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Orphan Trains: The Illinois Apprenticeship Agent

In the mid to late 1800s, Orphan Trains transported East Coast orphans to new homes and new lives in the Midwest. The New York Juvenile Asylum was one institution that relocated boys and girls to Illinois. In order to better serve their clients in the West, they opened the Western Agency in Illinois.


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During a fifteen year period spanning from 1851 to 1866 there were 4,557 juveniles from the New York Juvenile Asylum placed in homes in Illinois. Although they were referred to as orphans, reportedly, many of these children still had at least one living parent. In fact, some were surrendered to the asylum by their own parents.

The New York Juvenile Asylum was built by the Children's Aid Society in 1851. It was designed to serve children under the age of 12.

By 1865, following the Civil War, New York's population increased partly due to increased immigration. As more and more youth appeared on the streets of New York, they were more likely to be involved in crime. Prior to the youth asylums, even a child was charged as an adult.

The state legislature enacted a bill allowing a parent or guardian, magistrate, or justice of the peace to issue a warrant to apprehend youth, even if their violation was disorderly conduct. Prior to the New York Juvenile Asylum, a child would have been ordered to an adult prison.

The New York Juvenile Asylum was a more progressive solution, even though it alienated these "orphans" from their only family in the New World. The Asylum did educate the child for two years but then they sent them by train to live with another family in the Midwest where they could be adopted. However, a child often became an indentured laborer, at a time when hiring laborers was too expensive to make farming profitable. Even though Illinois had traditionally been a Free State and the Civil War was over, the indenture system persisted for these youngsters.

In 1867, Ebenezer Wright accepted the position of Superintendent of the City Department of the New York Juvenile Asylum. Wright attended Williams College, but took this position instead of graduating. Later he attended Columbia Law School, but failed to graduate due to lack of regular attendance.

According to the report for the year 1868 by the Prison Association of New York's Executive Committee, the directors decided they needed a facility in Chicago. One reason was concern that these same children could become homeless - either again, or for the first time, in reality - if their apprenticeship employer should die. It was determined that both employer and employee might need the opportunity to "appeal for redress."

Ebenezer Wright was named superintendent of the Western Agency New York Juvenile Asylum in Chicago, Illinois, bringing with him his experience and hundreds of orphans. A new building was erected in Chicago to serve the children arriving from New York and their Midwest employers.

As children from ages seven to fourteen arrived in Illinois, following two years of schooling at the New York asylum, Wright was responsible for finding homes and work for them with Illinois families. Even though the Asylum's mission was to serve juveniles, Wright found himself responsible for youth who remained in the system throughout their teens with no place else to go.

The girls served apprenticeships until they were eighteen and the boys until they were twenty-one years old. But even the Agency used the terms apprenticeship and indenture interchangeably.

Wright reported that some of the older teenagers objected to being indentured. He reported they "are so unpromising, their employers are as yet unwilling to incur the responsibility imposed by indentures." More than nine per cent escaped from their employers, usually between ages 16 and 20 years of age. The agency found it necessary to remove 98 youths and place them in other homes.

In this same report, Ebenezer Wright described the difficulty of visiting and removing apprentices from the agency's point of view. "This line of work makes a larger demand than any other upon the resources of the agency, notwithstanding the scrupulous care of the superintendent of the asylum in selecting candidates for apprenticeship, and of agents in selecting homes for them."

During 1868, the Western Agency received 143 additional children from New York. There were 665 children in the care of the Western Agency that year. Of them, 319 received favorable reports from their employers while 129 received unfavorable reports. There were 98 children removed or replaced and 63 of them were reported to have left their places. It is unknown if they returned to New York. Only four returned to the asylum and another four were set free by cancellation of their indentures. Two of the children died.

Wright did claim success in Tazewell County, Illinois, where 28 boys and girls were placed in 1858. Five of them had returned to New York and no further information was available. Four had been killed in the Civil War. "The remaining nineteen, all personally known to the lady - Mrs. Pugh - are doing well without exception, most of them being married and settled in life, respected by the community, and prosperous in all respects."

In 1871, After the Great Fire of Chicago, Wright moved to Normal, Illinois, in the heart of the state. His role continued to be to find apprenticeships for 25 percent of the residents of the New York Juvenile Asylum.

New York did keep a census of youth at the asylum. However, it remains difficult to do genealogical research on the former asylum residents since the agency even admitted some left and there whereabouts unknown. The statistics show that others were placed with more than one family. You can read more about the subject in "Children of Orphan Trains: From New York to Illinois and Beyond" by Janet Coble, published by the Illinois State Genealogical Society.

The New York Juvenile Asylum exists today, although the Orphan Trains ceased long ago. The story of the New York Juvenile Asylum is online at

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2007.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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