The first orphan train, as we now call them, was sent out by the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) in 1854. The group consisted of 46 children from ages 7 to 15, and was sent to Dowagiac, Michigan. Prior to this trip, a few New York orphanages had been sending individual or small groups of children to foster homes within the state, but none of them had ever sent a group this large or this far away. It was a gamble, but one that ultimately paid off. By the end of the week, all 46 children found homes. Thus began the orphan train movement.
After the success of this first trip, the CAS expanded their emigration program and continued sending groups of children, accompanied by an agent, to find homes out West. Other organizations soon began their own versions of this placing out program. Some orphanages organized their own groups, while others would send children to larger organizations, like the CAS, who would add them to their companies. We estimate as many as 30 NYC orphanages had or participated in placing out programs. The four biggest organizations were the Children’s Aid Society, the New York Foundling Hospital, the New York Juvenile Asylum, and the American Female Guardian Society.
The Children’s Aid Society
The Children’s Aid Society (CAS), the first organization to place children out by orphan train, was founded in 1853 by Charles Loring Brace. Brace was a minister who found himself working in some of New York’s poorest neighborhoods. While there, he noticed the large number of children seeking help and the lack of institutions suited to their age group. To remedy this, he and a group of other minsters and business men founded the Children’s Aid Society with the specific aim of educating, housing, and finding permanent homes for orphaned, abandoned, or impoverished children. The society operated industrial schools, Sunday schools, farm schools, reading rooms, and lodging houses for boys and girls.
In 1854, the CAS pioneered the orphan train system when they sent 46 children to Dowagiac, Michigan to find homes. The system was slowly refined and expanded and served as a blueprint for many other placing out organizations. The CAS also relocated families by train in their Family Emigration Program. Many of these families traveled with orphan train groups. In 1929, the CAS ended their placing out program.
To learn more about how we learn about the History of the Children’s Aid Society, check out our video, “Children’s Aid Society of New York: Annual Reports and the Orphan Train Movement”.
The Children’s Aid Society (now known simply as Children’s Aid) continues to serve children, youth, and families in New York City with programs focused on academic and social-emotional learning, health and nutrition, and family and community. To find out more about Children’s Aid, click here.
The New York Foundling Hospital
The New York Foundling Hospital (NYFH) was founded by three Sisters of Charity in 1869. On the very first night they opened, they received their first charge – a baby girl named Sarah. In 1875, the NYFH began their own orphan train program, which focused on placing young children in Catholic Homes. Due to the young children they carried, NYFH groups were sometimes called baby trains instead of orphan trains.
The NYFH worked a little differently than other placing out organizations. Instead of organizing local committees to approve families for adoption, families were approved by their local church leaders. The NYFH also determined which family a child would be placed with before they even set foot on a train. The Sisters would assign each child in the orphan train group a number, and sew small tags in their clothing stating their number, the family receiving them, and their new home address. Adoptive families were mailed a matching card that had all of the same information on it. Once the train reached their destination, adoptive families would meet the Sisters, and show them the card, and claim their child. The Foundling stopped placing children out by train in 1919.
Throughout their long history, the Foundling has also developed nurseries, pre-schools, hospitals, clinics, nurse training programs, and more. More recently, they have founded summer camps, charter schools, and other programs specifically geared towards under-served populations. You can find out more about the Foundling by clicking here.
The New York Juvenile Asylum
The New York Juvenile Asylum (NYJA) was founded in 1851 by a group of businessmen. They were concerned about vagrant children, and formed the NYJA to house, educate, reform, and indenture children who were homeless, truant, or who had been arrested for petty crimes. They imagined the NYJA as a place for non-delinquent children who would otherwise be placed in Houses of Refuge with adult criminals. They also took in children who had been removed from their homes or surrendered by their guardians. While at the NYJA, children attended school for 6 hours a day, and were taught religious, academic, and trade subjects.
