Any photos not otherwise credited are from the personal collection of Frank Passic, Albion Historian.
By Frank Passic, FR, Calhoun County, Michigan
“Where were you born?” That familiar question is as old as the U.S. Census Bureau itself. As Field Representatives we routinely ask that question in our surveys, then move on to the next question. For a person using U.S. Census records in their genealogical research however, the answer to that question can have a special meaning if their ancestor was on the Orphan Train.
During the 1840s and 1850s, thousands of persons from both overseas as well as from impoverished areas of the U.S. crowded into New York City. There they worked in low-paying jobs and lived in unsanitary conditions. Poor children from large families or broken homes often found themselves destitute on the streets, begging for food and/or becoming delinquents. The NYC Chief of Police estimated in 1853 that there were 10,000 homeless children roaming the streets. Instead of keeping children in orphanages, or incarcerated in jails or reformatories, a plan was devised to remove them from their urban environment and provide them with new homes.
“Orphan Trains” were operated beginning in 1854 by the New York Children’s Aid Society. This group took waifs from the environs of NYC and transported them by rail westward to foster homes in rural settings. This was the beginning of the foster-home program in our country today. The first such train arrived in Dowagiac, Michigan on the Michigan Central Railroad in September, 1854. The 46 boys on that first train were taken to the local schoolhouse and church. Fourteen of them were selected for placement by area residents and farmers, and the remaining thirty-two returned to the train for selection at subsequent stops along the line.
This scene was repeated in communities throughout the country in the following decades, from 1854 to 1929. Records show that during that period, more than 200,000 children were placed in this manner. Of that number, around 35% were legally adopted by their foster-families. Others became farm laborers or house servants until they reached adulthood. This is a very complex topic containing many circumstances and stories. For anyone interested in learning more about the Orphan Train phenomenon, contact the Orphan Train Heritage Society, P.O. Box 322, Concordia, Kansas 66901. Their website is: www.orphantrainriders.com. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. The Society serves as a clearinghouse for those researching their Orphan Train ancestors, and operates an Orphan Train Museum in the Union Pacific Railroad depot there. They can refer you to numerous books and videos about this subject.
U.S. Census records can be particularly helpful for those who suspect their ancestor might have been on the Orphan Train, or as confirmation that their OT ancestor did not fit the profile of the rest of the occupants where they were living. Fortunately, U.S. Census decennial records covering the OT period of operation have now been released, with 1930 being the last. These records can usually be found on microfilm in a library in your particular county.
As an example, the U.S. 1860 Census records for Sheridan Township in Calhoun County, Michigan list the occupants living at the residence of John Beers, age 50 (See illustration). He and his wife Susan, age 58, were both born in New York. Next is listed their daughter Ida Beers, age 10, born in Michigan. Next is a William Ryon, age 10, born in New York. Notice that William’s information doesn’t “match” that of the rest of the family: He has a different surname, and was not born in the same state as the other 10-year-old at that residence. Today, this case would probably be “tagged” for a re-interview by the SFR. Further research into OT records revealed that William was part of an Orphan Train that arrived in Albion, Michigan in July, 1857. In adulthood, William moved to Nashville in Barry County, where he operated a nursery business.
On that same 1857 Orphan Train was George Timmons, who along with his brother Joseph were placed with the Simeon and Martha Stone family of nearby Eckford Township. The Stones adopted the two brothers, and the 1860 U.S. Census records show the boys bearing their new surname. George was representative of many early OT boys, who joined the Union Army during the Civil War. George joined the Michigan Sharpshooters as the drummer boy at age 12 (pictured here at age 15), where he served valiantly throughout the War. In adulthood, George was a businessman, and served as Michigan’s auditor general from 1890 to 1892. In loving thoughtfulness, the brothers engraved this inscription on the tombstone of their adoptive parents: “Erected in memory of our adoptive parents by George W. and Joseph B. Stone.”
Did the Orphan Train stop in your town? Check the U.S. Census records for your own community for clues about riders that were placed in your locality. The answer to the Census question “Where were you born?” might just open up a new field of research for you and for any Orphan Train descendants living in your area today.
1860 U.S. Census record of the John Beers family in Sheridan Township, Calhoun County, Michigan showing the name of John Ryon.
Orphan Train rider George W. Stone (1849-1921) as a drummer boy during the Civil War (1865 photo).
All text copyright, 2020 © all rights reserved Frank Passic