Orphan Train Riders

October 1, 2012  - by 

The train out of New York City full of nuns and children pulled up to the Osage, Missouri station in 1901. Three year old Irma Craig had her name, birth date, and name of who was to receive her sewn on the inside of her jacket and a large number 32 sewn on the outside. As the train came to a stop little Irma could see a lady holding a large card with 32 written on it. Irma exclaimed, ” “That’s my new Momma,” and was soon rushing to meet Mrs. Katherine Boehm.Irma’s long  journey began when her birth mother, Lyda, left Irma at the New York Foundling Hospital when she was only a few months old. The Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul had raised her for three years. The Sisters sorted out and matched each child on this train to new homes before they boarded the train. But for many of the other 200,000 orphan train riders from 1853 to 1930 the experience included being selected (or not) during a review done by total strangers on a string of several railroad station platforms.

Social policy of the time said orphans or neglected children were better off doing chores on a pioneer’s farm than they would be on the streets of crowded slums. For most the new life worked out well, but for others it was a bad experience. Less than one in ten riders was returned. Whether a foundling, or a teenager separated from a neglectful alcoholic single-parent, each orphan train rider’s fate was strongly influenced by what happened in a few moments on a far away railroad platform.

About one in twenty-five Americans has an orphan train rider connection. Two organizations were responsible for more than half the orphan trains: the Children’s Aid Society, and the New York Foundling Hospital. However, dozens of organizations mostly in New York City, but also a few in Boston, Chicago, or Minnesota contributed children to the orphan train movement which “placed out” children in 48 states. Sometimes these sending institutions have records which show the names of the birth parents.

To learn about orphan train and adoption research try these Research Wiki articles:

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  1. I am trying to find my grandfather. He was born in Columbus, OH, on June 23, 1887, and was on the orphan train and adopted by Lydia Dahl Olson, in Omaha, NE. She was the widow of Simon Olsen. I have no idea how old my grandfather was when adopted. I do know he was adopted before 1900. I’m trying to find his birth parents. It’s left a void in my life and my family’s life. Please help me. Thanks

      1. Unless I am mistaken, going by a little checking, Her grandfather’s adopted name is John Olson. Married 23 Jan 1918 to Mae Julia Conrad. Adopted father listed as John (no last name listed) and Lydia Dahl on the marriage certificate in Manhattan, New York, New York, United States. Birth place listed as Columbia, Ohio. Woman he married was widowed. Spouse was born approx 1890 in Plymouth, Pa. Spouse’s parents listed as John Conrad & Sarah Garvin.

  2. My family is trying to find my grandmother’s birth record. She was adopted out on the orphan train. Her birth name was Catherine Mary Mahoney or Catherine Marie Mahoney. She was adopted by a family by the name of Beck. The birthdate she gave us was November 11, 1901. We have searched extensively and cannot find her birth record. Any advice where or who we can contact?

  3. I am trying to locate the adoption records and birth records of my Grandmother Anna Travers, from New York. She and her sister Lena Travers were adopted in Forest Mills Iowa, 11/13/13 by George and Alice Clark. Thank you!

  4. Trying to locate info on Great Grandfather, Alonzo Earl [Earle] Adopted from orphan train near Indianapolis, IN in probably middle to late 1800s. Last name was changed to Dillon.

  5. I am trying to find my grandfather. His name was William Richard Phillips born on Nov 30 1926 I can’t find him at all.

  6. My Grandfather Wesley Rosco was 7 years old when he came to you. It was June 13th, 1918. He was possibly born in Mechanicsville, NY. His parents were Anna and Michael Rosco. He was adopted by Bazlee & Grace Lay in Logon County, Arkansas. They choose him from the orphan train he was riding. My grandfather passed in 1996. Please send any information you have about his biological family, records, residence, siblings, orphanage, train etc.
    Sincerely
    Katheryn Lay Luker

  7. I am trying to find David, Patrick, or John C O’Mara, who arrived in New York around 1850. John ended up in Cedar Rapids Iowa where he joined the Union Army in 1861. He is buried in Davey Nebraska, but his brothers David and Patrick seem to have disappeared. Thanks, Joe Mara

  8. Thank you for posting this article. My grandfather was adopted from the orphan train and it is interesting to get some insight of what he went through.

  9. I am trying to find out anything you have on George Elden Horne not sure where he was from but thank he went to Kansas or Nebraska Thanks

  10. Looking for Nancy and William Oneal/Oneil .that rode the orphan train to South Mississippi sometime before 1860. Was told they were raised by Cowards.

  11. I am looking for anybody who know my grandmother. She was on the orphan train around 1905. Nellie Mack. She came from Ireland somewhere. She was adopted in Louisiana by the Fanguy family.

  12. I am trying to find information about my great grandfather, Caezar Napoleon Bonaparte Robison or Robinson, he was born in Kingston Ulster County New York in 1871 and adopted by Captain John Amberg in Howard Elk County Kansas around 1885, and renamed John Amberg if you have any information please contact me.

  13. recent DNA matches are taking me to O’Brien and other irish names as my Orphan Train Grandmother’s family. She rode the Orphan Train to Stacyville, Iowa in April 1889 and was taken in by John and Mary Buhr of Adams, Minn. We celebrated Gma’s birthday as May 1883

  14. Seeking information on a possible OT child. Thurston Mack Smith was born in 1870 in Alabama; in 1880 he is found in Econfina, Florida living with Daniel (55) and Eunice (29) Shaver. He is listed as “orphan”. I cannot be certain that he was on the trains, but there is no record of him prior to 1880 and not again until 1900 (census records 1890 lost in fire).