FAQs

Q: Was there more than one Orphan Train?

A: Yes – there were thousands! Many riders thought that they rode the only orphan train. This may be because, in their limited child’s world, they could not conceive of there being other trains moving other children. It may also be because they simple never met other orphan train riders. Only after the riders started getting together at reunions, and started comparing notes, did they realize just how many children were involved. They found out that they were not the only ones, and there were others out there facing the same kinds of problems they had faced. Many riders found great comfort in this, and the reunions helped them feel that they were not alone.

Q: Where did orphan train riders come from?

A: Most orphan train riders came from Boston and New York City, which were the main sources of the Riders. However, they were not the only sources. Other children were sent out from orphanages across the country.

Q: Where were the children sent?

A: Children were sent to the 48 continental United States. The majority were sent to the Midwest and West, but New England and the South also received children. Occasionally, children were also sent to Canada or placed in indentures or apprenticeships on ships.

Q: Why were trains used to transport children?

A: Trains were a reliable, practical system of transportation to deliver precious cargo. Trains offered direct and efficient transportation to towns willing to receive children. Additionally, many railroads offered discounted rates to people moving West, making it a cost effective way to move the children in large groups.

Q: What nationalities or races where the children?

A: We estimate that about half of the total number of children who rode the orphan trains were American born. Most of the children were white and came from Western European backgrounds. Most organizations sending children West thought that white European children would be the easiest to place and the most likely to find loving homes. However, children of color, including Italian, Armenian, and black children, were also placed out by orphan train.

Q: Were siblings kept together?

A: This can be a complicated question. First of all, it was common for families to only place some of their children in orphanages. For example, if a family with 5 children fell on hard times, they may have chosen to keep the oldest 2, give the middle 2 to an orphanage, and send the youngest to live with a family member or friend. Once the children reached an orphanage, it was common for children to be separated by gender or age, so siblings could have been separated at this stage. If sibling sets were going to be sent West by orphan train, most organizations tried to keep them together, or at least placed them in the same area. Unfortunately, it was common for siblings to be separated at some point in the long process that lead to placement, and many orphan train riders lost track of or never knew they had siblings. Some riders did later reunite with their siblings.

Q: Why is it an ESTIMATED 250,000 children? Didn’t they keep records?

A: Orphan trains were sent out by many organizations in NYC, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and other large cities. Over the 75 years that orphan trains ran, there was no unified way of recording information about the children placed, and each organization kept their own records. Most of these organizations didn’t communicate their statistics to one another, and while some published the number of children they were helping, many did not share that information. Over the 90 years since the last orphan train ran, some of the records regarding the numbers of children placed and the names of the children have been lost or destroyed. The estimate of 250,000 is based off of existing records, annual reports, and newspaper articles.

Q: Was the government involved in orphan trains?

A: Until the 1930s, most welfare organizations were privately funded by wealthy philanthropists and religious institutions. Most orphanages that placed children out by train were not publicly funded, though a few were.

Q: Did other countries have similar systems?

A: Yes. In fact, Charles Loring Brace, who developed the orphan train system, was inspired by similar programs in the United Kingdom and Germany. British children were sometimes moved from the United Kingdom to Canada or Australia and were called Home Children.

Q: What is the difference between adoption and indenture?

A: When a child is adopted, he/she become equal to the natural children in all respects – including inheritance.

Indenture was a legal means to remove a child from an unsatisfactory home without a long court procedure. The child was not given inheritance rights. People tended to use the two terms interchangeably but they are not the same thing. Many people simply did not know the difference.

Q: Could my ancestor be an orphan train rider?

A: Yes. Not all orphan train riders talked about their experiences, but some did. Consider asking your relatives if any of them know if your ancestor was adopted. If you suspect your ancestor may have been an orphan train rider, here are some clues to look for: Were they born on the east coast but appear to have moved to a different state as a child? Does their last name mysteriously change in the middle of their childhood? Are the listed in census records as boarders, inmates, or servants or living with a family that is not their birth family? For more information on genealogical research, click here.

Q: Why is it so difficult to find and obtain records of orphan train riders?

A: First, there are not always records of the children in the first place. Second, when there are records, they can sometimes be inaccurate. This makes it difficult to find records if you think a name or birthdate should be one thing, but is recorded slightly differently. Finally, many states, including New York, have instituted strict privacy laws for personal documents such as birth certificates, and are unable to share them with descendants.

Q: Why didn’t I learn about the orphan trains in school?

A: There are many reasons why you may not have learned about orphan trains. First, history is often recorded by adults and with a focus on adults. Children are often overlooked, as were other groups of people who didn’t have a voice in society.

Second, there is simply so much history for our teachers to cover. They have to decide what things are most important for their students to know, and often, “small” events or events focused on minorities or children are left out. Additionally, many teachers are probably unaware that the orphan train movement even happened.

Finally, it may be that many people do not want to admit that the orphan train movement happened and see it as a shameful aspect of history. While most of the children who were moved West found loving homes, some of them were abused or used as free labor. Some people may feel guilty or ashamed that this happened.

Q: Was Billy the Kid an orphan train rider?

A: The short answer is no. For more information about Billy the Kid and how we determined he was not a rider, read our Head Researcher’s article, “Dispelling a Myth” by clicking here.