On the morning of September 24, 1854, forty-five children sat in the front benches of a meeting house in Dowagiac, Michigan. Most were between ten and twelve years old, though at least one was six, and a few were as old as fifteen. During the week the meeting house served as a school, but on that day, a Sunday, it was a Presbyterian church, and more than usually crowded, not only because the children had taken so many seats, but because the regular parishioners had been augmented by less devout neighbors curious to see the “orphans.”
For the last couple of weeks notices had been running in the newspapers, and bills had been posted at the general store, the tavern and the railroad station asking families to take in homeless boys and girls from New York City. The children had arrived on the train from Detroit at three that morning, and had huddled together on the station platform until sun up. They had spent the previous night on a steamer crossing Lake Erie from Buffalo, New York, and not a one of them had avoided being soiled by seasickness -- their own or their fellow passengers -- or by the excreta of the animals traveling on the deck above. The night before, they had slept on the floor of an absolutely dark freight car, amid a crowd of German and Irish immigrants heading west from Albany. During their first night out from New York City, on a riverboat traveling up the Hudson, had they slept in proper berths, with blankets and mattresses -- but only because the boat’s captain, after hearing the tales they told of their lives, had taken pity on them.
The children’s days of hard travel were clearly evident in their pallor and the subtle deflation of their features. Their clothes -- which had been new when they left New York -- were stained and ripped and emitted a distinct animal rankness. Their expressions were wary, as if they had been caught doing something wrong and were wondering if they were going to be punished. In some of the younger children, this wariness verged on fear, but most of the older boys and girls had known too much disappointment and loneliness to be afraid of what was about to happen to them, or at least to reveal that fear, even to themselves. Some of them cast glances -- challenging, or ingratiating -- back at the men and women seated behind them; some looked down at their shoes, while others stared straight ahead at the young man beside the altar, whose enthusiasm, accent and fluid gestures marked him as a city preacher. His name was E. P. Smith, and he was telling the audience about the organization he represented: the Children’s Aid Society, which had been founded only one and a half years earlier by a young minister named Charles Loring Brace.
Brace, a Hartford native, had come to New York in 1848 to study theology, and had been horrified both by the hoards of vagrant children -- beggars, bootblacks, flower sellers and prostitutes -- who crowded the city’s streets, and by the way civil authorities treated them. Mass poverty was a new problem during that era. Up through the early nineteenth century there had been no slums in American cities. There had been poor people, of course, and rundown houses on the back streets, and disreputable taverns on the waterfronts, but none of the large, decaying neighborhoods of fear and despair that are so ubiquitous in urban America today. Beginning shortly after the War of 1812, torrential immigration combined with the nation’s uneasy transition to industrial capitalism had divided American cities into into hostile camps of the affluent and the desperately poor. In no city was this division more pronounced than New York, which started the nineteenth century with a population of less than forty-thousand, and ended at close to a million and a half. In 1849 New York’s first police chief reported that 3,000 children1 -- or close to one percent of the city’s total population -- lived on the streets and had no place to sleep but alleys, abandoned buildings or under stairways. At first the authorities dealt with these vagrant children mainly by incarcerating them in adult prisons and alms houses, and then, beginning in the 1820s, by building juvenile prisons and asylums, which were barely less harsh or punitive.
Brace believed that most of these children were not criminals, but victims of miserable economic and social conditions. Incarceration did nothing but “harden” them in the ways of crime. What they really needed, he maintained, was education, jobs and good homes -- and in March of 1853 he established an organization to provide them with just such benefits.
During its first year, the Children’s Aid Society primarily offered its young beneficiaries religious guidance at Sunday meetings, and vocational and academic instruction at its Industrial Schools. It also established the nation’s first runaway shelter, the Newsboys’ Lodging House, where vagrant boys received inexpensive room and board, and basic education. From the beginning, Brace and his colleagues attempted to find jobs and homes for individual children, but they soon become overwhelmed by the numbers needing placement. Unable to raise enough money to increase his staff, Brace hit on the idea of sending groups of children to the country and letting local residents simply pick out the child they wanted for themselves. The forty-five young people sitting in the Dowagiac meeting house were the first of these groups -- and the first riders of what would come to be called the “orphan trains.”
