Pedro Pan girls, Florida City, Fla., 1962. 
Courtesy of Ileana Ortega Menéndez.

Little Feet

Children Starting Over in America

Tens of thousands of refugees have been arriving in Western Europe, fleeing civil war and unrest in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.  Many of the migrants making these perilous border crossings are children. This is hardly the first time minors have made such treacherous journeys. This week, BackStory revisits our episode on the many paths of child migrants in our own country. Some were thought of as innocents to be saved, whether from the Nazi bombing of London or from overcrowded urban orphanages. Others were hailed as pint-sized heroes of the Cold War, or scorned as child savages in need of civilizing — a justification once used to tear Indian children away from their families.

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**This transcript comes from an earlier broadcast of this episode. There may be small differences between the text and the audio you hear above.**

ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers. This summer, a surge of migrant children arrived at America’s southern border. And almost immediately they became the target of the Obama administration’s critics. Here’s Fox News this past week.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Well, they’re here illegally, but the government is giving border children attorneys, all funded by you, the taxpayer.

ED: Children have always been part of the American immigration story. Some have been more welcome than others, but many have found themselves pawns in the games of adults.

KRISTEN LASHUA: The word kidnapping’s used originally to mean very specifically to steal a child to sell them in the New World.

ED: Today on the show, a history of kids starting over in America, from indentured servants to European refugees in World War II.

MALCOLM BARLOW: We had the hell bombed out of us every day, three times a day, 11:00, 4:00, and 11:00.

ED: All that and more, today on BackStory. Don’t go away.

PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

MALE SPEAKER: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.

ED: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s with us.

PETER: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN: You probably remember the headlines this past summer about the huge numbers of migrant kids crossing the Mexican border into the United States. Over the past year, there have been more than 60,000 of them, up from about 25,000 the year before. And in general, that’s the story, the sheer numbers of kids coming into the US. It’s often cast as a political story. And neither politicians on the left or the right seem particularly eager to welcome these kids to our nation.

ED: What we tend to hear a lot less about are the stories of the children behind the numbers. Who are they, what are they leaving behind, and what are they coming to find? For a woman up the road from us here in Virginia named Kate Reen, the individual stories are all that she hears. Kate works for Northern Virginia Family Services. There, she oversees family reunification and violence recovery programs for migrant children. She told us this story of one of her clients, a teenager from El Salvador.

KATE REEN: He had come to the country because he had witnessed a friend of his being murdered by a gang. And so then the gang knew that he had witnessed that and had come after him. They had tried to kill him, left him for dead, but had not been successful. And then his family had him flee from the hospital to come to the United States.

BRIAN: This teenager’s story is not uncommon. Most of the young people crossing the southern border are from Central America, and a big portion of them are fleeing the spread of gang violence. And like this boy, they’re coming to meet family members who are already here, many of them having come here to find economic opportunities not available to them back home.

ED: But the journey north can be treacherous. It often takes months and covers thousands of miles. Some kids ride through Mexico on top of trains because they can’t afford tickets. Some are held captive by their traffickers, who blackmail their families for more money. And when the kids finally make it to the border or cross it, there they’re detained in shelters until officials can track down their family members.

BRIAN: This is where Kate gets involved. And lest you think she’s coming in at the end of the migration story, Kate says that for many children the journey is just beginning.

KATE REEN: For a lot of our youth, they’ve been separated from their parents for maybe 10 years, sometimes more, sometimes a little less. And so their parent oftentimes came to the United States to work, and they may have left when their child was five or six years old. And now their child’s 15, 16, 17, so they don’t know each other. If you think about it, it’s like if you had a teenager from another country suddenly come live in your house.

BRIAN: Kate works with these families to help them manage their situations and their needs, needs that are often monumental. The teenager she told us about– the one who was shot by a gang and left for dead– well, he fled to the States while he was still recovering from bullet wounds.

KATE REEN: And then once he was in the shelter, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder based on his experience. And then was released to come live with his father here in northern Virginia. And so the work that we were doing at our agency was just helping his father understand, what does it mean to have a youth with post-traumatic stress disorder?

ED: So what does it mean to be a teenager with PTSD? To be living in a foreign country, immersed in a foreign culture, in a foreign house with parents you hardly know? And on top of that, be in legal limbo, uncertain as to whether you’ll even be allowed to stay in this country for very long.

As singular as that situation may seem, young people have been going through similar experiences for many, many generations in this country. Today in this show, we’re going to explore some of the stories– stories of family separation and of new beginnings here in America.

PETER: We’ll hear the story of British siblings who sailed to the United States during World War II in a convoy of evacuees under the threat of sinister U-boats, and the story of British children some three centuries earlier shipped to the New World without their consent. And we’ll hear about what it’s like to migrate from a nation within a nation.

BRIAN: But first, we’re going to consider the story of another enormous influx of unaccompanied minors. And in this earlier exodus, US officials not only welcomed the young immigrants, they encouraged the children to make the trip knowing full well they might never see their parents again.

PETER: On January 1, 1959, the rebel army in Cuba declared victory over a nasty dictator by the name of General Fulgencio Batista. There was jubilation on the streets, but a lot of middle- and upper-class Cubans who had supported the revolution turned against it when Fidel Castro, the rebel leader, suspended plans for elections, nationalized major industries, and started to cozy up to the Soviet Union.

BRIAN: A little more than two years after Castro took over, his government beat back a CIA-sponsored invasion by about 1,500 Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs. And it was at this point that the government really clamped down on anything that smelled like opposition. A lot of Cubans panicked, and many wanted to flee the island, but visas were scarce. So many parents– thousands of them, in fact– decided to put their children all by themselves on flights to Miami.

The exodus came to be known as Operation Pedro Pan. The logic behind it promoted by those running the program was to, quote, “save these children from communism.”

PETER: The newest member of our team at BackStory grew up in South Florida and has lived in Cuba. We asked Robert Armengol to file this report about Operation Pedro Pan, and what that episode in American history can tell us about the place of children in the national psyche.

ROBERT ARMENGOL: My cross-country coach back in high school was a guy named Carlos Barquin, but we all just called him Barq. His trademark was barking orders at us.

CARLOS BARQUIN: Okay, boys. Stay sitting down. Close all the windows, please. Let’s do it.

ROBERT ARMENGOL: That’s Barq. He’s loading a bunch of football players on a bus for a game in Fort Lauderdale. Barq is actually the school’s athletic director, but–

CARLOS BARQUIN: Don’t have enough drivers today, so I gotta drive one of the buses.

ROBERT ARMENGOL: Barq has worked at Belen Jesuit Prep in Miami for the better part of four decades. And he’s grown the sports program from next to nothing to something of a little powerhouse. He was a wrestling champ in high school. And when he coached us, well, let’s just say his running drills introduced us day in and day out to new worlds of pain. So I was surprised the other day to hear him say this about coming to the States for the first time.

CARLOS BARQUIN: Oh god, that was hard. It took me up to about three months, but I cried every night, especially when I thought I was not going to see them again.

ROBERT ARMENGOL: He’s talking about his parents.

CARLOS BARQUIN: Because a whole new life. Here is a little farm boy coming to a big city, big language barrier.

ROBERT ARMENGOL: Barq was a child of Operation Pedro Pan. His mother and father sent him with his younger brother to the United States from a tiny town in central Cuba in 1962. Barq was 12. Like many Cubans, Barq’s parents had celebrated when triumphant rebel soldiers made their way across the island a few years earlier.

CARLOS BARQUIN: They actually marched through town. I remember seeing them with the long beards and stuff like that. Everybody came out to greet them as they were going up towards Havana.

MARIA DE LOS ANGELES TORRES: It was a moment of joy, I think, for many Cubans who had wanted change in Cuba.

ROBERT ARMENGOL: This is political scientist Maria de los Angeles Torres. She has researched Operation Pedro Pan extensively and was herself a Pedro Pan child. She was just six when the revolution came to power.

