American History · biography · history

The Riders of the Orphan Train ( 1854-1929)

I took a bit of a hiatus from the blog as it has been difficult to find the motivation to research and write. It has been a bit of a struggle to find topics I am passionate with especially with the worries of the past year. I recently took a trip to New York City and I found a bit of that passion once again. I visited Ellis Island and it was a great museum where I learned quite a bit. One small information blurb at the museum really caught my attention. From 1854-1929 the Orphan Trains delivered about 200,000 children to different homes in the American West. I thought this was incredible and I quickly wanted to learn more.

Due to the influx of immigration during the late 19th century, large east coast cities (like NYC and Boston) were having problems with large masses of orphaned children living on the streets. In New York City, it was estimated that there were about 10,000-30,000 children living on the streets. These children may have been abandoned by parents who no longer wanted them/could not afford them or some, sadly, lost their birth parents due to disease (typhoid/yellow fever epidemics), addiction, malnutrition/poverty, or freak accidents (especially through dangerous work accidents). These children were force to turn to desperate measures to survive. They formed gangs who would steal in order to stay fed and clothed. They may have terrorized some of the neighborhoods, but they were just trying to survive in the difficult world they were born into. They were often taken advantage of and arrested as adults. There were some poor houses, asylums, and orphanages that were formed to try and control this, but these were overcrowded and abusive. These children were given no help to better their lives at this place. There was minimal education opportunities, food, and attention.

UNK conference highlights Orphan Train Movement | Local News |  kearneyhub.com

Charles Loring Brace founded the Children Aid Society. He felt that there was a better way to control the homeless situation and try to actually help the children who were alone. He thought that they would have better opportunities if these children were sent West with the goal of finding a family to take them in. Many families who had moved West needed the help on their farms and homesteads that these children could provide. It seemed a win-win for both sides.

Social Welfare History Project Brace, Charles Loring
Charles Loring Brace

On September 1854, the first train was sent out to Dowagiac, Michigan. By the end of the program, over 30 states accepted new children. Most were located in the Midwest. Fliers were placed out in advance at the towns that the trains were arriving in order to search for families where the children could be placed. Some were placed with families in advance, but others it was whoever came to make a bid for them upon their arrival. Many of the children had no idea where they were going once they boarded these trains and this would be a very upsetting time for them. For others, this was a grand adventure. Overall, the children themselves did not have much choice in where and who they were going to.

Orphan Trains' Brought Homeless NYC Children to Work On Farms Out West -  HISTORY

When the trains arrived in town, prospective “parents” came from miles around to see. The children would finally get off the train upon arrival and be stunned (and possibly frightened) to see the crowds craning their necks to see if there would be a child they could bring into their family. The Daily Independent of Grand Island, Nebraska (1912) reported, “some ordered boys, others girls, some preferred light babies, others dark, and the orders were filled out properly and every new parent was delighted.” The children were often inspected and encouraged to “show off” including singing, dancing, etc. Sometimes there was a lot of competition for a certain type of child (boy vs girl, ages, appearance, etc). After selected, the children were given a new outfit and a bible to start off their journey. Lee Nailling was one of the children who left on one of these trains from New York City. He left with his two brothers and spoke about his arrival:

“Then we were instructed to go stand at the front of the church, where a lot of adults began coming in and crowding around us.  I picked Gerald up and glared at the milling adults.  Leo grabbed hold of my leg as a tall man dressed in overalls approached us.  The man reached out and felt my arm, I stared straight ahead, “A bit scrawny,” he commented, then moved on down and chose number 30.

Number 30’s face turned white as he left the line with the man.  A smiling woman wearing a flowered dress joined them.  Then they walked to a table filled with papers, where some of the caretakers were sitting.  Soon other numbers were called out, and by the time we left that afternoon to board another train, several of the children were gone.

