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Mothers and Daughters

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A Note From Rae Meadows

Rae Meadows, author of Mothers and Daughters

In the mid-nineteenth century, tens of thousands of children—orphaned, homeless, poverty-stricken, neglected, or delinquent—roamed the streets of New York City. Charles Loring Brace, a young minister, founded the Children's Aid Society to help this teeming underclass. He decided to enact a controversial social experiment: remove these children from their circumstances, put them on trains, and send them west to new Christian homes in rural America.

Children of all ages boarded trains without knowing their destinations, and efforts were made to ensure that families would not be able to track them down. Upon arrival, children were cleaned up and paraded before prospective parents on makeshift stages. There were successes. But there were many failures. With no oversight of the adopters and scant follow-up of children placed, orphan train riders were vulnerable to abuse and indenture, often treated as free farmhands in labor-starved agricultural areas.

The Orphan Train Movement operated from 1854 to 1929, relocating 150,000 to 200,000 children. It is considered the forerunner of foster care in the United States.