MARIA DE LOS ANGELES TORRES: I remember the excitement about the change becoming at some point more of a worry. But I think, in my family, more than the lack of free elections was the fact that the Castro government started using firing squads as a way of quashing dissent. Where a lot of young men were picked up and some of them were brought to trial, summary trials. One was a very close friend of my parents. He had just turned 17.

ROBERT ARMENGOL: Rumors were spreading– they were false, it turns out– that Fidel was going to take exclusive rights over children from their parents and maybe ship kids off to Russia for indoctrination. At the same time, there was word on the street about a special program for children, supported by the church, that could provide US visa waivers for kids, offset their travel costs, even find scholarships for them to attend American boarding schools. The program was actually the offshoot of a clandestine CIA operation. One day, Barq was on horseback riding through cane fields near the sugar mill where his father worked, when–

CARLOS BARQUIN: My brother came riding a bicycle with a telegram in his hand. And he was waving. He was happy. He says, the telegram is here, the telegram is here.

ROBERT ARMENGOL: Their travel permits had come through.

CARLOS BARQUIN: We saw that as a [? great ?] [? event. ?] We said, of course, we’d love to go. And that’s how it all started.

ROBERT ARMENGOL: Over two years, more than 14,000 minors would board flights out of Cuba in the care of the Catholic Church, but largely on Uncle Sam’s tab. The Miami Herald reporter covering the story called it Operation Pedro Pan, a Cuban version of the Peter Pan story where children get whisked away, not to Never Never Land, but to America. In October 1962, everything changed.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: Good evening, my fellow citizens. This government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba.

ROBERT ARMENGOL: With the Cuban Missile Crisis, all flights from Cuba ended, along with hope for many refugee kids that they would see their parents anytime soon. Pedro Pan had lost its wings, but the name stuck. In Cuba, though, people came to call it Peter Pan to emphasize its US origins and Fidel Castro’s own narrative that these children were stolen from the revolution.

Remember those rumors about Castro stealing children? Well, it seems they were broadcast from a pirate radio station in the Caribbean run by American intelligence agents. And Torres’s research uncovered proof that the Kennedy administration secretly funded the production of a propaganda film, in Spanish and English, that depicted Cuban children adjusting to life in a refugee camp while playing up fears about the communist brainwashing that kids were said to be escaping.

MALE SPEAKER: It’s like the story about a dog who swam from Havana to Key West just to be able to bark a little. Sure, it’s lonesome at first, but you’ll make friends. Children always do.

ROBERT ARMENGOL: The truth is, for many Pedro Pan children, fleeing Castro’s Cuba came with serious hardships and sometimes lasting trauma. Torres tells one story of a close friend who, along with his four brothers, ended up in an orphanage where abuse was common.

MARIA DE LOS ANGELES TORRES: In that orphanage, the older boys were oftentimes put in showers where there was a lot of rapes, and the priest would be outside watching. For the younger ones, if they for whatever reason didn’t eat the food, the nuns would punish them. If they started wetting their beds– these were six-year-old kids– the nun would wake them up to beat them up.

ROBERT ARMENGOL: The story told among Cuban exiles is that Pedro Pan kids thrived and were immensely successful. Like Barq– he doesn’t have any harrowing tales to tell. It wasn’t easy. He bounced from camp to camp in Miami.

But along the way, he met strong mentors, including Monsignor Bryan Walsh, who ran Pedro Pan for the church in South Florida. Another was a Jesuit priest who helped Barq get his first job at Belen. Still, he didn’t see his mom and dad for almost five years. When his father arrived in Miami in 1967, he had cancer. He died within the year. So I had to ask Barq, do you feel your childhood was stolen from you?

CARLOS BARQUIN: No, at all. I thank my parents for making the tough decision that they made. I know that it was much harder on them than it was on us. I know my parents suffered a lot, but I thank them for it. Because had it not been for this, I would not have done what I’m doing today. I love what I do, and I think most of the children that came feel the same.

ROBERT ARMENGOL: My own family is Cuban. My parents left in the early ’60s with their parents and siblings. I don’t have any close relatives who were Pedro Pan, but I guess the operation has touched me, too, through Coach Barq and other teachers and friends. The funny thing is I still don’t know exactly what to make of it. What I do know is that if we compare Pedro Pan with the current situation on the southern border, the contrast, at first glance, is striking.

