Presentation Title

In Search of Nebraska's Orphan Trains

Advisor Information

John Price

Location

UNO Criss Library, Room 112

Presentation Type

Oral Presentation

Start Date

6-3-2015 1:45 PM

End Date

6-3-2015 2:00 PM

Abstract

Between 1854 and 1929, an estimated 250,000 orphaned, abandoned, and neglected children were relocated from eastern cities to new homes across rural America (Herman). One in 25 Americans are now thought to be descendants of orphan train riders (George). This history, often cited as the beginning of American foster care, remained hidden from public awareness until rider networking emerged during the late 1970s. The Orphan Train Movement (OTM) has morphed into a growing heritage industry, even as survivors pass away and first-person narratives are replaced by secondhand re-telling or fictional accounts. Much of what is known about Nebraska’s orphan train history has been gathered by those with family or friend orphan train ties, told within an uncritically subjective perspective. While the collection of those fading voices was important, significant gaps and contradictory details still dominate the state’s collective record. During extensive archival research at the National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas, I located a handwritten list maintained by Anna Laura Hill, placement agent for the Children’s Aid Society. Hill maintained this record for the duration of her agent travel from 1903 to 1926, beginning with her first “party” to Blair, Nebraska, and followed by 156 Midwestern stops during her career. Her precise cursive writing lists 26 orphan train arrivals within 22 Nebraska counties. When evaluated alongside other stored NOTC documents, Hill’s list both corroborates and expands Nebraska’s historical evidence. In contrast to the scattered dates recovered from rider memory, Hill’s concrete itinerary provides an important macro framework.

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Mar 6th, 1:45 PM Mar 6th, 2:00 PM

In Search of Nebraska's Orphan Trains

UNO Criss Library, Room 112

Between 1854 and 1929, an estimated 250,000 orphaned, abandoned, and neglected children were relocated from eastern cities to new homes across rural America (Herman). One in 25 Americans are now thought to be descendants of orphan train riders (George). This history, often cited as the beginning of American foster care, remained hidden from public awareness until rider networking emerged during the late 1970s. The Orphan Train Movement (OTM) has morphed into a growing heritage industry, even as survivors pass away and first-person narratives are replaced by secondhand re-telling or fictional accounts. Much of what is known about Nebraska’s orphan train history has been gathered by those with family or friend orphan train ties, told within an uncritically subjective perspective. While the collection of those fading voices was important, significant gaps and contradictory details still dominate the state’s collective record. During extensive archival research at the National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas, I located a handwritten list maintained by Anna Laura Hill, placement agent for the Children’s Aid Society. Hill maintained this record for the duration of her agent travel from 1903 to 1926, beginning with her first “party” to Blair, Nebraska, and followed by 156 Midwestern stops during her career. Her precise cursive writing lists 26 orphan train arrivals within 22 Nebraska counties. When evaluated alongside other stored NOTC documents, Hill’s list both corroborates and expands Nebraska’s historical evidence. In contrast to the scattered dates recovered from rider memory, Hill’s concrete itinerary provides an important macro framework.