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Children should be seen and not heard.”

Children definitely did not have a voice. The April 1874 case of Mary Ellen Wilson illustrates this point:

A charity worker was alerted to the severe abuse eight year old Mary Ellen was suffering in the home of her “stepmother.” The charity worker could not have Mary Ellen removed from the home, as there was no existing legal means to do so. The only alternative left to the charity worker was to have Mary Ellen’s stepmother prosecuted for abuse under existing laws prohibiting cruelty to animals. In effect, Mary Ellen had to be classified as an animal before any existing legislation could be used to protect her from the abuse she was suffering at the hands of her stepmother. As a result, the first child abuse case in New York City was prosecuted under cruelty to animal laws. It would appear that animals were deemed worthy of protection in nineteenth century society, yet children were not. This situation was remedied in December 1874 with the establishment of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.”

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, homeless and orphaned children on the east coast were “placed out” to families across the country and into Canada. Many were immigrant families and could neither speak or write English. Some were treated like slaves, being forced to work in factories and on farms. Historically, the practice was commonplace, going back to ancient Jewish and early Christian cultures. English practiced it routinely. Following World War II, approximately 2,000 British war orphans were shipped to the United States and Canada.

Several organizations were actually involved in the “placing out” of children. In addition to New York, Boston was a source of the “orphan train” as well. The majority of the children were sent to the west, many were also sent to New England, the south, and the eastern seaboard.

Considering recent legal immigration events, it is interesting to note that no children were placed in Arizona.

In 1853, Charles Loring Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society, which placed out over 150,000 children and young adults over a 75 year span , transporting them via train from the east coast to predominately Midwest destinations. The overriding focus of the CAS was to remove large numbers of children from the city. Many of the children who participated in the program were not orphans, but had living family members.

While many applaud the efforts of placing these children in loving and supportive homes, critics claim that although the program was promoted as a humanitarian effort, it was, in reality, an employment service for cheap labor. Farmers did, in fact, use the CAS as a labor source and, in many instances, children were placed in abusive situations.

The last “orphan train” ran in 1929, when focus had, finally, segued into the care and protection of children.

Is there a member of your family who was a rider of the orphan train?

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