Conscripting or enslaving children into armies and labor pools often occurred over the centuries as the consequence of war, pestilence and natural disasters when many children were left parentless. Abandoned children then became the ward of the state, military organization, or religious group. When this practice happened en masse, it had the advantage of ensuring the strength and continuity of cultural and religious practices in medieval society.
The largest migration of abandoned children in history took place in the United States between 1854 and 1929. Orphan trains, or baby trains as some called them, were highly popular as a source of free labor. Mothers simply abandoned their newborns in a special basket at the door of the hospital and rang a special bell, then disappeared. Their homeless and orphaned children were then transported from New York and Chicago and crowded Eastern cities of the United States to rural areas of the Midwest. Over two hundred fifty-thousand orphans were forced onto railroad cars and shipped west, where any pioneer family desiring their services as laborers, maids and servants often used and abused them. Children were unceremoniously lined up in train stations and town squares and given to the first bidder. Siblings were frequently separated from each other. Some pro-slavery advocates viewed the social welfare program as part of the abolitionist movement, since the labor provided by the children helped to make slaves unnecessary.
The sheer size of the displacement and degree of exploitation that occurred led to new agencies and a series of laws that promoted adoption rather than indenture. Almost all children without parental care in the United States were in orphanages or foster arrangements until President Theodore Roosevelt declared the nuclear family was best able to serve as primary caretaker for the abandoned and orphaned. Inspired by his leadership, forces against institutionalization gathered momentum, and the practice of formal adoption gained popularity. Eventually, adoption became a quintessential American institution, embodying faith in social engineering and mobility. By 1945, adoption was formulated as a legal act with consideration of the child’s best interests. The origin of the move toward secrecy and the sealing of all adoption and birth records began when Charles Loring Brace introduced the idea to prevent children from the orphan trains from returning to or being reclaimed by their parents. Brace feared the impact of the parents’ poverty and their Catholic religion, in particular, on the youth. Progressive reformers later carried on this tradition of secrecy when drafting American laws.
The National Orphan Train Museum is located in Concordia, Kansas. The Museum is dedicated to the preservation of the stories and artifacts of those who were part of the Orphan Train Movement.
Abandoned Children | Adoption Story | Adoption Detective