The Orphan Trains

The Morning Show

June 23, 2019 at 2:00 PM, Rock Springs Nature Center, Decatur, Illinois

The Orphan Trains were the precursor to today’s foster care system and were a response to the problems brought about by overcrowding and poverty on the East Coast. Thousands of children were distributed throughout Illinois and their descendants still live here.

1: The New York Juvenile Asylum brought nearly 7000 children to Illinois from 1853 to 1929 to work as indentured servants. These children were not all orphans, but had families in the East who could not provide a home for them.

2: The men and women who operated the asylums and orphan trains were the first social workers. Through the records of the Asylums we can see how social work was professionalized and theories of child welfare developed.

3: Searching for Orphan Train ancestors can be a challenge – I can refer people to the agencies that can help them. I began my website project because no one was compiling information about the Orphan Trains in Illinois on the internet.

4: Ebenezer Wright, the Western Agent of the New York Juvenile Asylum, who lived and worked in Normal Illinois for almost two decades, will be featured as a character on the Evergreen Cemetery Walk in Bloomington in October.

Props/Demonstration Ideas: The Urbana Free Library has a collection of the indentures that bound the children to their guardians. I wonder if they would allow them to be displayed on television. They wouldn’t have a huge visual impact, but we could put on the white gloves and emphasize their age and history that way. The indentures at Urbana are from the 1850s. Most of the young men who came then ended up fighting in the Civil War.

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