Thursday, April 2, 2009

Orphan Trains

As I mentioned earlier, whenever an adoption occurs, the potential for a non-paternity event is created. Memory of the adoption is lost over time and a new genetic component is added to a family’s descendant population. 

Three relatively recent cases of mass adoption under unusual circumstances come to mind when thinking about NPEs. These are the so-called Orphan Trains of the late 19th and early 20th century here in the United States, the forced adoption of the babies of leftist intellectuals murdered during the Argentine junta’s ‘dirty war’ and the adoption of Jewish children by families hiding them from the Nazi extermination camps in the 1930’s and ‘40s. I’d like to take some time to talk about each of these, since they each created a pool of potential NPEs. Let’s start with the Orphan Trains.

The Orphan Trains had a humanitarian goal – to take urban children whose parents were either deceased or unable to care for them and transport them to rural areas where families were willing to take them in. These relocations went on from the early 1850’s to the late 1920s. The technique originated in New York and Boston but was used by a number of eastern cities, some as far west as Ohio. It was driven by multiple motivations: the myth of a pure and bucolic countryside as opposed to the evil cities as places for the children to be raised to adulthood; the desire to unburden agencies of children so others could be cared for; the disposal of children who had run afoul of the authorities; and, of course, a no less real belief that this was a better fate for the children than living in an institution. Estimates of the number of children removed from cities in these programs are upwards of 200,000. 

Children from orphanages and foundling homes as well as some from the equivalent of juvenile detention facilities were put on trains with agents who guided them to a new location. Notice of the availability of children was usually made in the local newspaper. On arrival the children were put on display and claimed by families willing, for a variety of reasons, to take them in. The degree of formality in assigning children to families varied widely. Some agencies insisted that children be ‘indentured’ or apprenticed or formally adopted – this means that a paper trail exists that could be discovered if an NPE is observed through a DNA mismatch. In other cases, no formal adoption was required, although it may have taken place at a later time on the family’s own initiative. Some agencies kept records of which children were sent to which towns and some of those records have been preserved; other agencies did not maintain good records.

The motivations of the families taking in the children varied. Some farmers were just looking for a spare farmhand or a maid. Others did so out of a genuine wish to help. The treatment of the children was as varied as the families that took them in. Some children became an integral part of their new family, others were mistreated and ran away, and still others remained with the family that took them in but never were integrated into the family’s line and left upon reaching their majority.

The agencies that set up the Orphan Trains were sponsored by different groups – some religious and others civic. In general, the religiously based groups might take children of any religious background but put them into families from their own religious orientation. So in tracing back from a discovered NPE, the family historian cannot count on a match between the accepting family and the child’s real (if any) religious background.

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