During the 1850's there were approximately 30,000 homeless, orphaned, abandoned children roaming the streets of New York City. These children ranged in age from about 3 to 14 years of age. They begged, stole and scrambled each day to feed themselves, to find a place to lay down and sleep. What it must have been like on the streets of NYC during the winter months makes me shudder. Even in the relative comfort of warmer weather, the streets were dangerous places to roam at night.
These poor children were viewed as a 'problem' for society. Often, I wonder if anyone ever gave a thought to the childrens' 'problem' of being hungry, cold, homeless,frightened, unloved.
The Newsies (boys who sold papers, earning little more than enough for a meal and enough to buy the next day's papers) were luckier than most. Banding together, they had little 'family' groups of their own, for protection, for survival, perhaps even to feel part of a 'family' of sorts.
A young minister, Charles L. Brace, founded the Children's Aid Society, proposing that these children could be saved from a life of degradation, disease, death. By taking them out of the environment they were in and placing them in good wholesome families, it would be possible to give them a 'second chance'.
This became to basis for what is considered the beginning of the 'foster care' system in the US. The program was known as 'The Orphan Train' Project. Through the work of church and women's groups, the children were taken into care, given clean clothes and shoes, made presentable and readied for a journey across country on a train that would stop at designated spots along the way. There the children would be lined up, youngest to oldest, and the residents of the town would inspect them. A young child (3 or younger) were usually picked quickly, as were the older boys. The babies because they were young and could be raised as the couple's own. The older boys? Well, they would be an extra pair of hands on the farm. Cheap labor. Next came girls who were presentable, but not too pretty. They would be another pair of hands to lighten the load of endless housework.
As with any situation, some children were picked by good and loving people. They were taken into the homes of a family that wanted them for themselves, and not a free source of labor. Many opponents of the Orphan Train system likened the project to 'indentured servitude'. Sadly, there are many, too many, stories of cihldren who were placed in a home only to be rejected again. The child would then find themselves placed somewhere else, to start all over. Often, being placed again and again, until finally, they would run away.
During the years 1854 - 1929 some 250,000 children (that's a quarter of a million!!!) were placed in care through the Orphan Train program. Some children were blessed to be placed with families that adopted them and made them their own. Some were given food, shelter, an education, but, always there was the knowledge they were not family. Some were abused, neglected, made to work from morning till night. Many ran away - some ran away from the unkindness they found. Some ran away hoping to go back to their lives before. Many children, grateful and relieved to find a home, expressed the same sentiment - they would give it all up if they could only see their mothers again.
The PBS American Experience program about the Orphan Train is a wonderful way to learn more about the children. There is also a organization made up of people who were part of the program. The links for both of these are here -
Many books have been written about the subject. One, recently, was 'Orphan Train' by Christina Baker Kline. The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.
This week's alphabe-Thursday is brought to you by the letter O and Jenny Matlock's wonderful group. You can join us by clicking on the link to the right.