Orphan Trains

What You Need

Orphan Trains


To examine social trade-offs in the context of the Orphan Trains, and society's treatment of children whose parents can no longer care for them. 


Gaining an understanding of the concept of social trade-offs may be one of the most important components of a comprehensive education. If the habit of considering alternatives and their consequences is to be functional for students, they should exercise it in a rich variety of contexts.

In this lesson, students will develop their ideas about social trade-offs by examining the history of the Orphan Trains and the New York Children's Aid Society, created in 1853. The purpose of the society, a forerunner of modern foster care, was to provide thousands of street children with homes in rural communities in the American Midwest. For some poor urban children, the trip west brought great opportunity, but for others it meant heartbreak and disappointment. The majority of the Internet resources about the Orphan Trains have resulted from genealogical research done by families of the children who were sent to the Midwest by the New York Children's Aid Society.

By considering what these children as individuals both gained and lost, as well as the benefits and consequences to the larger society, students can explore the concept of social trade-offs in a compelling context.

Planning Ahead

Preview the Web articles central to this lesson, and print them out ahead of time if necessary:


Refer students to the Orphan Trains student esheet, which will introduce the topic and direct them to read the selection of announcements and journal reprints about Orphan Train adoptions, The New York Children, on the Orphan Trains of Nebraska website.

After students have read the page, ask these questions:

  • Why were the children on the trains?
  • What would happen to the children who were "selected"?
  • What about the children who were not chosen? 

Tell students that they will do research on a part of our history that is known as the Orphan Trains. This was a practice in which poor children from cities in the East were sent to the West for adoption. As part of their research, students must decide whether this was a good practice or a bad practice.


Pass out the Orphan Trains student sheet. Have students use their student esheet to go to and read A History of Orphan Trains.

As they read, students should answer these questions: 

  • What were the Orphan Trains?
  • Were all of the children on the trains orphans?
  • What problems did sending the children out West solve?
  • What problems did sending the children out West create?

Students should continue to use their student esheet to help guide their research of the Orphan Trains using the resources below. As they do so, have them fill out the chart on the student sheet. In one column, they should list the examples of positive aspects of the Orphan Trains. In the other column, they should list negative ones.

Students will use their charts to write an essay on the Orphan Trains. The essay should consider both the good and the bad aspects of the practice of sending children away from their homes for adoption. Students should look at the benefits and drawbacks from the viewpoint of the individual children and families as well as from society at large. Their essays should conclude with their stated opinion about whether the Orphan Trains were, on balance, a good or a bad thing.

Internet Resources about the Orphan Trains:

Internet Resources about living conditions in 19th Century New York City:

Books about Orphan Trains:

  • Fry, Anette. The Orphan Trains. New York: New Discovery Books, 1994. 
  • Holt, Marilyn. The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
  • Patrick, Michael, Evelyn Sheets and Evelyn Trickel. We Are A Part of History: The Orphan Trains. Virginia Beach, VA: The Donning Co., 1990.
  • Orphan Train Heritage Society of America (OTHSA). Orphan Train Riders: Their Own Stories. Vols I-IV. Baltimore, MD.: Gateway Press, Inc. 1992, 1993.
  • Warren, Andrea. All Aboard the Orphan Trains. Ticknor & Fields, 1995. 
  • Warren, Andrea. Orphan Train Rider: One Boy's True Story. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1995. 


Have students discuss whether the Children's Aid Society child placement program would be appropriate today. What happens today to children whose parents can no longer care for them? Have students write a one-page description of the social and personal trade-offs involved in our modern foster care system.


The Seneca Village Project Online focuses on the Seneca Village neighborhood, which existed from 1825 through 1857 between 82nd and 89th Streets and Seventh and Eighth Avenues. Seneca Village, Manhattan's first significant community of African American property owners, was razed in 1857 to accommodate the building of Central Park.

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Lesson Details

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