Wesley crept up the wooden steps, his frail crooked body moving tepidly along each rung. The chatter of children lilted through the walls and he paused to listen; hoping to recognize a voice. Reaching into his pocket, he fingered a ragged picture and pulled it out, focusing his eyes on the three impish faces staring back.They were his children, half-orphans of the Civil War. Motherless from the brutality of a cruel war, Wesley placed his children in the arms of the St. Louis Catholic school praying they would be in a safe-haven; a respite far from the depraved outside world.

Wesley knocked against the door, his heart seemingly louder than his fist. A woman opened the door and gazed toward the disheveled Union soldier. A conversation pursued and Wesley raised the picture upward for the woman to see. The tall, plump woman lowered her glasses, her brow wrinkled as her eyes peered at the three young faces.

"We don't have your children, sir. They're not here any longer."

Wesley's heart slowed and he questioned whether he heard clearly what the woman said. His children are gone? The war was only a blip; a minor deviation compared to this.


Children's orphanages in America bloomed from the 19th century into the beginning of the 20th century. Children orphaned from the ravages of cholera and smallpox were gathered and sent to state-run homes for children operated by churches. Children of immigrants whose parents died within the poverty-stricken and overpopulated eastern cities were sent westward, filling the state and church-run orphanages.

And then there were the young victims of the Civil War. Children were gathered and placed into boarding schools and church schools for their protection. But as I have learned with my ancestor's story, many of the children were not orphans. Instead, their parents placed them in what they considered safe-havens, only to learn their children were taken aboard the Orphan Train as indentured servants.

If you stumble across this kind of story within your family history  you will have a formidable task in your research but it can be done. Orphanages operated by state and local governments maintained better records and a good place start your research is within the state's archives. Go well prepared with a name, age, birthplace of the child, names of parents and to whom the child was indentured, if known.

If a religious group operated the orphanage, the records may be archived at their state or national headquarters. Also, local and state historical societies may be a good resource for your search. And if you ancestor was an indentured servant selected during one of the Orphan Train's whistle stops, his/her records could be (believe it or not) found within the county courthouse deed books.

If your research lands you within the realm of lost children, don't stall out. The task may be great but the story begs to be told. War, disease and poverty played a significant role in shaping our ancestor's lives and some of them lost their families as a result. Get your hands dirty and dig deeper for the truth.

We owe it to them to finish the story they never knew.

Keep searching for answers,

(Genealogy In St. Louis)


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