, Muskogee, OK


June 30, 2013

Orphan Trains subject of presentation

— Genealogists often hit a brick wall when it comes to having an orphan in the family tree or undocumented adoption. It is not unusual for a researcher to wrestle with just that problem at Muskogee Public Library in the Genealogy and Local History Department.

Some of the most famous examples of adoptions are the Orphan Trains, which brought children from the east to the Midwest. From 1854 until 1929, more than 250,000 children were put on the trains to be adopted by families. While many went to the Midwest states, virtually every state had trains bearing children to hopefully find a better and more healthy life than they had before their trip.

Muskogee Public Library will host a multimedia presentation at 2 p.m. July 13, chronicling the Orphan Trains story. Phillip Lancaster and Alison Moore will bring the saga to life with live music, video montage with archival photographs and interviews of survivors, and a reading of the 2012 novel “Riders on the Orphan Train” by award-winning author Alison Moore.

Although the program is about children, it is designed to engage audiences of all ages and to inform, inspire and raise awareness about this little-known part of history. Local relatives and acquaintances of Orphan Train Riders are especially invited to attend and share their stories with the audience.

While some of the children were actual orphans whose parents had died and with no other relatives to take them in, others had lost one parent. A single mother or father would find it difficult or impossible to care for children and also work. Many immigrants lacked a family support system in a new land. Children were living in the streets in the overcrowded cities, literally eating out of the trash.

Some were old enough to remember their parents and their names and returned later to try to find a parent and siblings. Others were too young to remember. Some records exist, but they are scanty. No records exist for children who were simply left at the door of an orphanage.

At each stop, the children and their chaperones disembarked and local families would gather and select or not select an orphan. Sometimes siblings were taken together. At other times they went to different homes. Some got loving, caring and nurturing homes. Other were virtually slaves. Some of the city children were not accustomed to the hard work of a farm. At times, children were moved to a new home by the agency.

Being an Orphan Train rider descendant can provide a unique challenge for the genealogist. Family stories, U.S. Census, any available records on the child can prove helpful. And the growing popularity of DNA could provide the solution for a descendant of one of the riders.

There is even an Orphan Train DNA project at Family Tree DNA. Interested researchers who are Orphan Train Rider descendants can order a DNA test kit to submit for the project. The goals of the project are “To enable living orphan train riders and the descendant/relatives of known train riders to connect; to give a knowledge of the genetic background from which a rider originated if nothing else.”

Numerous books and even videos tell the story or the Orphan Trains. It has even inspired fictional works for children, young adults and adults. Selections are available at Muskogee Public Library and throughout the Eastern Oklahoma Library System. Browse the district catalog to request an item. A special display will be available of materials portraying this unique period of U.S. history.

The selection includes the DVD “The Orphan Trains.” Written by historian David McCullough, it was produced by PBS.

Non-fiction works are available in both the children and adult sections. A popular children's series is based on the topic, created by Joan Lowery Nixon. Non-fiction include “We Rode the Orphan Trains,” “Orphan Train Rider, One Boy's True Story,” and “The Orphan Trains” from the American Events series. A book for early readers is “Train to Somewhere,” but readers of all ages will be touched by the simple little book. Adults, as well as young readers, can relive the experiences of the real life riders via interviews and photographs in “We Rode the Orphan Trains.”

Adult books are “Orphan Trains to Missouri,” “Orphan Trains, The Story of Charles Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed,” and “The Orphan Trains, Placing Out in America.”

The topic has captured the interest of romance, inspirational and even western authors. Jane Peart has penned “Homeward the Seeking Heart” and “The Heart's Lonely Secret.” Al and Joanna Lacy's numerous books includes an Orphan Train Trilogy.

Readers and viewers can pick up steam for the presentation with an inspiring read before July 13 or expand their knowledge after the event. But whatever the choice, it's time to get on board because The Orphan Train is coming to Muskogee Public Library soon.

Nancy Calhoun is the genealogy and local history coordinator at the Muskogee Public Libray. Reach her at (918) 682-6657, Ext. 3.

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