As Mr. Smith explained the program to his audience, he appealed equally to their consciences and pocket books. These were the “little ones of Christ” he said, who had the same capacities, the same need of good influences, and the same immortal soul as “our own” children. Kind men and women who opened their homes to one of this “ragged regiment” would be expected to raise them as they would their natural born children, providing them with decent food and clothing, a “common” education, and one hundred dollars when they turned twenty-one. There would be no loss in the charity, Mr. Smith assured his audience. The boys were handy and active, and would soon learn any common trade or labor. The girls could be used for all types of housework.
When he had finished speaking, bench-legs squawked on the floorboards and the congregation came forward to get a better look at the children. Some of these men and women were shop keepers, carpenters, or blacksmiths, and one was a physician; but most were farmers. Their faces were gaunt (only the wealthy were fat in the nineteenth century) and reddened by sun, wind and, in not a few cases, by whiskey. As they mingled with Mr. Smith’s party, some blinked back tears that such innocents should already have known so much hardship, others looked them up and down and asked questions, trying to access their strength and honesty, while one or two went so far as to squeeze the children’s muscles or plunge a finger into their mouths to check their teeth.
The actual distribution of the children commenced the following morning at the tavern where they were staying. In his report to the Children’s Aid Society, Mr. Smith said that in order to get a child, applicants had to have recommendations from their pastor and a justice of the peace, but it is unlikely that this requirement was strictly enforced. In the early days the Society’s agents tended to be very casual both in the acquisition and dispersal of their charges. Mr. Smith, himself, had let a passenger on the riverboat from Manhattan take one of the boys, and replaced that boy with another he met in the Albany railroad yard -- a boy whose claim to orphanhood Mr. Smith never bothered to verify. When applicants didn’t have the required documents, Mr. Smith probably did what was done routinely by later CAS agents: He looked at the quality and cleanness of the applicants’ clothes, asked them about their property, profession and church attendance, and, if he saw no evidence that they were liars or degenerates, gave them the child.
By the end of that first day (a Monday) fifteen boys and girls had gone to live with local farmers or craftsmen, and by Thursday evening twenty-two more had been taken. On Friday, Mr. Smith and the eight unclaimed children -- the youngest and therefore the least able workers -- continued west from Dowagiac by train. In Chicago, Mr. Smith put them by themselves onto a train to Iowa City (one and a half days’ journey), where a Reverend C.C. Townsend, who ran a local orphanage, took them in and attempted to find them foster families. As for Mr. Smith, he caught the first train back to New York.

Despite the fact that the Children’s Aid Society heard practically nothing of most of these children ever again, this first expedition was considered such a success that in January the Society sent out two more parties of homeless children, both to Pennsylvania. Over the next seventy-five years, the CAS’s “orphan trains” carried an estimated 105,000 children to all of the contiguous forty-eight states, except Arizona. For most of those years the children were distributed to the their new “parents” or “employers” (both terms were used) much as they had been by Mr. Smith, through a sort of auction held in a church, opera house or large store. Applicants for children were supposed to be screened by committees of local businessmen, ministers or physicians, but the screening was rarely very thorough. The monitoring of placements was equally lax. The great difficulty and expense of travel in nineteenth century rural America meant that boys and girls were rarely checked up on in person by CAS agents. The Society tried to keep tabs on placements by sending both the children and their foster parents regular letters of inquiry, but these mostly went unanswered.
Sustained by a monitoring system that seriously under-reported failure and by a prodigious quantity of blind faith, Charles Loring Brace tirelessly promoted what he called the “Emigration Plan” during his thirty-seven years at the head of the Children’s Aid Society. In moving and persuasive books, articles, speeches and annual reports, he portrayed his system of placing needy and orphaned children in families as more humane and effective than even the best institutional care, and also as vastly cheaper. As a result, Brace’s system was imitated by many organizations, initially only in the East, but eventually all across the country. The New York Foundling Hospital alone sent more than 30,000 children west.
