Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Theresa Derry

Time Capsule Editor

Nineteenth century America. This period marked an extreme shift in American citizenship, as well as economic inequalities. It was these two forces that lead to the founding of the Children’s Aid Society in 1853. Founded by a former Yale student, Charles Loring Bruce, the Children’s Aid Society was a child welfare organization located in the Big Apple. Bruce, the originator of this society, would continue to fight for social welfare equality as he and other partnering welfare institutions later established the Orphan Train Movement.

In 1853, the United States began to advertise to Europe and the rest of the world that this country  ensured “free land” to it citizens. These advertisements, in addition to the mapping of railroad lines to the Pacific ocean, resulted in America receiving the largest number of immigrants than any other reported country in history. Between 1841 to 1860, America received 4,311,465 new arrivals. Many of these immigrants left their homeland due to famine and political controversy. They were told that the United States was not only the “land of opportunity.” Unfortunately, these immigrants would soon learn the hard way that American life would not be easy.

The overabundance in laborers for factories and tenants needing to be housed soon resulted in chaos for younger families due to limited housing available in New York City. This was not the only disparity for new immigrants, as on August 3, 1882 Congress passed its first public immigration law. Known as the Immigration Act, this law restricted the number of immigrants that could obtain American citizenship due to a strict set of exclusionary benchmarks. The United States commissioners and officers had the role of examining these new immigrants upon their arrival. Passengers categorized as “idiots,” “lunatics,” or not capable of acquiring the means to take care of themselves could not enter this “land of opportunity.”

Upon arriving to this country, these new immigrants also faced insufficient living conditions. America’s port cities were overcrowded due to this influx of new immigrants, resulting in many  new arrivals not having access to temporary housing. The tenements where many of the new comes resided housed ten or more people, leading to crowded and uncomfortable living quarters. This influx of new immigrants not only resulted in a lack of housing, but jobs soon became scarce due to this increase in population. Job safety was also not a priority for these new laborers, and many men were killed in work-related accidents at their occupations or overseas.

Due to the loss of spouses, women with children were now forced to financially support their families. Due to unsanitary living environments, as well as the new responsibility of being the “breadwinner” of the family, a majority of these mothers died prematurely. The deaths of these mothers lead to the founding of American orphanages. The largest American orphanages typically housed between two hundred to two thousand children.

To escape the crowded and harsh living environments of America’s orphanages, orphans would travel on the “orphan trains,” hoping for a better life in the western part of the United States.  Leaving familiar New York City, thirty to forty children would travel on these trains with two or three adults as their caretakers. Upon arriving to the “good old west,” these caretakers would well groom the orphans to prepare them for their inspection. Once passing inspection, orphans would be put on stage in a local vicinity. This action was known as “being put up for adoption.”

These orphans were fortunate if they had people inquire to be their new caregivers. In order to be an orphan’s new caregivers, basic paperwork was completed and a local committee decided if these particular people were “fit” enough. During this process, siblings were often separated from one another as people could only afford to adopt one child. Despite the hardships that these children faced when establishing their new homes on the west coast, their lives were much more prosperous there. If these children stayed in their prior unfit living conditions, many would have died and not been able to continue their legacies. It has been recorded that over two million descendants have come from the children saved due to the Orphan Train Movement.

The Orphan Train Movement not only saved lives, but it laid the groundwork for establishing children’s rights. Children’s protection laws, school lunch programs, child medical treatments and the beginnings of the welfare system were results of the Orphan Train Movement.

Theresa Derry can be contacted at

Share and Enjoy !