History does not reach us only in classrooms and via textbooks; movies, novels, songs, and even video games have shaped how we understand what came before the present for generations. Lapham’s Quarterly is exploring the history and allure of pop culture’s period pieces, artifacts that captivated audiences with their conceptions of the past—and the political and cultural contexts that made these historical fictions so compelling.
Novels fill the New York City streets of the mid-nineteenth century with hawkers selling corn from pushcarts, beggars wrapped like mummies in strips of tattered cloth, barefoot children with grimy faces picking rags from the gutters to sell. If the fictional children have homes, they live in tenements that smell of garbage and garlic, sleeping six to a mattress. If their family is part of the “deserving poor,” they keep their floor scrubbed and a Bible on the table. Otherwise, they might live in a shanty among chickens and towers of scrap metal, sewing piecework or shining shoes to help their families scrape by. Girls without homes dance on the street or sweep crossings or become sex workers; boys join street gangs and are routinely thrown in the Tombs, the infamous jail in the Five Points neighborhood of Lower Manhattan. Whether their work is honest or not, these children’s futures hold no hope for anything but basic survival—that’s all their poor parents can achieve, which is why so many of them succumb to the bottle.
It might seem odd that children in the late 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s would want to read scores of books that hashed out such depressing melodrama. But in each of the books that featured this narrative, the plot suddenly changes after setting this doleful scene, when a Protestant minister named Charles Loring Brace steps in. His charity, the Children’s Aid Society (CAS), has a bold plan: to send “street urchins” west on the newly expanded railroads. In the West—the Midwest, really—there is plenty of everything: clean air, apple orchards, warm beds, and, most importantly, farm families in need of labor and in want of children to love as their own. By living and working among these good, hardy people, the children would have a chance to make something of themselves.
The first novel to sell this story to young readers and renew interest in this slice of American history was James Magnuson and Dorothea G. Petrie’s 1978 Orphan Train, a title that hits on precisely what makes these stories appealing: the expedition that comes after the setup sketched out above and the fact that the children heading west are parentless, either by death, neglect, or abandonment.
I’ve long been aware that everyone loves a fictional orphan. I’m an orphan myself—both my parents died of cancer, my mom when I was twelve and my dad when I was fourteen. Orphan narratives have haunted my loss; their popular tropes, which get so much wrong about parental bereavement, color how people perceive my experience. Too many fictional orphans come to mind, from the mid-1800s to now: Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Tom Sawyer, Anne Shirley, Little Orphan Annie, all the way up to Harry Potter. Orphans, with their built-in conflict and lack of adult supervision, are perfectly suited to pint-size hero’s journeys. Add in the excitement of rail travel west and just enough history to make the stories feel authentic—Brace and his charity existed outside the parameters of the novels—and you have a narrative ripe for perpetuating American myths and morals. Which is precisely what the hundreds of books that came after the original Orphan Train produce, concealing the dark, seventy-five-year history of placing approximately a quarter of a million poor urban children with barely vetted families in rural areas all over the United States, creating the blueprint for modern foster care.
The orphan train movement sprang up in response to a wave of moral panic that rose as immigration and populations in cities like New York surged, as the country rapidly left behind an agrarian and artisan economy for industrial capitalism and wage labor. The population of New York City grew from approximately sixty thousand in 1800 to half a million in 1850, with nearly a quarter-million foreign-born residents. New social stratifications emerged between those who struggled to eke out subsistence living and upper classes with generational wealth who viewed poverty as a moral failure.
The poorest New Yorkers lived in slums like Five Points, where houseless children—some abandoned, some runaways, some actual orphans—survived on the streets. In 1849, the year after Brace moved to the city from Hartford, Connecticut, to study at the Union Theological Seminary, the number of houseless children was estimated at about ten thousand. The police chief at the time claimed these children were “addicted to immoralities of the most loathsome description.” It was in response to these conditions that Brace founded his Protestant charity, CAS, in 1853. He began sending children west in 1854.
On the one hand, Brace had more faith in these children than the police chief. In his 2001 nonfiction book Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed, Stephen O’Connor writes that Brace admired their “fierce determination and energy,” which he believed could be redirected to craft them into productive citizens. On the other hand, Brace’s own writings betray his prejudices. The title of his 1872 book—The Dangerous Classes of New York City, and Twenty Years’ Work Among Them—casts Brace in a much different light than the fiction that would come to shape our cultural understanding of the movement. Brace makes clear who the “dangerous classes” are: children who will grow up to be a drain on society.