Two days later my brothers and I had survived several lineups in many different towns.  Each time we were inspected I was terrified we’d be chosen, and then when we weren’t, I was angered and believed that people thought we weren’t good enough.  But I was relieved that we were still together.  I’d seen other brothers and sisters separated, and as I listened to their loud sobbing, I wondered “How can I stop them from separating us?” (https://orphantraindepot.org/history/orphan-train-rider-stories/lee-nailling/)

Orphan Trains Head West - Fishwrap The official blog of Newspapers.com

In the end, Nailling was separated from both his brothers. This was a common occurrence during the program as many families could only afford to take in one child. He was moved between a few families before finally finding his permanent home with the Nailling family in Texas. In this case, he found a loving family who longed for a son and found the happiness that he sought. In a lot of cases, the children did find new loving homes who adopted them as their own children. Every family who participated in this program were required to clothe and educate the children who they fostered and many did adopt the children who went with them. There were many pros to the program. The children had an opportunity to received education (and possibly higher education depending on the family), they could find a loving household, they would be fed and clothed, they would be safer than living on the streets and could overall obtain a better life.

Naturally, there were those who abused the system as well and some of the children did not find the same success. Some families did take in the children because they were solely looking for additional labor help. Some children were mistreated and abused (verbally and physically) which caused many to become runaways. Some were threatened to report that everything was okay to the Children’s Aid Society representatives who came to check up on them. Those who were against the Orphan Train program found too many similarities to slavery with these children being “auctioned off”. The orphans were also held to a much higher standard than the families natural born children (likely because they were viewed as obtaining a product). A lot of the children moved between different houses as they were returned by their foster family. These could be for the smallest instances (they did not like the child’s attitude, an instance of stealing a cookie, was not the appearance they were looking for, etc). This could cause a lot of damage to the growing child’s self image. Some children had to be moved for more practical reasons such as financial costs or sickness.

By 1830, the amount of Orphan Trains had greatly decreased. There was a lot of criticism by those who fought against child labor and those who felt the system was very akin to slavery. With new laws protecting children, transporting them to be placed across state lines became illegal. Additionally, more welfare programs began to be developed to support families and children. State and local governments became more involved to prevent children ending up on the street and the population of orphans was greatly reduced. In 1912, the U.S. Children’s Bureau was established as well whose goal was to accomplish all that was stated above.

The Orphan Trains definitely had many pros, but also some cons as well. Some children were so young when they were transported they did not even learn that they were aboard the Orphan Train or that they had birth parents until later in life. Many of the children transported went on to have good lives (and likely lives that they would never have had if they were left on the streets). Some went on to have careers and attend university, many were married and had families of their own, and many were able to make their new state their home. Fred (Engert) Swedenburg was six years old when he was transported and then adopted by the Swedenburg family in Nebraska. He had been given up by his family in New York due to “scandalous neglect”. He lived a happy life and was lucky enough to have his sibling adopted by a family only 20 miles away. He was treated as the Swedenburg’s true born son and even received inheritance. Yet, when asked later if he could go back and have a choice in riding the train to Nebraska, this was his response:

“When asked by one boy if he had a choice would he ride the train again to come to Nebraska. Swedenburg slowly shook his head and said no. Swedenburg asked the boy how he would feel to be taken from his family and put in a new home and the boy’s face fell as he looked at the floor.”( https://orphantraindepot.org/history/orphan-train-rider-stories/fred-engert-swedenburg/)

Did any of your ancestors ride the Orphan Trians?

Sources:

https://www.newyorkfamilyhistory.org/blog/orphan-trains-brief-history-and-research-how

https://www.pbs.org/video/university-place-brave-journey-orphan-train-rider/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/horizon/nov98/orphan.htm

https://www.history.com/news/orphan-trains-childrens-aid-society

American History · english history · history

When Christmas was Banned…

The holidays this year have been a struggle. Many did not even expect the holidays would have been affected when the pandemic started in March . Gatherings will be smaller or over video chats and the holidays will not feel like the big event that they have usually been. Yet, it also gives us sometime time to focus on the things we are grateful for. Christmas could never truly be cancelled, right?

