The Orphan Trains: Placing out in America

The Orphan Trains: Placing out in America

The Orphan Trains: Placing out in America

The Orphan Trains: Placing out in America


"From 1850 to 1930 America witnessed a unique emigration and resettlement of at least 200,000 children and several thousand adults, primarily from the East Coast to the West. This 'placing out,' an attempt to find homes for the urban poor, was best known by the 'orphan trains' that carried the children. Holt carefully analyzes the system, initially instituted by the New York Children's Aid Society in 1853, tracking its imitators as well as the reasons for its creation and demise. She captures the children's perspective with the judicious use of oral histories, institutional records, and newspaper accounts. This well-written volume sheds new light on the multifaceted experience of children's immigration, changing concepts of welfare, and Western expansion. It is good, scholarly social history."-Library Journal

"Soon there will be no memories of the 'little companies,' as they were called, of children setting out with an adult leader for a new life. This little book is kind of a preservation movement, and a contribution to our understanding of how the West was won."-David Shribman, Wall Street Journal

"As a portrait of the time's charitable networks, The Orphan Trains succeeds.... [Holt's] work brings to light a meaningful concept: the idea that charity; then and now, is sometimes tinged with greed, indifference, hostility, self-promotion and is an institution that can serve the giver more than the receiver."-David James Rose, Washington Times

Marilyn Irvin Holt, former director of publications at the Kansas State Historical Society; is a freelance editor, writer, and researcher and teaches historical editing at the University of Kansas.


In 1873 the popular periodical Harper's New Monthly Magazine captured with story and pen-and-ink drawing the migration of children to America's heartland. With mainstream America as its reading audience, this magazine romanticized and gave nobility to a special nineteenth-century life experience. It indicated, by the fact of publication, society's approval in general for this urban-to- rural resettlement of children and provided one small glimpse of a system that lasted for seventy-six years.

In a 1979 book the Charlene Joy Talbot character Kevin O'Rourke left his life as a New York City newspaperboy and traveled west with a group of children as An Orphan for Nebraska. The fictional Kevin encountered much the same experiences known to the real children illustrated in Harper's almost a century before. This twentieth-century account of a child's migration west is just one of many to appear in recent years, indicating a continuing interest in what was known in the nineteenth century as "placing out."

The term "placing out" has given way, however, to "orphan train," and those who were placed out have now become "orphan train riders." The meaning is sure, even if the literal description is faulty. These identifiers, now common, have become a part of . . .

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