MAIRE O. SIMING TON (Arizona State University),
Society board member, is the director of care management
services for Banner Health, Phoenix, Arizona. She is a
graduate of Hofstra University, Arizona State, and the
University of Phoenix. She is a peer reviewer for the
Journal of American Culture and the Journal of Healthcare
Management. Email her at email@example.com.
My parents landed turbulently into the heart of the American Dream at the close of
World War II. Uprooted from their native home in Estonia, my mother, father, and
brother became three of the millions of displaced persons that the historian Gilbert
Muller has noted to be one of the “greatest population shifts in history constituting a
watershed in the narrative of immigration.”
As my parents did, people have fled their homelands and continue doing so as we
have seen starkly depicted in the past few years with the mass migration to Europe.
People migrate within their countries, outside of their countries, and halfway around
the world to seek better lives, safer living conditions, and healthier environments.
While I was chair of the Arizona Humanities Council, I had the privilege of
learning of a lesser-known — though significant — migration that occurred over an
eighty-year period in the U.S. and involved some 250,000 children. Variously called
“street rats” or urchins, some of these New York City children became orphaned
when epidemics of the flu, typhoid, or yellow fever swept urban areas. Others were
abandoned by parents who were living in squalid conditions and racked with disease
or alcohol or drug addiction. Yet others were exposed to other diseases from living in
crowded, unsanitary housing. It created an enormous public health issue.
Many of these children were rescued by a former aristocrat working as a minister.
Charles Loring Brace organized the children, sending them off to the West and
Midwest by train.
The story is chronicled and almost romanticized today by Riders on the Orphan
Train, the outreach program of the National Orphan Train Complex. Alison Moore
and Phil Lancaster, organizers of the program, note that these young people were
“placed out between 1854 and 1929, boarding trains in New York City and literally
given away at rail stations across the country.”
Moore and Lancaster have created performances and displays that have been
presented to more than 300 museums and libraries in the U.S., funded by state
humanities councils. They describe the “origin and demise of the largest child
migration in history and the part it played in the formation of the American Dream.
The human struggle to belong, to define one’s self in the place we call home is
exemplified in the stories of these children that have shaped all of our lives.”
Trains stopped in designated cities, and children aboard were lined up on platforms
where people could view them and decide if they would adopt them to be primarily
farm workers. The children were prompted to dance or sing to enhance their chances
of being selected. Life was unsettling
for them. If they did not work out for a
family, they would be given to another
family or placed back onto the train
and sent off to the next city for another
chance at grasping the American
Dream. The last orphan train stopped
in Sulphur Springs, Texas, in 1929.
Were the orphan train children better
off than had they stayed in the cities?
Scholars agree they were. They at least
had a better chance for a more stable,
safer, and healthier life.
Though migrations may occur in
many ways, the common theme seems
to be the same: finding a better life —
and a dream that exists beyond
For more information about Orphan Trains: