Orphan train: part 1

Tom McDermott
Posted 3/15/22

“ASYLUM CHILDREN: A company of about 20 children from the New York Juvenile Asylum from seven to 15 years of age will be in Rochelle at the Brackett House."

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Orphan train: part 1


“ASYLUM CHILDREN: A company of about 20 children from the New York Juvenile Asylum from seven to 15 years of age will be in Rochelle at the Brackett House.

Thursday morning, March 6. Homes are wanted for them with farmers’ families in this and adjoining counties, where they will receive kind treatment, good moral training, and a fair common education.

They may be taken on trial for two weeks, and then under indentures until of age, provided they prove satisfactory. The terms of the indentures are that they shall receive a fair common school education, and paid $100 and two suits of clothes when of age. This company will consist mostly of boys, and they will be at the hotel at the appointed time without fail. Please meet them on that day. When indentures are executed, a small payment for passage expenses will be required. E. Wright, agent. P.S. Enquire at your post office for a hand bill giving further particulars.” This ad appeared in the Rochelle newspapers in 1879.  

In 1850, there were thousands of children on the streets of New York with no food and little, if any, supervision. Germans, Irish, Italians and many other nationalities were coming to America. America, the land of opportunity, where the streets were paved in gold and everyman could prosper. Unfortunately, the reality was somewhat different.

Robert and Jane boarded a ship in Ireland with their three young children and made the crossing to Philadelphia. The trip was very difficult and Robert suffered from poor health for the whole trip. Within a few years, Robert passed away and Jane was left alone to provide for herself and her children. She was overwhelmed.

Remy and Eugene Heydacker lived in New York. In 1872, their mother passed away leaving them in the sole care of their father. Mr. Heydacker was a ship’s cook and found himself unable to provide financial support for his family unless he went to sea, in which case he could not be present to raise his boys.

Archie, Jake and Elizabeth Fisher had a good life in New York until their father, a police officer, died. Every day there were more and more children who found themselves hungry or on the streets.

Charles Loring Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1853. The purpose of the society was to find homes for the lost children of New York. Mr. Brace had a plan based on systems that he had witnessed in Europe. The city had more people than jobs and the farmers out west needed laborers.

Typhoid Fever, Yellow Fever and Spanish Flu epidemics took the lives of many children and adults alike. The Civil War and World War I led to the loss of thousands more young males. If the west was to be settled, more able-bodied settlers were needed. To Charles Loring Brace, the answer was obvious, transport the street children of New York to the west.

This would solve the problem of abandoned children and the lack of laborers in the west. From 1854 through 1929, more than 200,000 children were loaded on trains and sent to be housed in the rural plains of America. There were four major causes for a child to be considered for “placing out.” The parent or parents could not pay sufficient attention to the children, the child was incorrigible or required the discipline that the Society could provide, the family could not afford to financially support the children or one of the parents is a criminal or intemperate. 

The system was quite simple. The parent would deliver the child or children to the Children’s Aid Society and sign off their parental rights. The Society could then do as they pleased for the benefit of the child. The logic of the day was that the fresh air and honest labor of the western farmer was far superior to the squalor of the larger city. Charles Loring Brace was ready to start his grand experiment.

Part two of this column will appear in a future edition of the Rochelle News-Leader.

Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum historian and Rochelle city councilman.