Influenced by his friend Charles Darwin, Brace also endorsed proto-eugenic ideas, believing that the latent forces of “gemmules” (inheritable particles that were later proven not to exist) were to blame for generational poverty and arguing that “certain appetites or habits, if indulged abnormally and excessively through two or more generations, come to have an almost irresistible force, and, no doubt, modify the brain so as to constitute almost an insane condition.” He believed these biological traits could be overcome by removing a child from “the sensual and filthy ways of her parents.”
The solution that Brace’s CAS proposed for reforming these “dangerous classes” was not regimented orphanages and almshouses, which only created more criminals. Instead Brace preferred “to so throw the influences of education and discipline and religion about the abandoned and destitute youth…and draw them under the influence of the moral and fortunate classes, that they shall grow up as useful producers and members of society.” Notably, while Brace believed that the most dangerous of these children were the children of immigrants, he still thought them worthy of being sent to live with “moral and fortunate” farm families. And though he was an abolitionist, Brace left Black children out of his scheme.
Being sent west went like this: CAS agents—usually women—would assess candidates’ worthiness. They primarily selected children who were already living in orphanages and asylums, but occasionally a train party would pick up a houseless child along the way and agents would neglect to confirm their background. Ideally, parents or guardians would sign over custody of their children to the society; if the child had no such protectors, they would sign the forms themselves. Older boys were preferred by potential families because they were suitable as farmhands; babies and toddlers were popular with those looking for children to raise as their own (often to replace those who died young). Older girls might be chosen for housework but were ultimately harder to place. One or two agents were responsible for dozens of children. The young passengers weren’t told where they were going lest it make them volubly upset on the ride. The first stop would most often be a railroad town in the Midwest where the CAS had connections, ideally a place flanked by thriving farms, though the CAS would eventually send children to every state in the Lower 48 except Arizona. Settlers would have known the train was coming, thanks to advertisements like the 1911 poster in Kansas announcing:
Persons taking these children must be recommended by the local committee. They must treat the children in every way as members of the family, sending them to school, church, Sabbath school, and properly clothe them until they are eighteen years old.
After disembarking, the children were taken to a church and displayed to a crowd of adults ready to stick their fingers in strangers’ mouths to inspect teeth. If a child was chosen, they would be “placed out” to a new family in a loose form of indenture that wouldn’t begin its transformation into the legally regulated practice we now know as adoption until around 1920, when orphan trains were on the outs. Per the CAS contract, the child’s biological parents—or the CAS itself—would retain guardianship, and either the child or the new family could dissolve the relationship at any time, at least in theory. The children who weren’t chosen would get back on the train; the process would repeat at the next destination. CAS agents might or might not check up on those left behind in the Midwest every year or two.
The flaws of this plan are immediately obvious: the dehumanizing way in which the children were treated, the hands-off screening of potential foster parents, the lack of follow-through by CAS. In 1883 an independent investigation for the National Conference of Charities and Correction found that local committees were feckless at screening families, and barely half of children thirteen and older remained in their placements after three years. While younger children were usually taken out of “benevolence,” older children were “taken from motives of profit” and often ended up with extremely poor families who did not send them to school and “lived in shanties.”
Most orphan train riders are now dead, but testimonies shared while they were living further highlight how capriciously their lives were transformed by being taken west. Twins Nettie and Nellie Crook rode to McPherson, Kansas, in 1911—on the trip advertised in the poster quoted above—when they were six years old, after being removed from their depressed mother and frequently absent father. Their older brother Leon was left to grow up in an orphanage. Unlike many other riders with siblings, Nettie and Nellie were fortunate to remain together. CAS placed them with L.F. and Gertie Chapin, a childless couple. In Andrea Warren’s nonfiction book for young readers We Rode the Orphan Trains, Nettie describes Gertie as “a sadistic woman, very cruel…We were whipped with a buggy whip for the slightest infraction. It cut through the clothing on our back and legs.” The twins remained with the Chapins for sixteen months before a CAS agent removed them and placed them with a couple who treated them like kin.