Today, parents already in the States want to bring their kids and raise them here in stable homes, but they face huge legal hurdles. Children in grave and immediate physical danger want asylum, but have trouble making their case because their plight isn’t, quote, “political.” And the same country that rounded up kids to save them from communism, talks about sending home children who risked everything to make it here.

But these two migrations do have a couple of things in common. In both cases, fear seems to be driving public policy. And in both cases, grownups’ ideas of good and bad seem to trump the most commonplace wish of children everywhere, to be with their family.

PETER: Robert Armengol is one of our producers. You can read more about Operation Pedro Pan– or is it Peter Pan– on our website,

ED: It’s time for us to take a quick break, but don’t go away. When we get back, two very different takes on humanitarian aid for children.

BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.


ED: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. We’re talking today about the long history of kids being separated from their families to start new lives in a new place in America.

ED: In 1879, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School opened in Pennsylvania. This was the first federally funded off-reservation school designed to educate Native American children by erasing their native heritage. Backers wanted to, quote, “kill the Indian, save the man.” Officials taught children English, made them give up their native dress, and tried to convert them to Christianity.

BRIAN: As the century wore on, the government founded more and more of these schools out west. And many of them remained open well into the 20th century. One of those was the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School, located on the Kansas-Oklahoma state line. After its founding in 1884, the US government brought thousands of Indian students from all over the region to, in effect, teach them to assimilate.

TSIANINA LOMAWAIMA: My family was introduced, shall I say, to Chilocco when my dad and his older brother were placed there by order of the court.

BRIAN: This is Tsianina Lomawaima. She is Muskogee and an indigenous studies scholar at Arizona State University.

TSIANINA LOMAWAIMA: Because their mom was an Indian woman– their dad had left the family, so by definition, as an Indian woman trying to raise her kids by herself, she was deemed incompetent. So my dad, Curtis, was about eight, nine years old. His brother Bob was a little bit older when they went into Chilocco in 1927. And my dad remained there until 1935, when he managed to get away.

BRIAN: Inspired by her father’s experiences, Lomawaima began a research project collecting oral histories from other Chilocco alumni. While at the school, she says, her father and others bristled under the school’s military-style organization.

TSIANINA LOMAWAIMA: Students wore uniforms. They marched in close-order drill. There were 22 bugle calls every day. Even though they were schools, academic instruction was quite secondary and never proceeded much higher than the equivalent of grade six. Students were taught to labor. And that was an important part of the ideology of believing that what civilization meant was that native people were required to learn how to work. It was assumed that they were not by nature industrious, self-disciplined people.

So work details, as they were called, constituted half of the school day. The reality is that the schools were never funded by Congress at a level that would have been sufficient to keep them running, so student labor was fundamentally important. The ideology was, well, we’re teaching them to become civilized through this labor. But the reality was it’s what was necessary to keep the schools functioning.

BRIAN: What about your father’s story? You’ve mentioned that he went to this school, and he didn’t have such a great experience.

TSIANINA LOMAWAIMA: Well, he was young. He was eight years old. I think at that age it was impossible to understand the emotional dynamics of being placed there. And he did not take well to the military discipline and the attempt to eradicate individuality.

So he was about 14 or 15 the first time he ran away. He did not make it far the first time. The second time, he hopped a freight. He made it all the way Los Angeles and was caught there and was brought back. It was the third or fourth time he made it home to Wichita, and that’s actually why he was running away. He had not seen his mom since he had been brought to school at age eight.

So at that point, the school authorities allowed him a summer off to go home and spend that time with his mother. And he came back in the fall to give it another try and just could not stand it. Just could not stand it. So he ran away again. And by that point, he and his mother were pretty estranged. They just were not able to reestablish a relationship, so he hit the hobo trail.

He rode rails as a teenager all over the western United States. Worked on hotshot fire crews, and ended up in a CCC camp where the commander of the camp is the caring adult who took an interest in him and enabled him to finish high school and actually go to college.

