Foundlings to Missouri, 1901

“These foundlings are nameless.” — St. Louis Post-Dispatch–May 15, 1901

The little ones had been on the orphan train for two days when it pulled into St. Louis Union Station on Tuesday evening, May 14, 1901. Fifty-two children, with the youngest being about three years of age, and the oldest about six, were accompanied by just three adults. There were two Sisters of Charity, and one Placement Agent, Charles P. O’Hara, all from the New York Foundling Asylum.

The adults knew the drill well–keep the little ones occupied as much as possible on the train, pull into the station, get the children cleaned up, fed, rested, and then the next day, dress them up as the most irresistible little waifs anyone has ever laid eyes on. 

That night, the children and their caretakers slept in their special train car. On Wednesday morning, 15 youngsters were handed over to their new families. According to a newspaper account at the time, most of the children “greeted their new parents as if they recognized them and were returning after a brief absence.”

The caretakers had told the little ones that they had been away at school and they were returning to their “mamas and papas.” In 1901, the prevailing thought was that children should not know that they were adopted. It was best that they not know the circumstances into which they had been born and how they had come to the New York Foundling Asylum.

That morning, each new parent showed a numbered ticket to the representative from the Foundling Asylum, and that number was matched to a numbered tag sewn into the clothing of a particular child. Thus each little one was matched with the preordained family. The entire process was quite efficient, taking only a few minutes, and the remaining children were placed on the trains that would take them to their final destinations.

An onlooker noted the neat appearance of the children, and Mr. O’Hara explained: “Yes, we commenced washing them at 12 o’clock yesterday. We got through this morning. We couldn’t do the work faster because there were so many of them. They travel in their old clothes, so as to have fresh ones at their destination, and each was given a bath and dressed in clean clothes.”

By 7:35 a.m., 30 children left with two Sisters of Charity, heading toward Osage and Cole Counties in Central Missouri. The other youngsters boarded the 8:45 a.m. train to Vienna, in Maries County. G. Whitling Swayne, the Traveling Agent for the Foundling Asylum, accompanied the smaller group.

Mr. Swayne was responsible for finding homes for the children. He regularly traversed the countryside, talking with small-town parish priests as well as farmers, appealing to their Catholic faith, and their own interests, to take in one or perhaps two of the little ones. Little girls could provide companionship for women who worked at home while the men were taking care of crops and livestock. Boys from the Foundling Asylum would learn to work beside the men, becoming valuable farmhands.

For Mr. Swayne, 1901 was a good year. He had found families for more than 100 youngsters, with all of the families being in Missouri.

On that afternoon of May 15, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a photograph of five of the children, dressed to appeal to even the most hardened heart. There were three little girls in dresses with bows at the collar and bonnets on their heads and two boys in suits of a style popular at the time, also with large bows at the collars, and with stylish hats on their heads.

Underneath that photo in the newspaper, the caption states: “These foundlings are nameless.” This was not true. Each child had a name while living at the “orphanage,” though that name may, or may not, have been connected to the child’s family of origin. Some children were named by a parent with the name being shared with the Foundling Asylum when the child was left there. Other children were dropped off anonymously or were found abandoned on the city streets. In those cases, the Asylum gave them a name that would follow them to their new families.

My grandfather was on that train in 1901. He was five years old, and he had a piece of fabric attached to his jacket with a name, Joseph Auer, handwritten in ink. Little Joseph had no idea who he really was or where he had come from.

Joseph would grow up within the Markway family of Wardsville, Missouri. He was fortunate that many of his fellow orphan train riders would live in the same rural community and attend the same school. Later some of them would attend the same church in nearby Jefferson City, and he would talk with them after Mass. He maintained lifelong bonds with the only other people who could understand his journey.

One thought on “Foundlings to Missouri, 1901

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s