There Were So Many Homeless Orphans In The 1800s They Were Auctioned Off To The Highest Bidder

From the 1850s to the 1920s, orphan trains transported hundreds of thousands of children from the East Coast to the Midwest. Children who were poor, abandoned, or runaways found themselves traveling across the country to start new lives. The origins of foster care can be tracked back to this unusual practice of shipping kids across the United States to families they never met.

The foster care history timeline beings with Connecticut-born minister Charles Loring Brace. He was alarmed by the abuse and poverty he witnessed among the children of New York City while working as a missionary. Some kids were housed in overcrowded orphanages, while others were trying to survive on the streets. Many of them were dirty, rambunctious, members of street gangs, and thieves. Their parents were either dead, sick, addicted to drugs and alcohol, or unable to support them for whatever reason. Brace is an important figure in child welfare history in America. Because of him, more than 100,000 children were placed in homes over the course of 75 years. And it all started with orphan trains.

Photo: user uploaded image

  • Why Were There So Many Orphans?

    Over 4.3 million immigrants moved to the United States between 1841 and 1860. They traveled to America to find a better life and escape their homelands, which were often plagued with political unrest, poverty, and other overwhelming problems.

    Some of these immigrants found themselves in overcrowded cities where getting a job was very difficult if not downright impossible. Not the least of their issues, people had a hard time because they didn't have members from their extended family nearby to help raise the children. Everyone pitched in and worked to earn money, including kids as young as six years old.

    Desperate men took dangerous jobs and were often killed in their line of work. Women and children were forced to do whatever they could to survive, but it was common for mothers to die at a young age because they lived in filthy homes and contracted typhoid, the flu, or other diseases. Other parents abandoned their children because they had no money or became addicted to drugs and alcohol. As a result, many children wound up as orphans.

  • There Were As Many As 30,000 Homeless Children In NYC In 1850

    The population of New York City in 1850 reached about 500,000 due to the influx of immigrants. Between 10,000 and 30,000 of these residents were homeless kids. Their parents didn't have the means to support them, so they were often forced to strike out on their own. These children either tried to survive on the streets or they lived in orphanages.

    If the same percentage of homeless kids lived in New York City today, there would be at least 150,000 orphans without homes.

  • The First Orphan Train

    The Children’s Mission to the Children of the Destitute launched the first orphan train in 1850. The Protestant charity corralled the kids by searching all over the city to locate them. They found them in railway stations, docks, on the streets, and in other areas of the city. The kids were known as "guttersnipes." Thirty kids traveled from Boston to New Hampshire and Vermont to find homes.

  • Kids Were Auctioned Off To Farmers & Craftsmen Who Needed Them To Work
    Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Kids Were Auctioned Off To Farmers & Craftsmen Who Needed Them To Work

    Children's Aid launched its first orphan train in October of 1854. The train, traveling from New York City to Dowagiac, MI, carried 45 homeless children. When they arrived at their destination, local farmers and craftsmen bid on the kids in an auction. The families took the children home, where they worked in fields and in other capacities. A total of approximately 250,000 poor and abandoned children were relocated from the East Coast to the Midwest between the 1850s and 1920s.

  • Some Orphans Were Thieves & Drunks
    Photo: Hine, Lewis Wickes, 1874-1940, photographer. / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Some Orphans Were Thieves & Drunks

    A man named Joseph Barry was tasked with finding children to put on an orphan train. He found kids who were gambling and - even worse - intoxicated; he came across children as young as eight years old that were drunk. The kids would steal items and trade them with rum sellers in exchange for liquor. Children who should have been in school were instead thieves and alcoholics.

  • Orphanages Were Overcrowded & Kids Were Kicked Out At Age 14
    Photo: Tsolag Dildilian / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Orphanages Were Overcrowded & Kids Were Kicked Out At Age 14

    Between 1820 and 1900, the population in the United States skyrocketed from 9.6 million to 76.1 million. Much of the increase was due to immigrants from Ireland, England, and Germany. The few orphanages that existed were extremely overcrowded, which is probably why kids were released at the age of 14. These young adults were expected to support themselves with no help from the community.