Alone in the country: Rural social welfare for dependent children, 1865--1920

Megan Elizabeth Birk, Purdue University


Rural residents of the United States aided two types of dependent children after the Civil War, those who came from rural areas and those who came from cities. Urban orphanages and the famed orphan trains have received attention from scholars while rural dependent children languish in the background. What happened to the urban children who went to live in rural areas also receives little attention. This project explains why thousands of children went to live with farmers in the Midwest and how rural people cared for their own dependent children while being bombarded with dependents from elsewhere. This study uses the states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois as examples because their institutional system differed markedly from the established pattern of dependent child care. All three states opened state-funded children's homes after the Civil War. These Soldier's Orphans' Homes became the first, and only state funded institutions for dependent children. While neighboring states such as Michigan and Wisconsin made dependent children a state issue, their Midwestern neighbors preferred to leave the care of dependent children to counties and townships. ^ The result proved disorganized. County children's homes and county poor farms cared for a majority of children in rural areas. These facilities varied in quality and purpose. Some institutional managers indentured children to reduce operating costs while others believed keeping children institutionalized earned them more income. Almost all children's institutions placed out children. This study establishes correct terminology for the indenturing and placing of dependent children. These children were seldom adopted nor did they "board" with foster families. Children paid for their keep through their work, the main reason labor-starved farmers accepted thousands of children both locally and from eastern cities. Using institutional records, correspondence from children and placement families, and state reports, this study provides a clarification of commonly used terms and a more complete picture of the vital exchange between dependent children and Midwestern farmers.^




R. Douglas Hurt, Purdue University.

Subject Area

History, United States|Sociology, Public and Social Welfare

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