“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, Ill. 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.
---Tammy Wilson is a writer from Newton. Message her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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