30 children from the first orphan train trip to Dowagiac, Michigan, which was organized by the Children’s Aid Society, were actually from the New York Juvenile Asylum. After the success of that first group, the NYJA began organizing their own orphan train groups. Between 1855 and 1857, they also collaborated with Rev. Mr. Enoch Kingsbury, who requested large groups of children to be indentured in Illinois and parts of Indiana. After 1857, Rev. Kingsbury continued working for the NYJA as a County Agent. The NYJA reformed a loose partnership with the Children’s Aid Society in 1907, which lasted until approximately 1920. In total, the NYJA sent approximately 6,000 children out by orphan train. Most of these children were formally indentured.
In 1920 the NYJA changed their name to the Children’s Village, which is what they are called today. They continue to operate residential programs, provide education, counseling and career services, and more. You can learn more about Children’s Village by clicking here. For more information about the history of the NYJA or to request access to their records, click here.
New York Juvenile Asylum, 175th St. near 10th Avenue, c. 1872, R. Horton and Charles Hart, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library Digital Collections, https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-d381-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.
The American Female Guardian Society
The organization that would eventually become the American Female Guardian Society (AFGS) began in 1834 as a moral reform society. Moral reform societies were groups of women inspired by religious revivals who aimed to reform sex workers and improve the morality of American society. The AFGS began their work by preaching, handing out tracts, and taking poor women and their children into their own homes, and offering employment services. In 1835, they began publishing their own magazine, the Advocate of Moral Reform, which ran until 1941. After they purchased a building, they began housing needy children in their Home for the Friendless.
The AFGS began sending children from the Home for the Friendless to live with families in the 1840s. In the beginning, the foster families would usually come to the Home to pick up the children. However, beginning in the 1850s, the AFGS started sending children by car or train to their new homes. The children would usually be accompanied by one of the AFGS agents. In the 1840s and early 1850s, the children were usually sent to homes in the New England area. It wasn’t until the late 1850s that they started sending children to Western states. Unlike placements by other agencies, the children sent out by the AFGS usually traveled alone with an agent, instead of in large groups, and they knew exactly which family would be taking them in before they left New York.
After the founding of the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) in 1853, the AFGS occasionally worked with them to send more children West. CAS agents would come to the Home for the Friendless and pick up children they thought would easily find homes. These children would then join the larger CAS companies traveling by orphan train. In 1974, the AFGS merged with another charity. Many of their original records were given to the Rockland County Historical Society in New York, who eventually transferred them to the National Orphan Train Complex. These records include certificates signed by parents surrendering their children to the AFGS and books full of detailed accounts of children’s movements within the foster system. For more information on accessing these records, click here.
American Female Guardian Society. East Thirtieth Street, between Fourth and Madison Avenues, 1850-1945, Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, the New York Public Library Digital Collections, https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/c62f5100-e9b4-0131-b923-58d385a7b928. School children at the Home for the Friendless, 1865, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, the New York Public Library Digital Collections, https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-2076-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Brace, Charles Loring. The Dangerous Classes of New York, and Twenty years’ work among them. New York: Wynkoop and Hallenbeck, 1872.
Children’s Aid. Accessed October 2021.
“Children’s Aid Society of New York.” Social Welfare History Project, Virginia Commonwealth University. Accessed October 2021.
Gray, Christopher. “Streetscpaes: Woodycrest Children’s Home; A New Life – and Mission – for a Bronx Residence.” New York Times, Jan. 8, 1989.
Hasan, J. E. “Charles Loring Brace (June 19, 1826 – August 11, 1890): Congregational minister, child welfare advocate, founder of the New York Children’s Aid Society and organizer of the Orphan’s Train.” Social Welfare History Project, Virginia Commonwealth University. Accessed October 2021.
Holt, Marilyn Irvin. The Orphan Trains: Placing out in America. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
Kidder, Clark. Records of the New York Juvenile Asylum. Accessed October 2021.
The New York Foundling. Accessed October 2021.
Warren, Andrea. Orphan Train Rider: One Boy’s True Story. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.