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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"To Dakota and Back" - Orphan Trains Memoir

Once upon a time, New England children were forced into indentured servitude in a wide and vastly unpopulated West that needed laborers. They had lost one or both parents, and the bulk shipment of these children were called “orphan trains.”

Judith Kappenman, director of the Irish Cultural Center at Elms College, Chicopee, Massachusetts, has recently published, “To Dakota and Back - The Story of an Orphan Train Rider”, a memoir about her grandfather, John Donahue, who along with his brother, were two such children taken without their consent, and without their knowledge of what was really happening to them, to Dakota Territory. They were separated, sent to different farms, and spent the rest of their childhood until the age of their legal emancipation, as indentured laborers.

It is a story rich in detail that brings us from the impoverished South Boston neighborhood where the boys began their lives with their parents and younger sister. A series of events utterly beyond their control brings them to the Great Plains. John endures bitter experiences, and discovers with astonishing insight, how to thrive in his helpless situation. He is elderly when he returns to New England in a circle of life that is as triumphant as it is sad.

The organizing of “orphan trains” began in the 1850s and continued until 1930. The book is a fascinating history lesson as a personal account from this little-remembered episode of America’s past.

“To Dakota and Back” is available in paperback here from


Beescotch said...

How sad for those children!!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

It's quite a story.

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