Orphan Trains

posted in: Family History, Genealogy | 0

Last week, we discussed what happened to children who were left parentless in the 19th Century.

Children were placed on orphan train and sent out west


Children that were left parentless or living in poverty or did not have someone to care for them who lived in large cities were placed on orphan trains.  These trains headed west, which made stops along the way where eager parents were waiting to claim children that appealed to them and in which they could provide a home.

The reasons parents were eager for children were as varied, as the children who were on the orphan trains.  Some children found good, loving homes while sadly many others were claimed for the work they could do or were mistreated and abused.

The Orphan trained movement was from 1853 to 1929.  An estimated 250,000 were sent by train to all 48 continental states. The majority of the trains went to the Midwest and west from areas such as New York City, Boston and Chicago.

So, how do you find information on an ancestor who was placed on an orphan train?

  • Local newspapers
  • Census records
    children rode the train until they were claimed
  • Records of city asylums, Children’s Aid Societies, court houses, etc.
  • Guardian records
  • Probate records
  • County records
  • Peace dockets


Many children {especially boys} that were adopted into harsh conditions often struck out on their own at a young age and quickly grew up while they learned to survive and care for themselves.

Young girls in harsh conditions had fewer options, although I’m sure some did strike out on their own.  In the early days of the wagon train, marriage was their only option of escape.  But as we moved into the 20th Century, more options opened up for them.

The National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas has a museum and research center that is dedicated to preserving the memories and artifacts of orphan train children.

Do you have an ancestor that was on the orphan train?


For contacts of some organizations that participated in the Orphan Trains

Note: to learn more about the orphan trains, there are several published accounts of those that rode the trains and novels based on the orphan trains.

PBS American Experience—The Orphan Trains

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