In the News: Collections Assistant Liz Thrond Discusses History of Orphan Trains

MONDAY, APRIL 28, 2014

For seventy-five years in American history, the orphaned, abandoned, and neglected children of New York and other overcrowded eastern cities were placed on "orphan trains" and sent west to find new homes in rural settings. Many thousands of these children became plainsmen and women.

Dorene Weinstein of the Argus Leader recently interviewed Collections Assistant Liz Thrond about the history of the orphan trains and her presentation on the subject at the 2014 Dakota Conference on the Northern Plains. The following story was published by the Argus on April 20, 2014.

Q&A: 200,000 Kids Went West Via Orphan Trains
By Dorene Weinstein, Argus Leader

Orphan Train by Christina Baker KlineAt the turn of the 20th century, as many as 30,000 children were living on the streets in New York City.

From 1854 to 1929, a movement hopeful of finding them a good home and better future rounded up 200,000 children and sent them on trains, many to the Midwest.

Liz Thrond, collections assistant at the Center for Western Studies at Augustana College, will give a talk at next weekend’s Dakota Conference on the sensitive topic based on the novel “Orphan Train,” by Christina Baker Kline.

The existence of orphan trains is not a well-known fact, Thrond says. “It’s surprising; it happened in American history, and it’s not discussed in schools. I have a degree in history, and I’ve never heard of it before.”

Today, those orphan children have an estimated 4 million descendants — 1.3 percent of the population of the U.S. Thrond is asking for people with any information, artifacts, diaries or letters from the original train riders to get in touch with the Center for Western Studies (call 800-727-2844).

Here’s a hint of what she’ll talk about.

Question: Tell me a little about the topic.

Answer: For a period of time, 1,000 immigrants a day were arriving in New York City, and there was no infrastructure to handle the influx.

Arriving immigrants were members of largely unskilled labor groups flooding New York that ended up living in slums. There were no worker protection laws. People were dying from injury and disease, leaving a single parent unable to support the children.

With only about two dozen orphan asylums, hundreds of kids lived on the streets. Many got arrested and thrown in jail with the adult population.

The “orphan train” is really a misnomer because many children still had a living parent, but the parent was unable to care for them.

The children are actually called train riders.

Q: How did the orphan trains start?

A: Charles Loring Brace, a Methodist theologian, founded the Children’s Aid Society. He wanted to get the kids out of the toxic environment and placed on farms, where he thought they would have a better life.

He had great intentions, but it wasn’t a perfect system.

Q: How did the orphan trains change the demographics of the Midwest?

A: We don’t really know the nationalities of most of the children. But many were of Eastern European descent and placed with German or Scandinavian families. There wasn’t a lot of culture changes because the children were assimilated, though most were not really embraced as part of the family. Siblings were usually split up.

Q: What were some of the fears surrounding the placement of these children?

A: There was an entrenched prejudice against Irish Catholic immigrants. Catholic citizens believed that where the kids were placed was a veiled attempt to mitigate Catholicism in the United States because the kids were placed in Protestant homes.

There was also bias against taking red-haired children due to intolerance of the Irish. African-American children were likewise overlooked because organizers feared they would not get placed.

Q: Why did the practice end?

A: Many factors came into play about the same time.

The practice was gaining detractors while social welfare programs were growing.

There was a growing backlash from the receiving states who felt the East was exporting their problems to the West. The Midwest felt they took in the kids, footed the bill and were raising the offspring of vagrants and criminals.

Also, laws were being passed to limit the number of kids that could be brought to the Midwest at the same time the need for rural help was dropping.

If you go

• What: Dakota Conference, with the theme “The Great War and the Northern Plains (1914-2014)”

• When: Friday and Saturday

• Where: Augustana College’s Center for Western Studies, 2001 S. Summit Ave.

• Registration: Ranges from $10 for one session to $100 for all seminars and the meal package; free for full-time undergraduate students of any college and faculty and staff of Augustana College; for registration form, visit www.augie.edu/sites/default/files/u81/dc_registration_form_2014.pdf

• Seminar schedule: Visit www.augie.edu/sites/default/files/2014_dakota_conference_program_8.pdf