Going West On The Orphan Train
The orphan trains are among the most famous episodes in adoption history. Between 1854 and 1929, as many as 250,000 children from New York and other Eastern cities were sent by train to towns in midwestern and western states, as well as Canada and Mexico. Families interested in the orphans showed up to look them over when they were placed on display in local train stations, and placements were frequently made with little or no investigation or oversight.
This ambitious and controversial project in the relocation of a massive child population was emblematic of the move toward placing-out. Organized by the New York Children’s Aid Society and directed by well known reformer Charles Loring Brace, the orphan trains were based on the theory that the innocent children of poor Catholic and Jewish immigrants could be rescued and Americanized if they were permanently removed from depraved urban surroundings and placed with upstanding Anglo-Protestant farming families. This evangelical humanitarianism echoed more than a century later, after World War II, when people like Bertha and Harry Holt made international adoptions more visible and common.