All tolled, by 1929, when the CAS sent its last official orphan train to Nebraska, roughly 250,000 city children had found foster homes through these programs. Some of these children were abused by their new families in all the ways that we are familiar with from present day news reports about the tragedies of foster care, and some were just as happy as the literature of their placement agencies said they were. Two boys placed by the CAS became governors, one became a Supreme Court Justice, and several others became mayors, Congressmen or local representatives. Many children grew up to become drifters and thieves, and at least one became a murderer. The vast majority led lives of absolutely ordinary accomplishment and satisfaction. And many, perhaps also a majority (because there is nothing extraordinary about unhappiness), saw no end the the misery into which they had been born.
This book concentrates on the CAS orphan trains, not only because the Society placed considerably more children over a much longer period than any other agency, but because Charles Loring Brace almost single-handedly forged the philosophical foundations of the movement and of many other efforts on behalf of poor children, and remains to this day perhaps the preeminent figure in American child welfare history. Until well into the twentieth century, virtually every program seeking to help homeless and needy children was either inspired by or a response to Brace’s work and ideas. His notion that children are better cared for by families than in institutions is the most basic tenet of present day foster care. And his abiding belief in the capability and fundamental goodness of poor city children, while occasionally echoed in the speeches of politicians and child welfare experts, is one that our nation dearly needs to reclaim.
Brace was an exceedingly hard working, intelligent and complex man, whose life can hardly be defined by his work with the Children’s Aid Society. He was jailed in Hungary for supposed revolutionary activities, he was a prominent abolitionist, author, and journalist. As a New York Times correspondent during the Civil War he was present at some of the Union Army’s most stunning early defeats. His best friend for much of his young manhood was Frederick Law Olmsted, the celebrated designer of Central Park, and his social contacts included Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington Irving and George Eliot.
With all of his drive and accomplishment, Brace contained many contradictions. He was ferociously ambitious, yet believed ambition a sin. He constantly excoriated himself for not living up to his ideals -- for not working hard enough, loving well enough, or having pure enough motives -- but never seems to have doubted the exemplariness of his character. He could speak quite openly about his "abounding courage and hope," and proclaim without the slightest shred of irony, "I am striving after perfect truth," and admit, as if it were only self-evident, that "few human beings have ever had a more real sense of things unseen than I habitually have." And yet he believed that virtue existed only in humility and self-denial. He wanted always to live more simply and to endure greater hardship. What he called his "brightest of all visions" was "a humble, self-controlled life, all devoted, given up, to working for human happiness." 2
As much as Brace’s work with the Children’s Aid Society may have satisfied his desire for prestige and power, it was nevertheless the single greatest moral effort of his life. In simplest terms, this book is an attempt to measure the virtue of that effort by examining its motives and by tracing its consequences, both during Brace’s lifetime and after. The earliest chapters explore what in Brace’s experiences and era made the idea of sending even small children hundreds of miles from home to live with total strangers seem natural and good. Later chapters discuss the successes and failures of Brace’s efforts, and those of his imitators, and show how changing ideas of childhood, work, bondage and the nature of society caused what had once seemed an act of nearly unassailable wisdom and compassion to appear cruelly indifferent to the very children it had been designed to help.
The true measure of the virtue of Brace’s effort lies in its effect on the lives of these children. This book will illustrate that effect by looking at the fates of orphan train riders in aggregate, and by telling the stories of particular children: of John Jackson, who at five years old walked off after a marching band and never found his way home again; of a lame street peddler named Johnny Morrow, who conned the Children's Aid Society staff by fulfilling their most sentimental fantasies; of Lotte Stern, a rag picker's fourteen-year-old daughter, who, like so many girls of her time, was forced into prostitution and then damned for it by society; of John Brady and Andrew Burke who rode the same Orphan Train in 1859 and became, respectively, the governors of Alaska and North Dakota; and of Charley Miller, who shot two other boys dead on a box car in Wyoming because, as he put it at his trial, he was lonely and cold and so far from home.