BRIAN: As an anthropologist looking at the history of these schools, how do you explain the long-running practice of separating kids from their families, often against their families’ will? How do you explain that in America, which claims to value family life and individual choice so highly?

TSIANINA LOMAWAIMA: That’s a wonderful question, because you do hear this mantra of family values so often. The key thing to remember is whose family. I think what this speaks very directly and very transparently to is a very longstanding reality upon which the nation, the US, was founded, which was the dispossession of Indian land.

So you have a fundamental tension from the very creation of this nation of what do we do with native people. That was defined as the Indian problem. And the problem was, frankly, that Indians were sticking around– rather uncomfortable reminder. So I think this long-term– and it’s still going on– denigration of native society, the assumption that native people live in the past and cannot cope with modernity and can only be defined by something authentic that only existed several hundred years ago, that’s deeply ingrained into the US perception of self as a nation.

So native families by definition, I think, could not be valued. That was a way of life that in the ideology of the US had to pass away. It had to pass away, because that would show that Euro-American civilization really was a better way of life, that Christianity and the technology and capitalism really were chosen by God.

BRIAN: Thinking back on this as a scholar, how might caring adults have been inserted into young Native Americans’ lives more effectively than shipping them away from their families?

TSIANINA LOMAWAIMA: Well, I imagine the most direct way to do that would have been to have left them with their families.

BRIAN: That seems kind of logical to me. Call me crazy.

TSIANINA LOMAWAIMA: So this is the thing. There were some caring adults who made key connections with my dad and some of the other people I interviewed, but they were not their family members. They were not their community members. They were white people. That speaks fundamentally to what these schools were trying to do, which was to destroy the fabric of native society and community and family life, to break that up. And in some cases, all we can say is, sadly, they were successful.

I think to a miraculous degree, thanks to the creativity, resilience, and strength of native people, they weren’t always successful. But that’s key to what the schools and the federal policy was trying to do, was to create a different kind of family for Indian kids that would move them out of native life and into this subservient working role in US society.

BRIAN: Tsianina Lomawaima is a professor at Arizona State University. Her book on the subject is They Called It Prairie Light: The Story of Chilocco Indian School.

ED: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory, and we’re talking about the history of children being separated from their families to start new lives in America. We just heard about a large-scale effort to rescue American Indian children from their parents’ cultures, an effort that was conceived by its creators as a humanitarian one. We’re going to turn now to a story about a very different kind of humanitarian effort to save kids.

PETER: In 1940, the city of London was facing the very real threat of German bombs and a possible invasion. You may have heard of how some families responded to this threat by evacuating their sons and daughters to the English countryside. What’s less known is that in May of that year, the United Kingdom also began a program to send children abroad. The Children’s Overseas Reception Board, as it was known, sent evacuees to Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States.

BRIAN: The program was short-lived. On September 17, 1940, a German U-boat sank the City of Benares while it crossed the Atlantic. The ship was carrying 85 child refugees. 77 drowned, and the authorities decided any more overseas evacuations would just be too dangerous. But during the few months the program operated, around 2,600 children left British shores for safety abroad. Among those who did make it to America were the Barlow siblings.

SHEILA BARLOW O’BRIEN: I’m Sheila Barlow O’Brien, and I was 10 when I came. And my little brother was five.

MALCOLM BARLOW: Hi, I’m Malcolm Barlow, and I’m now 79.

BRIAN: You’ll notice that Sheila and Malcolm don’t sound very British. That’s because they, along with their siblings, Susan and Brian, never went home. But we’ll get to that. First, I asked them what they could tell me about their lives in England during the war.

MALCOLM BARLOW: Our lifestyle was very British, a little bit like Downton Abbey. The only time we saw our parents was for an audience before dinner. We would be presented to them and have maybe five minutes. They’d pat us on the head and send us off. So we had a very English background and upbringing. And Sheila, you might just describe what our father said to you and our brother and sister when the war started.

