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2/9/2012
Did your ancestor ride an "orphan train" from the big city to a foster home in the country? Get on board to trace the roots of orphan train riders from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
While doing genealogical research on my family in the 1990s, I learned that my grandmother, Emily (Reese) Kidder, was an "orphan train" rider. During her lifetime, she would often speak of being an orphan in a Brooklyn, NY, orphanage, and how she was brought west on a train by a Seventh-Day Baptist minister named H.D. Clarke. It wasn't until much later, when I received a flyer from the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America that I began to piece the puzzle together. Unfortunately, my grandmother died in 1986, prior to my realization that she was a part of something so big.

Are you one of the estimated 2 million individuals who descend from what are now referred to as orphan train riders? Between 1854 and 1929, some 150,000 youngsters, from babies to age 14, and even a few adults, were part of a program known as "placing out." These children were sent away from the cities and into the country to be placed in foster homes. Once referred to as "baby trains" and "mercy trains," this system is now known as the "orphan trains."

I've since learned that my grandmother was not an orphan at all, but was simply abandoned by her parents, who had recently separated. She and her older brother Richard came into the care of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1900. They were soon transferred to an orphanage called the Home for Destitute Children in Brooklyn (learn about its history here), where Richard was quickly adopted. Emily was to spend six long years of her life at the orphanage. In 1906, Emily was transferred to the Elizabeth Home for Girls (read an article about the home here), which was a reform school for so-called "incorrigible girls." She was briefly placed with a woman "for training," and then came into the custody of the Children's Aid Society. On March 13, 1906, she was loaded on an orphan train bound for Hopkinton, Iowa. The Rev. H.D. Clarke was acting as the placing agent.

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