We Rode the Orphan Trains by Andrea Warren
From Miss Melanie at Main
This book caught my eye and just happened to be a subject about which I knew nothing. I was fascinated by the stories each orphan train rider told about their experiences finding new homes away from their birth parents. Between 1854 and 1929, an estimated 200,000 homeless children, mostly from New York City and other cities of the eastern United States, were put on orphan trains to every state in the nation in hopes of finding families who would love and care for them. Some were lucky and others, not so much. Some people were just looking for indentured servants and treated the children horribly. The aid societies in charge of placing the orphans were supposed to check up on them once a year but, of course, some abuse went undiscovered. Where it was found, the children were taken out of the homes and placed elsewhere.
Most of the riders remembered the shame and humiliation they felt when the trains stopped at designated cities to show off the children. Everyone in town came out to inspect the ‘cargo’. People looked at their teeth and felt their muscles. One rider said that it must have been similar to a slave auction. Sometimes siblings were split up and never reunited. As the trains moved to the next town, with fewer and fewer riders, the children feared that no one would pick them and they would have to go back to the orphanage.
Older school-age readers up to adults would be the recommended reading age for We Rode the Orphan Trains.
For more information on the history of orphan trains, check out an episode of the PBS series American Experience featuring orphan trains. The show’s webpage gives a summary, transcript, book list, and teacher’s guide to go along with the show.
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