Need for the Orphan Trains

  • Sumo

Mass Immigration – Part of the Problem

In 1853, the United States began surveying railroad lines to the Pacific, mapping four different routes. Posters, flyers and advertisements were sent to Europe and the rest of the world extolling the virtues of coming to America and getting “free land.” Many were led to believe America was the “land of milk and honey” they so desperately wanted for themselves and their children.  As a result the United States received a larger number of immigrants than any other country in history.  Between 1841 and 1860, America welcomed 4,311,465 newcomers. Many left their homelands because of poor harvests, famines, political unrest and revolutions.  Agents of steamship lines along with the railroad companies attracted thousands to the United States with words such as “the land of opportunity” and “land of a second chance.” This brought laborers for the factories, tenants for western lands, and often chaos to young families when housing became a problem.

It wasn’t until 1882 that congress passed the first general immigration statute.

As early as 1830, some states passed immigration laws of their own but in 1872 the Supreme Court decided these state laws violated the constitution.

Ellis Island, located in New York Harbor, opened in 1892 as property of the United States Bureau of Immigration (later the Immigration and Naturalization Service) but the main structure was gutted by fire in 1897, reopening in 1900 processing 2,251 immigrants the first day.

In 1907, a record number (1,285,349) of immigrants were admitted to the United States. Ten years later, Congress passed a law that required an immigrant to prove that he could read and write at least one language. Physically handicapped and children under 16 did not have to meet this requirement.

The 1921 quota law allowed up to 357,000 aliens from countries outside the Western Hemisphere to enter the United States and by 1924, the total was down to 150,000.

Ellis Island closed in 1954 but became part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965.

Insufficient Living Conditions Added Problems

Port cities were overcrowded for even temporary housing. Tenements often housed ten or more persons to the room. Jobs became scarce and labor was cheap.

Without the extended family (grandparents, aunts, uncles) to rely upon in times of need, young families fell apart. Children as young as six years old were working to help support the family.  Food became scarce. Job safety was not a priority causing many men to be killed in accidents at sea and in other work places. This left women and children to make their own way living as best they could.

Diseases from living in unsanitary quarters led to early deaths of overworked mothers.  Orphanages were built to care for as many children as could possibly be taken in. Adults could pay for the care on a weekly or monthly basis but if the payments stopped, the child became a ward of the court and was “disposed” of as the social workers saw fit.

Indoor Relief and Prejudice in Aid 

America’s first aid relief stemmed from the English Poor Laws of 1601. The laws allowed taxation to aid those in need by the government. While outdoor relief was offered in the form of money, clothes, food and other goods, relief in growing cities quickly shifted to indoor relief. The first New York State poorhouse open in 1734 turning the tide of aid offered in America toward indoor relief. Indoor relief came in many forms, poorhouses, orphanages, and work farms. While indoor relief was meant to “teach” struggling individuals to provided for themselves it led to segregation of the poor and an out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach to all in need.

Aid to the poor was left to the work of public and private aid organizations. This meant more relief but each organization created their own set of criteria. Race, nationality, religion, gender, martial status, and birth legitimacy would limit where individuals and families could seek help.

Lack of aid, epidemics, unsafe work environments, overcrowded tenements and wars would all contribute to children being placed in orphanages and asylums. Large city facilities could house upwards of 200 to 2000 children.

Back to History