Well, actually, Christmas has been banned in previous centuries. It was banned in both the United Kingdom and early America. In 1647, Parliament decreed that Christmas was no longer considered a feast day or a holiday. This was under the rule of Parliament/Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, who was placed in power as a result of the English Civil War and the beheading of Charles I. This regicide brought the Puritans (some of the most extreme Protestants) to the forefront of politics. Puritans believed that the whole celebration and overindulgence of the season was wrong. To them, there was nothing in the bible that stated there should be a celebration like this on December 25. In fact, the date December 25 originates from a pagan festival (the date of the winter solstice) which was just adapted to the Christian rhetoric during the early medieval era. The bible was the word for the Puritans and they had a strict adherence to it. Christmas should be like any ordinary day. There would be no large feastings, merry making, rowdy behavior, drinking to excess, decorations (idols), or any other “sinful” activities. They also disliked these traditions as they felt that the Catholic influence was still too strong on the Church of England.

Continue reading “When Christmas was Banned…”
American History · art history · history

Fashion Statement: The Bloomer and its Impact on the Women’s Movement

While doing research for my series on the suffragist movement in the United States, I came across a very interesting trend that was briefly popular during the mid-19th century. Elizabeth Smith Miller debuted the “Bloomer” costume in 1851 . Miller was working in her garden and became irritated when her long and heavy skirts got in the way of her work. As she was now thoroughly fed up, she decided to take a pair of scissors and cut the skirt to a shorter version. Underneath the skirt, she would wear a wide pair of trousers which allowed her more comfort and freedom to complete her tasks. This outfit soon became a hit among the early feminists in the budding suffragist/women’s right movement. This new fashion trend pushed the boundaries of the feminine norms of society (despite being short lived) and it is easy to see why it became popular with suffragists. The Bloomer walked so future fashion trends of the 20th century could run. I really have never looked deeply into fashion history before, but it is fascinating how through this mode of art/expression women were able to convey what they wanted and resisted against societal norms.

Continue reading “Fashion Statement: The Bloomer and its Impact on the Women’s Movement”
American History · biography · history

Timeline of Women’s Suffrage : 1848-1920. Part 1

Last week, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in America. It is an amazing milestone to hit and to honor, but, on the other hand, it is shocking to think that the female citizens of this country have only had the right to vote for one hundred years. There are so many stories, people, and events that went into the long fight for the 19th Amendment, but in these next two posts I have compiled the events and stories that I feel were most important and encapsulated the movement.

Seneca Falls Convention, July 1848

 The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 sparked the women’s suffrage movement in America. The event was organized by five women: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Mary M’Clintock, Martha Coffin Wright, and Jane Hunt. It took place in the small town of Seneca Falls, New York. This convention was an early introductions, worldwide, of the concept of women’s suffrage. But how did this convention suddenly come about?

The abolition of slavery was one of the first political movements that women participated in and were able to exercise political agency. Beginning in the 1830s, American women were speaking out against slavery in public lectures. A woman’s role, during this period, was to be stowed away in the “private sphere”. They were to be dutiful wives and take care of the children.  Being regulated to the household, women never had a chance to reach out further and participate in the public sphere. They were barred from taking an active role in politics. To society, their opinions were unimportant. After a woman married (which was expected of them) they would lose any few freedoms they had and were dependent on their husbands. Married women had virtually no property or financial rights and the option of divorce was near impossible. The ideal “True Womanhood” of the period was a wife/mother who was pious and submissive. By the eyes of the law, women were dependents rather than a true citizen.   

Continue reading “Timeline of Women’s Suffrage : 1848-1920. Part 1”
American History · biography · history

Arrested for Voting: Susan B. Anthony’s Fight for Suffrage

August 2020 marks 100 years since the 19th Amendment was passed. This amendment provided women with the right to vote in the United States. It is hard to believe that it was not until 1920 that the female citizens of America received a right that should have been automatic as a citizen of the country. This right is often taken for granted today and it can be difficult to imagine a time when a woman would actually be arrested for voting in an election! It is important to remember this anniversary and to remember how hard the women who came before us fought. They fought so we could participate in government and in the decision making of this country. It is critical that we exercise this right every opportunity we have. During August (and likely the months beyond), I would like to highlight some of the tactics the suffragettes used to have their voice heard, famous standouts, and highlight how much hard work was put into the movement.

Continue reading “Arrested for Voting: Susan B. Anthony’s Fight for Suffrage”

American History · biography · history

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera: Activists

This month I wanted to write an article about two figures who made such an impact, yet have been forgotten through time. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were icons of the LGBT and transgender movement during the 1960s and 1970s.

