September 6, 2007 at 1:11 pm | Posted in History | Leave a comment

"The Greatest Thing You’ll Ever Learn Is Just to Love And be Loved In Return"

These words, sung by Nat King Cole (and David Bowie, and others I’m sure) were written by a child from an Orphan Train. What is an ‘orphan train ‘you ask?

Well, did I ever get an ear full today! I was listening to Maines Public Radio station this afternoon and they were running a segment created by http://www.soundprint.org/ called "The Orphan Train". It includes tons of testimonials of children (now senior citizens) who related stories about how they were orphaned or why their families were forced to give them up — Often because one parent died and the other didn’t have the means to care for them while they worked or because of destitution and the inability to feed their many children. In some cases, the older children in a family were kept because they could work (child labor) and the youngest were sent to orphanages. This program was about (the part I heard anyhow) how the New York City Orphanages were overflowing so, to solve this problem, they placed the children on a train bound for the west, to homes of people who could take them in. In 1854 estimates put the number of homeless children in New York City at 34,000. This was a class of people referred to as "street Arabs" or "the dangerous classes". The orphanages could not hold all the homeless children. So they sent as many children as possible west to find homes with farm families. They ran advertisements explaining when the trains would be arriving and then as the train made its stops the children would be paraded in front of the crowd of onlookers.

Some of them were cared for well, allowed to attend school, and well loved. Some ended up as forced labor on farms. Some were molested or forced to earn wages thru prostitution. Some were reunited with their parents (few) and some were never heard from again.

Hearing the accounts from the voices of people who lived them was heart wrenching. Although these people were world-weary adults now, with a lifetime of experience behind them, you could still hear the pain and heart break in their voices as they recounted the things they felt, and saw, and experienced when their families could no longer care for them… They experienced a stigma and the embarrassment of coming from a family not able to care for their basic needs.

All this really forced me to stop and think about how blessed *MY* life really is. Not only can I care for my children’s basic needs but, considered in relation to those children of the past, my children live in luxury. I don’t have to worry that an illness or job loss will result in the loss also of our family unit…. That my babies could be scattered to the winds, not knowing their parents, where they come from or even, and, in the few cases where the children were too young to speak, their own names. We may be in debt (like typical Amercians) but these kinds of scenarios would never even enter the average mother’s minds! My kids waste time watching tv, they play to their hearts content, they eat until they are full and they have two parents who adore them. They aren’t required to chop wood, start a fire, and cook breakfast for a house full of people, and all before they left for school. Amazing.

If you are curious about these orphan trains or the people who experienced them (makes me wonder about my great grandmother who was an orphan and whose history we know nothing about), here are a few of the links I found. (Since I have an interest in genealogy, and my family’s history, this was of particular interest to me. )



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