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The Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, Inc. (OTHSA)—founded in 1986 in Springdale (Washington and Benton counties)—preserves the history of the orphan train era, a period when thousands of children were relocated across the country. Many Arkansans can trace their roots to children who were relocated to Arkansas.
Between 1854 and 1929, an estimated 200,000 or more homeless and orphaned children were sent west from eastern cities, accompanied by agents. The purpose was to find families that would take in children in a “free-home-placing-out” program instituted by the Children’s Aid Society of New York City, New York. The children were sent in groups of twenty-five to 100 on trains, making stops along the way where they might be chosen by some family who wanted a child or needed extra help.
The Sisters of Charity from the New York Foundling Hospital indentured Catholic children and arranged placements for them; several hundred arrived in Arkansas under the guidance of priests in the state. These children were indentured only to Catholic families. Arrangements were made in advance through correspondence among various priests (mostly at Subiaco Abbey), their parishioners, and the Sisters of Charity. Families could request a particular type of child; skin, hair, and eye color; and the sex of the child. The New York Children’s Aid Society (a Protestant organization) also brought children to Arkansas, where the family receiving a child was not asked specifically for a religious connection but was made to promise to send the child to Sunday School. Children transported by the Children’s Aid Society were not indentured.
Children were relocated for seventy-five years (1854–1929). Some found themselves in unfavorable situations, where they were treated harshly and given table scraps to eat, but they made the best of what was offered. Others received very good care and were treated in every respect as part of the biological family.
In 1986, while working as a publisher’s assistant on the Washington County History Book project, Mary Ellen Johnson learned that a group of children had been delivered to Springdale in 1912 and taken in by local families. Her interest in finding what happened to these children led to interviews and a collection of their stories. Shortly thereafter, she learned that no organization dedicated to preserving this part of America’s history had been established, so she began contacting the media and locating people with orphan train experiences.
The OTHSA’s membership of 475 is spread all over the United States. Beginning in 1989, Johnson hosted reunions in Louisiana, Missouri, and Oklahoma, as well as the major one in Arkansas. As a result, twelve states now hold reunions of orphan train riders and their descendants. The society operated a research center and museum in Springdale from 1986 to 2003, but in the summer of 2003, the collection was moved to a restored Union Pacific train station in Concordia, Kansas.
Many newspaper articles have been published in Arkansas about the orphan trains, and American Experience produced a documentary about orphan trains for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). In northwest Arkansas in 1989, the television program Unsolved Mysteries filmed an orphan train segment that united a brother living in New York and a sister living in Nebraska who had been chosen by different families and had not seen each other in seventy years.
The orphan train era led to child welfare reforms and government assistance to keep families together. It is recognized by social workers as the beginning of what is now known as foster care.
For additional information:Johnson, Mary Ellen. Waifs, Foundlings and Half-Orphans: Searching for America’s Orphan Train Riders. Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 2005.
Johnson, Mary Ellen, Kay B. Hall, and Marvin Chamberlin, eds. Orphan Train Riders: Their Own Stories. 4 vols. Springdale, AR: Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, 1997.
Journeys of Hope: Orphan Train Riders, Their Own Stories. Springdale, AR: Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, 1999.
Lair, Jim. “The Carroll County Orphan Train: One Man’s Saga.” Carroll County Historical Quarterly 36 (Spring 1991): 9–14.
———. “The Carroll County Orphan Train: The Saga Continues.” Carroll County Historical Quarterly 39 (Spring 1994): 7–9.
National Orphan Train Complex. http://orphantraindepot.org/ (accessed March 16, 2016).
Mary Ellen JohnsonOrphan Train Heritage Society
Last Updated 10/7/2016
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