SHEILA BARLOW O’BRIEN: Well, he took my sister and I outside and said, now, things are going to get very bad. And there’s one thing I’m telling you you must never do, and that is cry, because nobody has time for crybabies.

MALCOLM BARLOW: Now, it’s important to realize that for children, war often is not scary. The adults know the danger, but children don’t. Of course, what happened in London– the Blitz started. And we had the hell bombed out of us every day three times a day, 11:00, 4:00, and 11:00, with airplanes flying over every day. And I think it was due to the fact that we were under such pressure in London that our father decided he should try to evacuate us if possible.

BRIAN: Tell me about your move to your new mother’s house. Where was it, and how did that go?

MALCOLM BARLOW: Well, what they tried to do– which was really clever of them– if you lived in the city, they tried to put you with a city family. If you lived in the country, they tried to put you with a country family. In our case, there was this couple who lived in Muncy, Pennsylvania, who had a large farm and said they would be interested in taking in a large family.

He suddenly died while we were in New York. And so his widow came with her husband’s aunt to interview us. And they were dressed in mourning clothes, which in 1940 was wide-brimmed hats with veils and black everything right down to their shoes. So she literally buried her husband on Monday and took us in the next Monday.

And this farm is 200 miles due west of New York. And we were put on trains and took the train right to the town of Muncy. And then Sheila can describe what it was like arriving at Muncy.

SHEILA BARLOW O’BRIEN: Well, being October, it was dark already when we got there because it was about 7 o’clock. And this little station is out in the middle of nowhere and not even in the town. And we were the only people getting off. And we got off, and there was a young man who was standing under a light bulb. And he was blonde and tall and had a crew cut.

And I said to my brother Brian, I think we’ve gotten off at the wrong station because he looks German to me. Which of course, he had the German background. And anyway, so he had been sent to pick us up. Mrs. Brock, who we called the whole time we were there Aunt Peg, had decided that we had been in darkness at night because of the blackouts. So she lit the whole house up, which was a very large stone house, and every window had a light in it. And that was our first impression of Muncy Farms.

MALCOLM BARLOW: With four of us, we were sort of our own unit, but our guardian was rather unique, for us, anyway, because our parents were very serious. And she was a person that had a wonderful sense of humor. And as my oldest brother said, he had never seen our parents laugh, and our guardian liked to laugh all the time. So she treated us immediately as her children, even though she had never had children and she was 45 years old, and what you might say a very fresh widow. Absolutely a remarkable woman.

BRIAN: It would be unusual if you weren’t a bit homesick. Were you, and was there anything you missed about your home in England?

SHEILA BARLOW O’BRIEN: I missed my two friends, Squeaker and Mole.

MALCOLM BARLOW: Life on the farm was pretty exciting. We did keep track of the war news, and our guardian kept us aware of what was happening in England. And we had really constant correspondence with our parents. At the same time, that correspondence could be 8 or 10 weeks late, because it came by ship. Sometimes it wouldn’t arrive at all if the ship was sunk.

But they never really complained. Our letters from our mother were incredible. She was writing one day and said, oh, there go the sirens, I’ll have to stop. And she was living at the country at the time. Then the letter starts up again, and she said, well, they missed. They hit the garden, not the house, fortunately, with the bombs. It was amazing, the acceptance and adaption to the war situation. That life became fairly routine.

BRIAN: And when did you realize that this was going to last a lot longer than perhaps you thought, that this might actually entail having a whole new family, not to mention a whole new country?

MALCOLM BARLOW: Oh, we learned much later. We didn’t learn until the war was over. I never thought that we would ever go back. It just didn’t dawn on me, because I was 5 to 10 during the war. My home was now America, was now the farm we lived on.

The adoption process we had always thought started at the end of the war, because our father died during the war, not of war injuries. And our family business was gone, and the house up in the country was gone. And so through letter writing, our guardian and mother decided it was best for us to be adopted, to stay in this country.

BRIAN: How did you feel about that?

MALCOLM BARLOW: Three of us thought it was a great idea to stay. Our sister Susan was upset. She was 12 years old when she left England. And leaving a family at 12 years old as a girl probably is different than for the rest of us. We all thought it was a great adventure, and I think she felt a closer tie, especially to our father. And she really struggled the rest of her life with emotional problems, and I think some of it was dealing with the emotional attachment to our guardian and also to the US.

