MARQUETTE — The Marquette Fine Arts Center will host a presentation about orphan trains at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 21.
The roots of modern adoption and foster care systems grew out of the orphan train programs of the 1850s. At that time, an estimated 30,000 children in New York City were without homes.
The orphan trains started through the efforts of Charles Loring Brace, who established the Children's Aid Society in 1853.
Shaley George, curator of the National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, will share about the history and impact of orphan trains, especially as it related to Kansas.
"It led to an amazing system across the U.S. that led to foster care as we know it today," George said. "A lot of the paperwork and the system that we see today is the same."
It is estimated that at least 250,000 children traveled on orphan trains to new homes in the United States and Canada between 1854 and 1929. Of these children, half had been born in the United States and half had immigrated from other countries.
"The orphan train is often not talked about in schools — it is one of America's most unknown pieces of history," George said.
With the influx of millions of immigrants to the United States, poverty was commonplace, and there was little in the way of aid for children who lost their parents to workplace accidents or disease.
"There was a lot of prejudice in aid," George noted. "Orphanages and poor houses were a way to get them out of sight and out of mind, but it didn't solve the problem."
Around 12,000 orphaned, abandoned or homeless children were placed in Kansas during those years.
"We're in the top ten for states that received orphans," George said.
The first group of orphans was sent from New York in 1854, traveling via train and boat to arrive in Dowagiac, Michigan.
Brace employed agents to take groups numbering between 10 and 40 children on trains west. Word was sent ahead to towns where the trains would stop, advertising that children were available for adoption.
Screening committees of local townspeople, usually respected individuals such as judges or doctors, would vouch for the suitability of those who wanted to adopt a child.
"They tried to do as many background checks as they could," George said.
Though some children ended up in situations where they were used as cheap labor, the majority ended up in good homes.
"These kids were taken out of orphanages to be given a second chance," George said. "Many of them went on to be extremely successful — doctors, lawyers and teachers."
Families could request children based on gender, age, hair color and eye color. Infants were available for adoption, as were individuals up to 20 years old.
If an orphan was under 15 years old, it was required that they be sent to school. Those older than 15 were placed in positions where they could earn wages, instead of having to turn to crime to provide themselves with food and shelter as they had in New York City.
There were even a few family units sent out via the orphan trains, in hopes that moving them to a small town would give them the opportunity to work and become responsible members of society with the support of their neighbors.
"They found employment, a community and a second chance," George said. "They were given both the dignity and responsibility to make it."
Kansas received the most orphan trains between 1880 and 1929. George noted that McPherson had a second train come to town after all the children were adopted off of the first one, leaving several hopeful parents still waiting to adopt a child.
An article from the Sept. 7, 1911 edition of the McPherson Daily Republican reported that an orphan train would arrive in town the next week with "fifteen or twenty children in number." When the children arrived in McPherson, they were taken to the Opera House, where a representative of the Children's Aid Society spoke to prospective parents and took in their applications.
Though many siblings were sent out together on orphan trains, parents often could only afford to adopt a single child, and so brothers and sisters were separated.
Young children would have few, if any, memories of where they were born and who their biological families were. At least 45 nationalities of children are recorded as having been orphan train riders.
"They even placed out a few African American children before the Civil War," George said.
At the beginning of the Children's Aid Society orphan train program, children were not sent to the southern states, as Brace was an ardent abolitionist.
"He was not going to replace slavery with children," George said.
The New York Foundling Hospital, a Catholic organization, was also a major force in sending children west, several of whom were placed in homes in Ellis county.
"The Catholic organization only placed children in Catholic homes," George said. "We find a lot of them have discovered they were Jewish by birth."
When states began passing laws to restrict the placement of orphans from other states, the number of orphan trains began to taper off. When the Great Depression struck, the orphan trains were abandoned in favor of placing children in foster care homes.
"You have a strong foundation that was set up for them," George said. "The children made such an impact on our world and still do so through their families."
More than 2 million people are descendants of orphan train riders.
"We still have some living orphan train riders," George said. "They are phenomenal people and I love to talk about them. Nobody leaves without someone to look up to."
The National Orphan Train Complex houses orphan train rider artifacts such as toys, pictures, clothing and letters. For more information about the museum, visit http://orphantraindepot.org or call 785-243-4471.
The Marquette Fine Arts Center is located at 110 N. Washington in Marquette. A donation for the presentation will be taken up. For more information, call 785-546-2393.
Contact Patricia Middleton by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MiddleSentinel.