Another rider, Claretta Miller, was separated from her siblings and sent to Nebraska in 1918. In a recollection published by the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America in the late twentieth century, she described being placed first with a large German family who wanted a servant. She was shuffled around from home to home, “a lost and lonely little girl,” before finding a lasting placement.
But even if the families that they were placed with didn’t abuse them or view them solely as sources of labor, the children who rode orphan trains were often shunned by the community. In a 1995 PBS documentary, Alice Ayler, who was sent to Kansas, recalls that she was told she had “bad blood…we kids from New York were of inferior stock.” Nettie Crook only began talking about her orphan train experience at the age of nearly ninety-two, after Nellie died, because Nellie “felt we’d been through too much and she didn’t want it brought up.”
The original Orphan Train fictionalizes the first train trip west by the CAS. Though Magnuson and Petrie wrote it for children, it focuses not on the perspectives of the twenty-six “orphans” but on that of their twenty-eight-year-old caretaker. The book’s protagonist is Emma Symns, the sheltered spinster niece of a fictional minister working with Brace. Emma initially views the children as less than human; in a scene where the children are being “fumigated” in preparation for the train, she is described as feeling “a chill, suddenly, as if these were not children she was watching…but wild animals or some savage tribe whose language she had not been taught.” Her journey is an emotional one—of coming to care for her wards and of falling for a daguerreotypist she meets on the train.
Told in a close third person, the novel occasionally moves from Emma’s perspective to those of the children but never affords them interiority. Instead much space is devoted to excitement and adventure along the tracks, and to selling the American Dream of the heartland. One child, Liverpool, is a provocateur with a carnival barker’s gift. He furthers the book’s propaganda, claiming the trains will deliver them to a life of opportunity: “The West’s the place for growin’ presidents…If you want to be the man who’ll make his mark in the country, you will get up and come with us, for there’s lots on the prairie a-waitin’ for us.”
The trek to the fictional town of Rock Springs, Illinois, takes up the entire book. Exciting plot points that repeat in later books in the genre include a girl disguising herself as a boy for easier placement, an onboard fire, and a runaway slave (who is being shipped by train in a pine box) pursued by a bounty hunter. Magnuson and Petrie can’t stop there—they also include an acting troupe performing an impromptu production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in full blackface, a child drowning, and a derailment over the Illinois River. While Petrie claims in a “historical note” at the start of the book to have researched the history of the CAS trains after meeting a rider in her mother’s Iowa hometown, she and Magnuson clearly preferred fantastical action to grappling with complex reality.
Those in America who learned about orphan trains as children likely first encountered them in a book like Magnuson and Petrie’s Orphan Train. The term orphan train didn’t truly exist until the book and the subsequent 1979 made-for-TV movie (which features a young Glenn Close) popularized it; the phrase didn’t even appear in the New York Times until 1978, despite much previous coverage of Brace and the CAS. The CAS never used it, calling the program the “emigration plan” or “placing out”—admittedly less catchy terms, but ones acknowledging that the majority of children sent on trains had living parents. Other charities that followed the CAS’s lead, like the Catholic New York Foundling Hospital, called them “baby trains” or “mercy trains.”
Petrie’s chance meeting of a train rider in Iowa might have been the impetus for Orphan Train, but the surge of interest in this fictional version of the movement’s history can be chalked up to the popularity of its two main components: orphans and the West. In the 1970s and 1980s new versions of old orphan stories were finding widespread success. The musical Annie, for instance, premiered on Broadway in 1977 and went on a national tour in 1978; in 1982 it was adapted into a movie starring Carol Burnett, Tim Curry, and Bernadette Peters. It followed the tradition of the 1960 orphan Broadway musical Oliver!—based on Oliver Twist, of course—which was revived on Broadway in 1984 with Patti LuPone. Even The Adventures of Tom Sawyer got a musical adaptation in the 1970s, in the 1973 film of the same name starring Jodie Foster as Becky Thatcher. At the same time, Westerns were as popular as ever. Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales hit movie screens in 1976, the same year as John Wayne’s last film, The Shootist. On TV there was How the West Was Won, which ran from 1977 to 1979.
