The mid 1800s was a difficult time for many in the St. Louis region, especially children. In 1849, there was a disastrous fire downtown and a cholera epidemic. Immigrant families began arriving in large numbers, some to settle, more to move westward by wagon train. Living conditions were hard for some adults and even worse for many children.
Orphanages were established to ease the situation for families in need. Sometimes children became orphans when one parent died and the other parent could not financially care for the child. Occasionally, when both parents were living and funds were short, it was necessary to send one or more children to an orphanage.
Over the past 150 years, numerous orphan homes were established in St. Louis by religious organizations to care for the young. The box to the right contains a link to some of the orphanages located in St. Louis. Various institutions had certain criteria for accepting the children. Some housed only children younger than three years; others accepted only children older than three. Many facilities helped families of a specific religion. One home took in “delinquent, neglected, and incorrigible girls.”
For the most complete information on orphans and orphanage care in St. Louis, you may want to look at the book Researching Orphans and Orphanage Care in St. Louis, which is on sale in our secure online store as both a book and a downloadable PDF file. (StLGS members: Be sure to log into the website first to obtain your discount code.)
The famous Orphan Trains also stopped in St. Louis. The idea was to remove children from the polluted, crowded cities and place them in the country, preferably where they could work on farms. State and national organizations help descendants of the Orphan Train riders.
The following is quoted from Dick Eastman, December 29, 2008:
From the 1850s through the 1920s, New York City was teeming with tens of thousands of homeless and orphaned children. To survive, these so-called “street urchins” resorted to begging, stealing, or forming gangs to commit violence… Their numbers were stunningly large; an estimated 30,000 children were homeless in New York City in the 1850s.
Charles Loring Brace, the founder of The Children’s Aid Society …proposed that these children be sent by train to live and work on farms out west. They would be placed in homes for free, but they would serve as an extra pair of hands to help with chores around the farm. They wouldn’t be indentured. In fact, older children placed by The Children’s Aid Society were to be paid for their labors.
The Orphan Train Movement lasted from 1853 to the 1920s, placing more than 120,000 children. Most of these children survived into adulthood, married, and had children of their own. Several million Americans today can find former Orphan Train children in their family trees.
The Orphan Train Heritage Society of America in Concordia, Kansas, serves as a clearinghouse of information about the estimated 150,000 children who were “placed out” from 1854 to 1929. It helps members establish and maintain family contacts, retrace their roots, and preserve the history of the Orphan Train Movement.
The National Orphan Train Complex is a website with more information on this subject.
Early St. Louis adoptions (before 1917) may appear mixed in with Land Records information. The Recorder of Deeds office at St. Louis City Hall maintains a card file, not open to the public, but searchable by staff. Given a name and date, they will search the index to see if an adoption record can be located and in which deed book it is recorded. Mail inquiries are welcome:
Recorder of Deeds Office,
St. Louis City Hall,
1200 Market St.,
St. Louis MO 63103.
After 1917, Juvenile Court records begin. There was apparently an early Orphans’ Court, which was part of the Probate Court, but no one seems to actually know where those records are currently. However, Probate Court does have records of guardianship.
Many adoption records are not accessible to the public, making orphanage records very important when they can be found. The Missouri Historical Society has the St. Louis Protestant Orphan Asylum minute book, 1834–1852 (abstracted), and the record book of admissions and removals, 1882–1916. Other orphanage records are scattered; some are with local libraries and historical societies; some are with religious institutions. Finding the records for a particular orphanage may take skill and patience.
Don’t overlook the United States federal censuses as a source for information on orphans. The institutions were enumerated along with all other dwellings in each neighborhood. You may find your orphaned ancestors in each census with answers to as many questions as were provided. In addition, the 1880 census had a supplemental schedule, “Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes,” that listed name, city, county, state or country of origin, status of parents, date of admission, and names of siblings in the same institution.
German St. Vincent’s Orphan Association. Centennial Anniversary of German Saint Vincent Orphan Association of St. Louis, Missouri, 1850–1950. St. Louis: German St. Vincent’s Orphan Association, 1950.
Greenwood, Peggy Thomason. “Beyond the Orphanage.” St. Louis Genealogical Society Quarterly 24 (winter 1991).
Guinn, Lisa G. “Building Useful Women” from the Depths of Poverty: The Founding and Establishment of the Girls’ Industrial Home and School in St. Louis, 1853–1916.” Missouri Historical Review, volume 100 (April 2006).
Kimbrough, Mary. 125 Years of Caring: A History of Family and Children’s Service of Greater St. Louis, 1860–1985. St. Louis: Family & Children’s Service, 1985.
Last modified: 05-May-2023 12:00