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wcb: adorable kitten needs home

Clare and Kiri from eat stuff organize weekend cat blogging to provide us with an excuse to bring on the cute...and we're all happy to oblige...

little Grayling in a little box

Take us in, we have rode the Orphan Train
Take us in, we need a home, we need a name
Take us in, oh won't you be our kin
We are looking for someone to take us in

              from Orphan Train (Utah Phillips)

Poor little grayling! He's all packed up and ready to be sent out on his own. Not exactly an orphan, and I doubt it will involve trains, but he is looking for someone to take him in. (Either that or we will, as we've been joking, end up with five kittens!)

Did you know that there were actual orphan trains in the United States?

Started by the Children's Aid Society of New York after the civil war, the orphan trains relocated somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 children from the east coast to parts further west. (Like in times of war, exact numbers are hard to come by, as I was typing this, someoneElse asked, "Isn't it closer to 350,000?") Unlike the cities of the eastern US, the west had the space for more children and they were wanted by many families, even if only to work as farm hands.

While a lot of these children were, in fact, orphans this was not the case for all of the children; a number of them came from families who simply couldn't afford to care for them or had parents that were deemed "unfit." Siblings were often separated, never to see each other again. The trains operated from the 1850s to the 1930s, paralleling the expansion of the railroad tracks, stopping at each town on the westward journey, described here by Utah Phillips:

The farmers and their families they came from miles around
We lined up on the platform of the station in each town
And one by one we parted like some living lost-and-found
And one by one we all were taken in

In any case, many of the orphan train children were destined not for adoption but for indenture. Yes, you read that right: indenture.

For a country just ending slavery yet needing to fuel a massive westward expansion, the attitude — and legal reality —  that children were property made them a handy source of unpaid labor. Children of the orphan trains often discovered that they weren't legally part of what was sometimes the only family they had ever known at the death of a parent, when they discovered they were cut out of inheriting a portion of the farm they worked as a child. (since I learned this, the verse above evokes a slave auction...)

Other bits of the Orphan Train history shed light on some of the more shameful and tragic aspects of the program: children as young as five being arrested and thrown in with adult prisoners before being sent west; beggar children, referred to as "street Arabs" or "city Arabs" were sent west to "good Christian families"; reports of some girls ending up as child brides, sometimes to much older men.

I find it fascinating that so few people know of the Orphan Trains — even though admittedly I first heard of them maybe a decade ago when someone played the song at a "hoot" — since it seems like something we should have been taught in school. Perhaps it's just one of those oh so awkward moments in history that we'd rather just forget about.

Maybe the Internet will help change that: The Orphan Train Riders have a site, PBS did an American Experience on the topic, a museum (The National Orphan Train Complex)  opened recently, and there's even an Orphan Train movie. (which reinforces my point, the only comment includes "...I didn't know...these orphan trains were something that really happened.") The last of the Orphan Train riders are getting well along in years, if we don't hear their stories now, it may well be too late.

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