BRIAN: Do you think, ultimately, the huge change in your life was primarily the product of growing up in very different country, different culture? Or the product of growing up with a different family?

MALCOLM BARLOW: Well, it’s probably a combination of both. There’s no doubt that the environment here in America is so different than England. There’s just so much opportunity and openness and friendliness among people. In England, especially in our time, was in the late stages of the Victorian era. In fact, our mother’s first marriage was an arranged marriage. And it wasn’t until our grandparents died that she could divorce her husband and then marry our father years later. So the whole society was so different. So from a personal standpoint, I’m absolute ecstatic to have been brought up in America.

BRIAN: Sheila, what would you say?

SHEILA BARLOW O’BRIEN: I feel the same way. I am so happy that we came to America. My personality would not have been very great for some of the things you have to do when you’re in England, which was don’t talk.

BRIAN: Well, thank you very much for joining us on BackStory today.

MALCOLM BARLOW: Well, it’s our pleasure. Thank you for having the interest.

BRIAN: That’s Sheila and Malcolm Barlow. They inherited that farm in Pennsylvania, and Malcolm still lives there today. Sheila lives in Florida. But the siblings are never apart for long. They spend their summers together at Muncy Farms.

ED: It’s time for another break, but stick around. When we get back, what starts as a humanitarian effort opens the door to a massive kidnapping ring.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

ED: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. Today on the show, we’re looking at the history of children starting over in America.

ED: If these real-life stories of family separations seem familiar to you, that’s because you’ve been reading fictional accounts of them for years. In a book called Audacious Kids, Jerry Griswold points out that family separation is a central theme in virtually all of the classic American children’s books written in the years between the Civil War and World War I. Think Wizard of Oz, Huck Finn, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Tarzan of the Apes. All of those novels, says Griswold, follow a basic storyline.

Child is orphaned or separated from his or her parents. Child goes on a daring journey. Child is adopted into a new family, overcomes adult adversary, and gains the respect and recognition he or she deserves. This basic plot, says Griswold, was not invented in America, but it does get used by scores of American authors to tell stories to American children about American values. When I asked him which novel provided the best example of this plot, he offered a surprising answer.

JERRY GRISWOLD: Well, oddly enough, I would choose Pollyanna. The vision you get of Pollyanna in the Disney film is that she’s a sort of saccharine person who’s happy about everything and always searching for something to be glad about. When you actually read the novel, you can see that this girl is one of the most cunning children in all of children’s literature, who manipulates the adults this way and that, to get her way essentially for the good.

When it was published in 1913, it was immensely popular all over the country. The story that it tells is of a little girl whose father is a missionary out in the west. Her mother has already passed on. And then the father dies, leaving this girl bereft, out there in the wilderness, out there in the frontier. And she’s shipped back to her aunt’s home in Beldingsville, Vermont. And her aunt is a termagant, grouchy person who didn’t want this child at all.

So what we’re dealing with is a story of an immigrant-like child, orphan child, who arrives in this strange place. And the whole community, as it were, takes over caring for her. And she heals the whole community and eventually turns her hard-hearted aunt into a lovable woman. So this is in a way a kind of representative American story.

ED: What does it say about Americans, generations of us, that we turn to these stories to tell us about ourselves? What does it say about the United States that this is a story that we like to tell?

JERRY GRISWOLD: This story, this ur-plot that I’ve identified as being a part of the American thing is not only or exclusively American. It’s one of many plots available in children’s stories. It’s curious that the American children’s book writer, out of a number of arrows in the quiver, would choose this particular one over and over again.

And I think, from an historical point of view, it’s because it reflects our national history. That is, the way the American Revolution, for example, was portrayed was a story of rebellious sons breaking with our father George III in England. So it was all framed in this kind of oedipal way, if you want to use the psychological term, that our national history is the story of breaking away from parents and coming into our own.

