prepare the child for practical living. Brace contended that institutional life, like charity handouts, perpetuated pauperism and that both were dismal failures when it came to helping people to learn to stand on their own.
And so in 1853 the idealistic twenty-six-year-old and a handful of likeminded reformers founded the Children’s Aid Society. Brace lost no time in putting into effect his theories about how best to transform New York’s orphans and street children from social menaces and potential criminals into self-reliant members of society. Gainful work, education, and a wholesome family atmosphere were his answers.
In March the society issued a circular outlining its intentions:
THE CHILDREN’S AID SOCIETY
This society has taken its origin in the deeply settled feelings of our citizens, that something must be done to meet the increasing crime and poverty among the destitute children of New York.
Its objects are to help this class by opening Sunday Meetings and Industrial Schools, and, gradually as means shall be furnished, by forming Lodging-houses and Reading-rooms for children, and by employing paid agents whose sole business shall be to care for them. …
We hope, too, especially to be the means of draining the city of these children, by communicating with farmers, manufacturers, or families in the country, who may have need of such for employment. …
The response was immediate and astounding. As Brace described it in one of his books, The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years’ Work Among Them , first published in 1872: Most touching of all was the crowd of wandering little ones who immediately found their way to the office. Ragged young girls who had nowhere to lay their heads; children driven from drunkards’ homes; orphans who slept where they could find a box or a stairway; boys cast out by stepmothers or stepfathers; newsboys, whose incessant answer to our question, “Where do you live?” rung in our ears—“Don’t live nowhere!” Little bootblacks, young peddlers, “canawl-boys,” who seem to drift into the city every winter, and live a vagabond life; pickpockets and petty thieves trying to get honest work; child beggars and flower-sellers growing up to enter courses of crime—all this motley throng of infantile misery and childish guilt passed through our doors, telling their simple stories of suffering and loneliness and temptation, until our hearts became sick; and the present writer, certainly, if he had not been able to stir up the fortunate classes to aid in assuaging these fearful miseries, would have abandoned the post in discouragement and disgust.
Emigration—emigration to homes in the country—declared Brace, was the answer, the most sensible and economical way of getting children out of this frightful environment. And so, scarcely a month after the organization of the new society, a Mr. and Mrs. May of Woodstock, Connecticut, were presented with the first child placed out—a thirteen-year-old lad named Franklin Mathieson, whom they took to live with them.
Placing out was not in itself a new idea. The system had been used in France for centuries, with considerable success. But Brace proposed that the foster homes be free . On the farms of America, he felt, there was always room for one more pair of hands to help with the chores. With an abundance of good food and the prevalence of Christian charity, the addition of another child to a farm home could only be a blessing.
Under Brace’s plan families deemed suitable by representatives of the society could select a child from its roster of boys and girls. The prospective foster parents promised to take good care of the child, to provide him with a “Christian home,” and to see that he received schooling. The society did not pay them, nor did they pay the society. Brace insisted that this was not “binding out,” or indenture, a common practice under which a young person was bound by a legal contract to work for a certain period in return for board and keep. In fact, older children who were placed with farm families by the society were to be paid for their labors.
The whole system was remarkably informal. If at any time the new foster family or employer felt things weren’t working out, or if the child seemed unhappy or appeared to be mistreated when an agent of the Children’s Aid Society came back to check on him, the arrangement could be terminated and a new home sought for the society’s ward.
During the first year, 1853, children were placed in nearby New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania farm homes on an individual basis. Soon, however, it became clear that the demand for children from babies to husky teen-agers was so great and so widespread, and the number of homeless children in New York City so vast, that some other way had to be found to bring adults and children together. In September, 1854, one of the agents employed by the new society, the Reverend E. P. Smith, chaperoned west the first of the hundreds of groups of emigrant children who were to make the orphan trains almost a part of American folklore.
The destination of this trailblazing group, boys ranging in age from seven to fifteen, was the little town of Dowagiac in southwestern Michigan. To reach it they travelled by boat to Albany, by train to Buffalo, by lake boat from Buffalo to Detroit (“with the addition of a touch of seasickness, and of the stamping, neighing, and bleating of a hundred horses and sheep over our heads”), and from Detroit to Dowagiac in a car of the Michigan C.R.R. The juvenile emigrants embarked from New York on a Wednesday evening. At three A.M. on Sunday their train chugged into Dowagiac, where they spent the rest of the night sleeping on the station platform.
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).
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.
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.
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 uoo.ooo 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.