My 3 degrees of separation from the orphan train

tamrawilson Uncategorized

Yes, it’s true. My great-grandmother Sarah McGuirk was an orphan sent by rail from New York City to live with a farm family in Piatt County, IL in 1860.

I’ll be talking about her Wednesday, Aug. 14 at the Museum of History in downtown Newton. The Newcomers of Catawba County have invited me to present my talk as a Road Scholar for the N.C. Humanities Council. The program begins at 10 a.m. and is free and open to the public.

I’m a lifelong history buff, but I didn’t grow up knowing Sarah’s story. Fifty years ago, my mother and my aunt visited the Old City Cemetery in Monticello, IL in search of Sarah’s grave. We never found it, which was sad. Mom remembered her father taking her there years before and walking along the railroad tracks, her father pointing out the spot.

My mother knew very little about Sarah except that she was a “servant girl” and an “orphan.” Sarah died young and Mom’s father didn’t talk about her much. And, since I was born three years after my grandfather died, I relied on my mother for information.

Back in the 1970s, curiosity sent me in search of information about Sarah. I read the entire Piatt County census of 1870 and 1880 on microfilm. It was an eye-blurring, head-aching task that revealed no one else bore the McGuirk name in Piatt County.

Slowly, clues came to light. Sarah’s marriage record from 1869 showed that she was born in New York. The 1880 census also showed that she was the child of Irish immigrants and that she and her husband, Alexander McKinley, and five children were living near Monticello with an elderly man, John Hughes, listed as “stepfather.”  

For years I waited for the 1860 New York City census to be indexed and digitized. And eventually I found her at age 9, living in the “New York Juvenile Asylum,” the orphanage that sent many children west. “Asylum,” in this case, meant a safe place to live.

The orphan train movement was the brainchild of a Presbyterian minister, Charles Loring Brace, who was appalled by the thousands of children living on New York’s streets. In 1853, he was inspired to found the Children’s Aid Society that worked to create the “orphan train” movement, removing poor children from the squalor and dangers of Manhattan streets and eventually sending them to American farm families.

 “Orphan” the mid-1800s didn’t necessarily mean that a child had no living parents. In some cases, one or both parents were living but were, for whatever reason, unable to properly care for their offspring.

Thanks to rare documents at Columbia University, I learned exactly when Sarah boarded the train (Sept. 10, 1860), headed for Piatt County, IL. She was accompanied by a male chaperone and 35 other orphans.

I’ve researched that first day. It would have begun with a 200-block ride—possibly by horse-drawn omnibus–to the docks in Lower Manhattan. The group would have taken a ferry for Jersey City and then boarded a railcar for a two-day journey to Central Illinois.

I imagine Sarah, traveling with a name tag, a change of clothes and a small Bible, anxiously waiting to meet people who would become her new parents. She was apparently pre-assigned to John Hughes, a wealthy farmer, and his wife Cynthia, a sickly woman who died three months later–on Christmas Day, in fact–leaving an infant and a young son. At that point, Sarah would have become an indispensable pair of hands for the household.

The Civil War began that following April and young men, including her future husband, Alexander, marched off to war. It was a perilous time.

Whenever I give my orphan train talk, I’m amazed at how many have never heard of orphan trains, so I invite you to hear it this Wednesday morning. It’s history all of us need to know.