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  • Writer's pictureLawrence Lore

Orphan Train Passenger

Rochelle Gridley, a librarian and amateur historian in McLean County, IL. has researched and published information about the Orphan Trains of Illinois. She has given LCHS permission to use the following. We owe her a debt of gratitude for this discovery. Thank you, Ms. Gridley.

The Orphan Trains placed children from the Eastern United States on farms in the Midwest States from 1851 until 1929. The New York Juvenile Asylum was just one of many organizations sending children to the Western States as indentured servants. Some organizations sent children to states other than Illinois, but the New York Juvenile Asylum was unique in that it sent children to only one state for almost fifty years, 1851-1900.

William French was ten years old when he left New York. In 1880 he had appeared in the census with his grandparents and a sister named Caroline.

In 1895, Mrs. Rebecca Childress wrote her report to the Asylum, from her home in Pinkstaff, Illinois:

Report of William French, aged seventeen who came to Illinois in 1886. “Willie has been with me seven years, and seems well satisfied, and I do not see how I could get along without him, and I thank you very much for sending me so good a boy. He is not large, but can do a man’s work. I think he will stay with me until he is twenty -one, and I shall give him a nice horse in addition to the other compensation. He goes in good society, and is liked by all his associates. I told him he might go to the World’s Fair, but he said he did not care to. He has a large cow to sell this winter, and he thinks he will buy him a good watch with the money, which I think is better than to buy a colt, which he sometimes proposes to do. He makes slow progress at school, and does not like school for which I am sorry. He attends church and prayer-meeting and he receives the Youth’s Companion, which we all enjoy reading. I wish you success in the noble work of rescuing and saving the poor children of the city.”

William French’s only recorded guardian was Rebecca Childress, who in 1900 was a widow with three adult children and two grandchildren in her home. In 1893, Mrs. Childress reported that William was small for his age, which many guardians commented upon regarding the orphans. Perhaps these children had been deprived of food at some critical juncture in their development. William French was 24 years old at that time of the 1900 census and still living with Mrs. Childress.

The Lawrence County News noted on August 23, 1900 that Wm French who had for the past fourteen years made his home with Mrs. Rebecca Childress of west of Pinkstaff, left for the north. Mr. French is of a good reputation, has the recommendation of being a good hand at farming, is of a friendly disposition, and easy to gain the friendship of everyone whom he might meet and was well liked by all who knew him. Mr. N R Childress, Rebecca’s son, was to look after the interest of his business affairs. The newspaper said the community wished him success and would wait to welcome his return.

Ms. Gridley states that William was married in September of 1900 (Illinois Marriage records: September 11, 1900 in Edgar County Illinois) and became a father in November 1900. His wife was Jennie Mitchell. Their son Vern was their only child. He was born in Fountain County, Indiana, where the family would live the rest of their lives. William French was a grocer in Fountain County and operated his own store. He died in November 1931 at the age of 55.

The Covington Republican, Friday, November 6, 1931 states that “William French, 55, for 25 years a grocer, died at his home in Veedersburg Indiana on November 1, 1931 having been ill only a few days with a heart attack. He had been born in New York City February 15 1876 and had lived in a children’s home there for nine years, his mother having died when he was an infant. He was sent to southern Illinois, where he grew to manhood. He was married February 17, 1900 to Miss Jennie Mitchell and they had one son, Vern." (Vern’s tombstone says he was born November 23, 1900.)

Rebecca Childress died March 3, 1908 of Pneumonia at her home. She was one of the oldest settlers of the community having come here from Tennessee in 1850. Her maiden name was Rebecca Greer and she was born near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, July 4, 1826, being 81 years, 7 months and 29 days old at her death. She married James M Childress March 1859, and to this union six children were born. Her husband preceded her in November 1882 and two children in childhood. Her obituary said she was “a kind, indulgent mother” and listed her children and grandchildren but didn’t mention the orphan William French whom she had raised.

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Oct 24, 2023

Very interesting article. Thank you for sharing.

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