The Children's Aid Society of New York
An Index to the Federal, State, and Local Census Records of Its Lodging Houses (1855-1925)
by Carolee R. Inskeep
Printed for Clearfield Company, Inc. by Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc, Baltimore, Maryland, 1996, 1998 ISBN 0-8063-4623-X 150 pages
Contributed to the Irish Emigration Library by Maura Bournique
Reviewed by Doris V. Cummins
This is a small book (only 100 pages) but what a bonanza of information! If you suspect anyone in your family history may have been an "orphan train rider", this book may help establish time and place and lead to other interesting information.
Before the Children's Aid Society was established in New York City in 1853, few groups, public or private, existed to help needy children. Thousands of homeless children lived on the streets, three-fourths of them children of immigrants. A young Presbyterian minister named Charles Loring Brace was determined to help them. His propositions to save them have been both admired and criticized throughout the years. The Carmine Street Presbyterian Church, of which Brace was a member, organized regular "Boys' Meetings" - religious services for indigent youths with an average attendance of 1,000 boys.
Wanting to do more to provide food, clothing and shelter, the most active boys organized themselves as the Children's Aid Society in 1853. The mission was to increase the Sunday meetings, form industrial schools and lodging homes as well as reading rooms for children. Agents would be employed to care for the children.
By 1859 Brace wrote a famous (some say infamous) essay, "The Best Method of Disposing of Our Pauper and Vagrant Children" in which he noted the national demand for child labor, especially in rural country areas. The first attempt at placement in 1854 resulted in 207 children sent to Michigan.
Thus began the Emigration Plan whereby groups of children were loaded onto trains and sent across the country, mainly to farmers. The children were dubbed "orphan train riders", although many were not orphans.
Competing charities organized their own "orphan trains", and "indentured children" to prospective employers, a legal arrangement at that time binding for children up to age 18. The Children's Aid Society, however, did not indenture children. In its 1928 Annual Report, the Society claimed to have sent 33,000 children to the country and that 87% of them "had turned out well". However, the Society had difficulty keeping track of the children. Brace argued that the Emigration Plan did not require a high-priced asylum, a large staff or burdensome per capital expenses. It cost only a few dollars to transport a child from New York City to a country home. Nearly 40% were recruited from the Society's lodging houses.
The first lodging house was the Newsboys' Lodging House opened on the top floor of The Sun newspaper building in 1854 for homeless newsboys (considered to be the most uncontrollable children). Beds rented for 6 cents a night; supper available for 4 cents. A free meal and a one-hour religious instruction class was offered on Sundays. The first year 408 boys stayed there. Twenty other lodging houses were established over the next twenty years dedicated to not only homeless boys but for sick or abandoned babies, homeless girls and women with children. Each lodging house contained an industrial school.
In 1894 the Brace Memorial Farm opened at Valhalla in Westchester Co., N.Y. to better prepare city boys for farm work. In the late 1920s the Society reevaluated its work, closed its industrial schools and converted them into recreation centers. The Emigration Department became its adoption agency.
In this index 5000 children are named - just a fraction of the total controlled by the Children's Aid Society. It includes all who stayed in a lodging house long enough to be enumerated in a state or federal census between 1855 and 1925, making it the largest list yet published.
It is interesting to note the type and amount of information given as the censuses required more details. In the early censuses only name, gender, age, and relationship of each person to the household is shown. By 1860 the occupation was also given. By 1870 race is also given. By 1910 eight lodging houses are listed. In each case one must refer to the original census for the birthplace of each occupant and his or her parents. Of the lodging houses formed, ten are omitted from the index because the residence was not enumerated, the record could not be located, or the record was illegible.
The author has done a fine job of compiling this information. The reader is bound to experience a jolt when looking at the ages of these residents - from infants into their seventies. Not too many of them are repeat listings in later censuses. What became of all these "orphan train riders"? A fascinating question. Maybe when you find an extra person listed on a census as a laborer, helper, or servant, this possibility may be the answer.
The author provides a bibliography for further reading.