A cautionary note: While the term “orphan trains” has a poetic resonance and a degree of recognition that made it the all but inevitable title for this book, there are ways in which it misrepresents the placement efforts by the CAS and other agencies. During the orphan train era itself, none of these agencies ever actually used the term in their official publications. The CAS referred to its relevant division, first as the “Emigration Department,” then as the “Home-Finding Department” and finally as the “Department of Foster Care.” The Foundling Hospital sent out what it called “baby” or “mercy” trains. And almost everybody else referred to the practice as “family placement” or “out placement” (“out” to distinguish it from the placement of children “in” orphanages or asylums). The term “orphan trains” may have been coined by a journalist sometime in the early twentieth century, but it did not come into its present wide currency until long after the close of the era, perhaps as recently as 1976, when CBS aired a fictional mini-series entitled “The Orphan Trains.”
One reason why the term was not used by placement agencies was that less than half of the children who rode the trains were, in fact, orphans, and as many as twenty-five percent had two living parents. Children with both parents might end up on the trains -- or in orphanages -- because their families didn’t have the money or desire to raise them, or because they had been abused, abandoned or had run away; and many teenaged boys and girls came to orphan train sponsoring organizations simply because they were looking for work or free tickets out of the city.
The term “orphan trains” is also misleading because a substantial number of the placed out children never took the railroad to their new homes, or even traveled very far. While the majority of children placed by the CAS went to the Midwest and West, the state that received the greatest number by far (nearly one third of the total) was New York, with Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania also getting substantial numbers. The main goal of the Emigration Plan was to remove children from slums where opportunities were scant and “immoral influences” plentiful, and place them in “good Christian homes.” In part because Brace considered the country fundamentally more beneficent, and in part because the demand for children (as laborers and for adoption) was always highest in the least settled areas, the typical “good Christian home” was a farm. But the CAS did place many children, not only near New York, but right in the City itself. And what is more, for most of the orphan train era, the CAS bureaucracy made no distinction between these local placements and even its most distant. They were all written up in the same record books and, on the whole, managed by the same people. Also, the same child might be placed one time in the West and the next -- if the first home didn’t work out -- in New York City. The decision about where a child should go was made almost entirely on the basis of which alternative was most readily available at the moment the child needed help.
Because distant and local placement were so functionally interchangeable, discussing only what might be called “classic” orphan train placement -- groups of children distributed far from New York City -- would distort the nature and goals of orphan train programs, and misrepresent the experiences of many of the placed children. It would also obscure the fact that, in an important sense, the orphan train era never ended. What really happened is that during the first decades of the twentieth century, as a result of demographic, political, and social changes, fewer and fewer children were sent to homes in other states and more and more were placed locally. Decades before the last orphan train went to Nebraska, all of the main placement organizations -- including the CAS -- had become primarily what we would call foster care and adoption agencies. But for the people operating these agencies, the transformation was only a matter of how they did their work (mostly involving an increase in the screening and monitoring of placements) and not a significant change in the work’s fundamental nature and goals.
It is important -- even consummately important -- not to obscure the connection between the orphan trains and our own child welfare programs, because the consequences of Brace's moral effort end, if they may be said to end at all, only now, in this moment, and in each succeeding moment, as we ourselves decide what we can and should do to help the "poor and friendless" children of our own time. It is my hope that, as we discover how well or ill Brace and his followers promoted the happiness of children during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we will better understand how we might serve those children who most need our help at the start of this new millennium.

Selected Works

Conjunctions: 60, 2013; Best American Short Stories 2014
Conjunctions 55, 2010
From Various Journals
Teachers & Writers Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 2000
Selection from ORPHAN TRAINS: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed