From about 1850 through the early twentieth century, thousands of children were transferred from the overcrowded orphanages and homes in the large cities in the northeastern United States to live with families on farms throughout the Middle West.
The name "orphan train" originated with the railroad trains that transported the children to their new homes. While some of the children were orphans, many of them had one or even two living parents. In those cases, the child's parents were unable or unwilling to care for them. Other parents believed their children would have a better life if they were sent to a caring family in the farmlands of the west. Many of the parents (and their children) were immigrants who found life in America harder than they had anticipated.
The goal of the orphan trains was to provide the children with a better life than they had in the crowded slums where many had fended for themselves on the streets. Although some were babies, many were in their teens when sent west. The results of the project were mixed. In some cases, as adults, the orphan train riders were very positive about their adoptive families, for they felt they were treated well, loved, and given better opportunities in life. However, in many cases, the children were taken into a new home only for the work they were expected to do. Some were mistreated. In many cases, siblings were separated from each other and, consequently, from the only family they knew.
Family history research about Orphan Train Riders is often a difficult undertaking. Records are scarce. As adults, those transported often did not remember or did not discuss their previous life in the east. Many later felt that contact with siblings and living relatives was discouraged - perhaps in an attempt to "help the children adjust" to their new home.
Illinois became the new home of many of the children who rode the Orphan Trains. Although Orphan Trains originated in other eastern cities, this list of references focuses on three of the biggest agencies in New York City:
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