While orphan train books take place in newly settled railroad towns in the Midwest of the postbellum nineteenth century rather than the Wild West, they, too, were frontier land. In one book, a train rider even reads Edward Ellis’ 1860 dime novel Seth Jones, or The Captives of the Frontier. The marketing team for 1978’s Orphan Train was eager to capitalize on the intersection between orphan stories and Westerns—the original jacket copy hypes a “boxcar odyssey,” with “abandoned waifs” “rescue[d]…forever from the Oliver Twist world of the New York streets…It all adds up to a novel as warm, spunky, and utterly enthralling as True Grit.”
Orphan Train created the mold for tropes that paint the emigration plan as Manifest Destiny. The narrative that westward expansion was inevitable and essential is so entrenched that American children are indoctrinated in it through novels as well as textbooks. Aside from a few hecklers who ask the train riders if they are “scairt of getting scalped by the Indians” and the daguerreotypist’s dreams of getting “pictures of the Indians, the mountains, the sodbusters and the railroad men, trappers and gold hunters” in order to “record a changing country,” there is no indigenous presence in Orphan Train. This is convenient, as it allows for a wholesome portrait of hardworking homesteaders who benevolently open their homes to needy children, sidestepping the violence of Native American displacement.
This romanticized narrative would spawn hundreds more historical novels over the following forty-plus years. Most are written for children, like Joan Lowery Nixon’s 1980s–1990s middle-grade Orphan Train Adventures series, Jane Peart’s 1990s young adult Orphan Train West series, and Wendy McClure’s 2010s middle-grade Wanderville series. An orphan train even makes an appearance in one of the books about American Girl Samantha Parkington, when Samantha helps her poor foil, Nellie O’Malley, escape an orphanage that plans to send her west. For adults, there are romances like Jody Hedlund’s recent Orphan Train series for Christian publisher Bethany House. The most popular adult orphan train book is the other Orphan Train—Christina Baker Kline’s 2013 book, which spent four consecutive weeks at the top of the New York Times best-seller list and spawned a young readers’ edition in 2017.
These offshoots remix the original concept of Orphan Train for new generations of readers. Nixon’s Orphan Train Adventures, which began publishing in 1987, make improvements on Magnuson and Petrie’s model in that the series is rooted in the children’s perspectives, including their grief at being separated from their former lives. But, as the series title emphasizes, Nixon couldn’t resist casting these forced trips as an adventure. In her author’s note, she admits as much, writing, “We chose St. Joseph, Missouri, between the years 1860 and 1880 as our setting in order to place our characters in one of the most exciting periods of American history.”
The series follows the Kellys, an Irish immigrant family, each book focusing on one of the six siblings. The first book, A Family Apart, told from the oldest child Frances’ point of view, tracks the children’s experience of being placed by their mother with CAS in 1860 and parceled out to new families in Missouri and the Kansas and Nebraska territories. From the start, Nixon paints the Kellys as “deserving poor” who are victims of circumstance, not the “dangerous classes” of Brace’s rhetoric. When one brother becomes a copper stealer, his thievery is portrayed as driven by need. After he is caught by police, Mrs. Kelly appeals to Charles Loring Brace to take her children west, where they will have “wholesome food, a clean bed of your own, and schooling, and all sorts of fine things, the like of which I could never, ever, give you, no matter how hard we work.” Nixon depicts the orphan trains as the only option for the children and their parents.
The children feel abandoned, and throughout A Family Apart Frances struggles to come to terms with her mother’s choice. The moral of the story is the meaning of sacrifice. By the end of the book Frances realizes that her mother’s decision embodies the idea “that you can love someone or some idea enough to give up something you prize, in order to make people’s lives better.” Portraying the decision that destitute immigrant parents made to place their children with another family as one imbued not only with agency but as an expression of love makes trauma palatable.
To this object story, Nixon adds adventurous flair, borrowing plot points from the original Orphan Train. Frances pretends to be a boy so that she can be placed with her youngest brother, having promised their mother that she would look after him. After they are chosen by a Kansas family who host a stop on the Underground Railroad, Frances offers to drive a runaway enslaved couple in a wagon to their next stop. This plot twist might beat out Petrie and Magnuson’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin extravaganza in absurdity, but it succeeded in rousing the excitement of the original owner of my used copy, who wrote “Aaaah! What will happen!” when a chapter ends with bounty hunters approaching Frances’ wagon.
