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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course United States Migration Patterns  by Beverly Whitaker, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

The Orphan Trains

A process began in 1853 in New York whereby overcrowded orphanages and foundling homes “placed out” thousands of children who were either orphaned or more often given up by families who could not care for them. This phenomena occurred over a period of 75 years. By 1929, there must have been nearly 250,000 children who were relocated from large eastern cities to families in other parts of the country or even to American territories.

The practice began with the New York Children’s Aid Society, but it was taken up by other charities. Each agency had its own placement, but they varied little in procedure. Usually, groups of children were gathered together and put under the charge of agents employed by the placing charity. These groups traveled to pre-planned destinations where local families chose who they wanted to take home to work in their households or farms. Sometimes these were quite abusive situations.

The Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, Inc. is building a databank of reference material. They sponsor orphan train reunions in several states, and within the capabilities of their volunteers, they act as a clearinghouse for a network of individuals interested in the orphan train experience.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course United States: Migration Patterns offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.