In the mid nineteenth century the New York Children’s Aid Society was created in an effort to better the lives of destitute children living on the streets of Manhattan. Lead by Charles Loring Brace, a devout Protestant and graduate of Yale college, the Society opened lodging homes for boys and industrial schools for young girls. These institutions were developed in the hope that by providing children with a space away from the “contaminating influence” of their home life, they could realize their full potential. Of all the measures taken to see this goal actualized, none was more influential, albeit more controversial, than the development of the placing out system which began only a year after the Society was founded in 1853. Later dubbed the “Orphan Train movement” by historians, this practice made use of passenger trains to ship children from New York to foster homes along the emerging western frontier. By the time the practice of placing out was disbanded in 1924, the Children’s Aid Society, and other institutions like it, had displaced an estimated quarter of a million children.
Despite a growing interest in the New York Children’s Aid Society, analyses of it have remained focused on how the movement fits within the wider context of nation-state formation and the development of modern philanthropy. As a result, the experiences of the children placed out have been largely overlooked by historians. This omission is to be expected given that historians are primarily interested in how influential groups and individuals both initiated and navigated large scale changes over time. I received an Opportunity Award so that I could travel to Indiana and Minnesota—two sites most directly affected by the placing out system—to carry out archival research and possibly uncover something new about the lives of these children.
My first stop was in Indianapolis, a wide city and the first stop for many young passengers aboard the Orphan Trains. From here rides would travel further out to the pacific northwest or south toward Texas. Despite the amount of traffic that this area received I was not able to find anything which explicitly dealt with the experiences of children brought here by the New York Children’s Aid Society. However, I did come upon some documents relating to the Charity Organization Society of Indianapolis. Modeled after an institution of the same name, which began in Buffalo New York, the Charity Organization Society was founded by protestant social reformers and professionals who wanted to standardize the application process.
While not what I had hoped to find, these documents did contain information surrounding how adoptions were handled in the state of Indiana during this time. In the event that a child was orphaned, he would be sent to live with a relative or neighbor who could provide for him. Between the two parties there was no formal contract only the word of the receiving party that they would provide for the newly adopted child. Because adoptions were mostly informal, qualitative information surrounding the adoption process was lost. The nature of adoption agreements during this time make it difficult for us to attempt to reconstruct the stories of children who were fostered or orphaned.
From Indianapolis I made my way to the Twin Cities in Minnesota where I was fortunate enough to find one document in conversation with my topic. In 1884 Hastings H. Hart, a protestant social reformer, issued a statement to the Children’s Aid Society criticizing them for not making enough of an effort to see to it that children were more thoroughly accounted for after adoption. In his statement he went on to discuss the experiences of unnamed children after they were adopted. While many were fortunate enough to assimilate smoothly into their new environment, others were subjected to abuse by their adopted parents, went on to become criminals, and others fled never to be heard from again. We can assume then that these efforts ensured no guarantee for the children who were placed out. Despite having been taken in under the promise that a better life was waiting for them, the lax approach to the process made this promise entirely speculative.
The Eugene Lang Opportunity Award afforded me an incredible experience. Not only was I able to work on my senior thesis, but I gained invaluable experience in a field I one day hope to be a larger part of. While I may not have found what exactly what I was looking for, this gave me a chance to see what it is like to work carry out on site historical research.