Orphan train fiction for adults is less fantastical but still stretches history for narrative effect. Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train casts the experience as extreme deprivation, well after child-welfare reforms had already been instituted. Her train rider is Niamh Power, an Irish immigrant who loses her alcoholic father and three siblings in a 1929 tenement fire; her mother survives but is institutionalized. From the very first page, Niamh is painted as a woman of steely resolve who never falters, despite extreme hardship. At age nine Niamh rides a CAS train to Minnesota and finds a placement with a couple looking for a free seamstress. When the stock market crashes, they no longer need her labor. The local CAS agent delivers Niamh to a new family, not caring that they live off the grid in a shack and subsist on squirrel stew or that the mother sleeps all day and the children are practically feral. The father rapes Niamh and the mother casts her out in the middle of the night to traipse miles through the snow to a schoolhouse, where she is rescued by a teacher reminiscent of Miss Honey from Roald Dahl’s Matilda. That Kline takes the melodrama of earlier orphan train fiction up a notch by putting her protagonist through such extreme and extended suffering is perhaps unsurprising, given the twenty-first-century trend of cramming ceaseless fictional trauma into novels.
Kline must have chosen to start her story in 1929 to make it possible to interweave it with a contemporary plotline, where Niamh, now ninety-one, meets a teenager whose life in modern foster care mirrors her own. But if it were real, Niamh’s train would have been one of the very last to run and would have been subject to much higher scrutiny than those of the nineteenth century. And it would have never taken her to Minnesota—by 1927 only Michigan, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, and Texas still allowed the CAS to make placements in their states.
Mores around child welfare rapidly changed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, forcing the orphan train movement to adapt. Public opinion on children’s rights was already changing by 1874, when the first child-protection society was founded; by 1914 almost five hundred such organizations existed, highlighting a sea change in the recognition of child abuse. At the same time, the first laws to limit child labor were being implemented. By the early 1900s, the idea that children had rights and were in need of protection had spread as far as the presidency. In 1909, as part of a major turn toward federal regulation in the Progressive era, Theodore Roosevelt held the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, which would establish modern child welfare. The conference’s recommendations included starting a federal Children’s Bureau, giving aid to poor families to help them “maintain suitable homes for the rearing of children,” and placing children with foster families that were “selected by a most careful process of investigation” with “adequate visitation” if they could not remain in their “natural home.” While Brace’s emigration plan had laid the groundwork for these recommendations, the conference rejected his ideas about “dangerous classes” and who deserved to stay with their families.
Brace died in 1890, before this wave of regulation and government interest in the lives of children. His son took over the CAS and developed new methods of oversight. In the last twenty years of the emigration plan, smaller parties were sent largely within the tristate area, and the average age of riders dropped, because babies and toddlers were more likely to be adopted, rather than indentured, by their new families. But even with these measures, the movement was increasingly seen as cruel and antiquated.
All this is to say that Kline’s Orphan Train—which now dominates the cultural imagination of the movement—is fabulist from a historical perspective. Yet despite its bending of the facts, the moral vision it propagates is as much an American myth as Manifest Destiny and the bootstrap dreams of both the 1978 Orphan Train and Nixon’s Orphan Train Adventures. Those earlier books glamorized the orphan train movement as bettering the lives of poor children who had no other chances and propagandized the benefits of rural life and a Protestant work ethic. Kline’s Orphan Train tells a different American story: one of resilience and ultimately redemption.
We prefer these inventions to the truth of the orphan train movement, which was, in the end, a social-engineering experiment that preyed on some of our most vulnerable, populating stolen land with stolen lives. To acknowledge that reality requires grappling with the fact that we allowed the lives of hundreds of thousands of children to be determined by the classist, racist philosophies of a Protestant minister who was not an elected official. It requires realizing that children and the poor did not have any recognized rights until the past hundred years. This is the true legacy of our past, and one that still colors our child-welfare system today, where conditions of poverty are commonly cast as grounds for removal. Many poor children—and especially poor brown and Black children—are still not believed to be able to make something of themselves without losing their families.
Read other entries in this series: Caroline Wazer on Assassin’s Creed, Dylan Byron on E.M. Forster’s Maurice, Jeremy Swist on heavy metal’s fascination with Roman emperors, and Emma Garman on the Happy Valley set.