Seeing that America’s pioneering families of the Plains and West could use children, he undertook his Orphan Train Movement.
“In every American community, especially in a Western one, there are many spare places at the table of life,” Brace wrote.
Ranging in age from 6 to 18, up to 40 children at a time would ride the trains West from big cities, under sometimes poor conditions — in the early days — not much better than cattle cars.
At various stops in states like Texas, Missouri, Kansas, Illinois and Nebraska, townspeople interested in taking in the orphans would congregate to view and inspect the young ones on a stage, checking their physical condition and teeth, and either rejecting or accepting them into their homes.
Many siblings were separated in this manner, and many good outcomes for these children came about — but also, many bad ones as well.
Before the Civil War, in the caldron where everything was seen through the eyes of pro- or anti-slavery, the program often was criticized.
Abolitionists viewed it as a form of slavery. And for many children, that view was not far from wrong.
Pro-slavery advocates took a 180-degree tack, seeing it as part of the abolitionist movement, since the labor provided by the children helped make slaves unnecessary.
Many, like Anna Miller Bassett, found a good home in Texas to people that took care of her and loved her, writing of her experiences.
Many others, like Elizabeth Wilde Daniels, whose quote from her recollections began this column, were orphaned by the great flu pandemic of 1918-19, losing her parents in New York City to sickness.
In 1922, Elizabeth wrote: “Other people wanted me and I’d stay the three weeks and come home. All together, I was in 8 homes. Some of the homes weren’t pleasant.”
Unfortunately for her, and many like her, the orphan train experience was one of trial and error — hoping only to find a good set of new parents to take them in.
In the end, while the Orphan Train Movement was a chance for children who had no chance, it was a bandage on a societal problem that always has plagued mankind.
Today, society still struggles mightily with orphaned or unwanted children, foster care and adoption, looking for answers. Sometimes, the answers never come.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking