Riding West on the Orphan Train

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The Medallion

This article was originally featured in the September/October 1992 issue of The Medallion.

Maurice de Leleu was one of three children, the son of 19th-century Flemish immigrants who traveled from Belgium to New York City. In 1908, his parents died, and he was taken in by the Children’s Aid Society, a charitable institution for waifs.

In 1912, De Leleu and a group of other homeless children boarded a train and were sent west to foster homes in rural communities. His trip ended when he arrived in Weatherford, Texas.

He was taken in by a nearby farm family, but he was seen as an outsider and treated as a workhand. In later years, he became a schoolteacher, then a successful businessman.

He died at age 44. His two daughters, Marcelle Hopper and Yvonne Watson, now live in Weatherford.

De Leleu was part of one of the largest mass migrations of homeless children in U.S. history. Between 1854 and 1929, about 200,000 children were sent by rail from Eastern cities to rural families in the West. The trains that carried them became known as orphan trains, and the relocation was called “placing out.”

The Children’s Aid Society was founded during the early 1850s in New York City by Charles Loring Brace, a social worker who became a pioneer in placing out children on orphan trains. Shocked at the multitude of homeless children who were barely surviving on the streets and leading lives of crime, Brace was determined to give them a better opportunity.

The best way to do this, he concluded, was to place each child in a family. Brace believed that the family was “God’s reformatory.” He also was taken by the myth of the wholesomeness of farm families and the healthiness of the wide-open plains. By sending children west, he believed they would be getting a fresh start in life.

Although many of the placed-out children had good experiences with their new families, many were exploited as free labor. The usual method of placing the children resembled a cattle auction.

After the train deposited them at the local rail station, the orphan children were herded together on the steps of the local courthouse or church, where they were picked over by potential foster parents, who would feel the sturdiness of their limbs.

Children were chosen on a trial basis. Adoption was not mandatory, and children often were mistreated and shuffled from home to home. Those who weren’t chosen continued on the train to the next town.

Cold as the method of placing children seems today, in the days before child labor laws, when small children worked long hours in factories and in mines alongside their mothers and fathers, placing out by orphan trains seemed a humane alternative.

By the 1920s, however, with changes in child welfare ideas, new laws, compulsory education, and local government funding of foster care, the orphan trains’ popularity declined.

Children’s Aid Society statistics indicate that a majority of orphans had a successful experience. But, many others were unhappy. One orphan recalled how his foster parents never hugged or touched him, never told him they loved him, and never allowed him to call them mom or dad. For a child, there could be no crueler treatment.

Those who rode the orphan trains carried with them a cloudy past and an uncertain future. Today, some survivors are still haunted by the question of their true identity.

The stories of the orphan train riders have touched the hearts of a group of interested persons, who in 1986 began the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America (OTHSA). It is a genealogical research group devoted to finding orphan train riders, putting them in touch with others like themselves, and helping them to trace their histories.

“I wanted these people to know they’re important, that someone cares about them,” said Mary Ellen Johnson, one of OTHSA’s cofounders. By 1910, 1,527 homeless children had arrived in Texas. Johnson believes there are hundreds of surviving orphan train riders still living in the state.

She has talked with dozens of them, and many from several states. Recently, she published the results of her selected interviews in a book, titled Orphan Train Riders: Their Own Stories

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