Forsaken transgender pioneers recognized 50 years after Stonewall

In the mid-20th century, it was still difficult for homosexuals to be open in the world. It was even more difficult for transgender individuals. Those in the LGBT community were ostracized from society. Society still did not want to acknowledge their existence. Most employers excluded and denied opportunities for those of the community. Some were sent to mental institutions to go through shock therapy to “cure” any “unnatural” thoughts. Many had no where to go and were unable to obtain employment. They ended up on the streets after running away or being abandoned by their own families.

This is the world that Marsha P. Johnson entered after graduating high school with $15 dollars to her name. She immediately left her home in New Jersey to move to New York City in 1963. In her hometown, Johnson was not accepted as a transgender female. She experienced harassment by males and in a 1992 interview she stated that she was a victim of sexual assault. She moved to Greenwich Village in 1966 and found a community of people who accepted her. She became a part of the transgender community and participated in drag.

Continue reading “Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera: Activists”

American History · biography · Detroit/Michigan · history

The Italian Hall Disaster and the Copper Strike of 1913

In this post I want to bring attention to the Christmas Eve Italian Hall Disaster. This event is a forgotten piece of history to those outside of the local area. This story takes place in the early 1900s during a time where big corporations were booming and there were essentially no restrictions on how an employer could choose to treat their work force. It begins with local workers who became fed up with the way they were being treated and realized that they should be worth more to their employers. With great sacrifice to many union families, a strike begins. Unfortunately, it will end in a Christmas tragedy, but there will be a legacy that these families left behind. It should not be forgotten.

Continue reading “The Italian Hall Disaster and the Copper Strike of 1913”

American History · biography · european history · history

Humboldt and the Natural World

“As our planet faces irreversible global heating, politicians and scientists are throwing statistics and numbers at us, but few dare to talk about our awe for nature, or the vulnerable beauty of our planet…”

-Andrea Wulf, author of The Invention of Nature, quote from “Alexander von Humboldt, an Intrepid Scientist who Re-imagined the Natural World” HistoryExtra magazine Sept 2019 edition

Climate change is an extremely important topic in our present-day world. Greta Thurnberg’s speech at the Climate Action Summit this year has inspired as she became a social media sensation. It has inspired people who may not have been as well informed, including myself.  Yet, did you know the dangers of human induced climate change were recognized by one of the worlds most famous scientists as far back as 1800? Continue reading “Humboldt and the Natural World”

American History · Detroit/Michigan · history

Woodward Avenue: The Backbone of Detroit

Woodward Avenue is one of America’s most iconic roads. The road 27 miles that connects Detroit River to Pontiac, Michigan and was once the main way to connect the suburbs to the main city. What makes it so special?

It is the home for many firsts in America: the first paved road, the first four way stoplight, possibly the first ice cream soda mixed by Sanders, and the first road where a ticket for street racing was written (March 1895). In 1963, thousands marched and listened to Martin Luther King, Jr gave a precursor to his “I have a Dream” speech. It is the home to the famous “Dream Cruise” where thousands of classic cars owners come to cruise, socialize, and show off their vehicles. It is also just an important part of Detroit culture; it is a landmark. The road was also important to the auto industry. The auto industry grew up and expanded on this road. It truly is the spine of Detroit.

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American History · Detroit/Michigan · history

Code Word: “Midnight”

“Midnight” was the code word for one of the final stops of the Underground Railroad. By the time the former slaves arrived at “Midnight” they must have been filled with a sense of relief after surviving miles and miles of dangerous travel. Dawn was right around the corner. At this time, the country was teeming slave catchers. After the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, a new popular profession was created. This law gave the slaveholders the ability to seek out and have their runaways returned. The law of 1850 expanded this and allowed the capture of fugitives slaves anywhere in United States held territory. It did not matter if the fugitive was north of the Ohio River border (1787 Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery north of the Ohio River), they could still be caught and returned. If they made it to Midnight (though not danger free) they were just a few miles and a ferry ride from freedom. Have you guessed where this was?

Image result for detroit underground railroad
Gateway to Freedom Monument, Detroit, Michigan

Continue reading “Code Word: “Midnight””