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Go West, Children: How Charles Brace Placed Orphans in Families

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Last week I wrote about how Charles Brace set up homes for homeless children but did not see institutionalization as ideal. He wondered whether it was possible to find thousands of families willing to take responsibility for the children of the streets. The problem seemed enormous. Brace wrote: “How were places to be found? . . . And when the children were placed, how were their interests to be watched over, and acts of oppression or hard dealing prevented or punished?”

Brace hit upon the idea of allowing farmers to meld altruism and economics so as to do good while doing well. He decided to try sending children (aged seven to seventeen) to homes where — in return for room, board, education, and personal attention — the children would work part-time. Brace began by sending out a circular that proposed the economic arrangement but also stressed the theological reasons for personal care:  

To the Public: This society has taken its origin in the deeply settled feeling of our citizens, that something must be done to meet the increasing crime and poverty among the destitute children of New York. As Christian men, we cannot look upon this great multitude of unhappy, deserted, and degraded boys and girls without feeling our responsibility to God for them. . . . We bear in mind that One died for them, even as for the children of the rich and happy.

Response was enormous. Brace wrote, “Hundreds of applications poured in at once from the farmers and mechanics all through the Union.” Here, discernment was essential: Mail order arrangements, based as they were on a combination of compassion and economic appeal, provided as great an opportunity for abuse as Internet dating does today.

Brace recorded some pleasant outcomes, such as that of a twelve-year-old orphan who had lived with his aunt, “but being a drunken woman, had at length turned him away; and for some time he had slept in a box in Twenty-second Street.” Brace found him there and sent him to a man in Wilmington, Delaware, who wrote that the boy was “covered with vermin, almost a leper, ignorant in the extreme . . . and altogether such a one as, by God’s help, can be made something of. . . . I accept the trust conferred upon me [of] becoming the instructor and trainer of a being destined to an endless life.”

That particular match worked, further letters revealed — but others did not. Overall, the arrangements seemed too open to abuse, so Brace went to Plan B: reliance on local citizen committees rather than the direct mailing of circulars. Brace and his associates worked to recruit several leading citizens from a promising agricultural community. The citizens then formed a committee — usually including the mayor, a minister, a newspaper editor, a banker, and a storekeeper — that assumed responsibility for the placing of several dozen New York boys in local families.

The committees then used local newspapers and ads to create a sense of anticipation. Ministers preached sermons that challenged “those who practically believe in Christ’s words and teachings to aid us in this effort.” When some citizens indicated a willingness to take up the challenge, the committee contacted Brace and made plans for temporary housing and feeding of the children. The committee reviewed local applicants and turned down those with a reputation for mistreating their help, making it likely, in Brace’s words, that the children would “find themselves in comfortable and kind homes, with all the boundless advantages and opportunities of the Western farmer’s life about them.”

One of Brace’s associates bought tickets and traveled with the homeless children to their destination, where “a dense crowd of people awaited the arrival of the youthful travelers.” Some parents were childless, and others knew they had room for one more. Demand was high because personal, theological, and economic incentives all created open doors. Overall, using such methods, the Children’s Aid Society placed close to one thousand children per year during the mid- and late-1850s, two thousand per year by the late 1860s, and close to four thousand per year by the late 1870s.

The total between 1853 and 1893 was 91,536 youngsters, with two of five going to homes in upstate New York and about that same number to seven midwestern states (Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, Indiana, Kansas and Michigan). By 1875 more were being sent south to Virginia or west to Kansas, and by 1885 the Society’s reach was extending to Florida and Texas.

Marvin Olasky

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Marvin Olasky is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. He taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2008 and edited WORLD magazine from 1992 through 2021. He is the author of 28 books including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.