ED: Is that story also why separation and that sort of longing that we can all remember from watching Wizard of Oz or reading these books early on, that sense of isolation from our parents and loneliness, being adrift, is that also American?

JERRY GRISWOLD: Absolutely. By the middle of the 19th century, Americans who had been broken with the past, who had busted up the sod and created an entirely new world without precedent. What was missing was that sense of patrimony, that sense of tradition, that sense of connection. And all of a sudden, those rebellious sons of the American Revolution become founding fathers.

ED: In your really interesting overview of the popular literature of Gilded Age America, you point out that so many of the books are books we now consider children’s literature. What would that have meant at the time, and what do you think we should take from the fact that so many of these books do seem to feature children and maybe to have had children as audiences?

JERRY GRISWOLD: Well, the unique thing about this period– the late 1800s and the early 1900s– was this was a time when books written for children as the main audience were largely and often read by adults and appeared on adult bestseller lists. You take a look at the bestseller lists during this period, and you see like Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Pollyanna, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and maybe like War and Peace. But the great authors of the time were writing for children.

I think what’s curious now these days is the great controversy that’s swirling around in our culture just this last month or two is whether adults should read children’s books. So what you might argue is this thing we call children’s literature is not really the exception. It wasn’t an exceptional period between the two wars– between the Civil War and World War I where this emerged as a popular kind of literature. Rather, you can argue that is the norm, and the exceptional period has been the relatively recent years, where something like adult literature has risen up as a alternative and is apparently shrinking back down into a more diminished state where we share a kind of literature, young and old, together.

ED: Jerry Griswold is the author of Audacious Kids: The Classic American Children’s Story, which is being re-released in a revised edition this fall.


PETER: In the early 1600s, the city of London had a problem– children, hundreds of them, destitute and living on the streets. The city didn’t have the means to house or employ them. And the upper classes were nervous that youths with nothing to do would turn to lives of crime.

ED: So the enterprising Virginia Company joined forces with city authorities to round up poor kids and send them to the colonies as indentured servants. They were legally contracted to work for masters, usually on plantations, until they were at least 21. Because disease was rampant and the labor was hard, many of them would not live to see the end of their contracts. But in the old world, indentured servitude in the New World was actually considered a form of child welfare.

PETER: But a new problem arose in the middle of the century when the English government discovered that children were being shipped to the colonies illegally, without proper paperwork or the consent of children and their parents. Historian Kristen Lashua has studied this chapter of involuntary migration. She told me that in the colonial period, more than 5,000 English children were plucked off the streets of London and sent to the Chesapeake to work.

KRISTEN LASHUA: The word kidnapping first appears in print in 1673. And it’s used originally to mean very specifically to steal a child to sell them to plantation owners in the New World. There’s a lot of talk against kidnapping and that this is a problem, but it’s really hard to know how to stop this practice. Especially when children don’t have parents, because parents would typically be the ones who would prosecute somebody who is trying to take or harm their child.

PETER: But, Kristen, they are subjects of the king. He’s the great protector, right? I mean, he’s the father of us all, so there is a notion of the right to be protected. And that is beginning to apply to some of these children?

KRISTEN LASHUA: Yeah. By the 1680s, the king puts forward a proclamation that tries to lay out proper ways of sending children overseas. In other words, making sure that you have their consent and their parent or master’s consent.

PETER: Wow, that’s crucial. Since when did children have any right to consent to anything? That’s a terrible idea.

KRISTEN LASHUA: So this is sort of like a contested idea. If a child is going to be sent overseas, who should be the person that is giving consent for that?

PETER: Right, but it does say quite clearly that those people who pretend to be protectors of children are using that as a cover for sheer theft. And what they’re doing in effect is enslaving these English kids. Would you say that’s an exaggeration?

KRISTEN LASHUA: No. One of the things that surprised me working on this is that the language of slavery is used. In the few cases where kidnappers are actually brought to court and prosecuted, they’ll describe a child as being sold into slavery. It becomes of increasing concern that these children are being treated in the same way as African slaves are being. And so there becomes an increasing emphasis placed on making sure that everything is done legally, that these children are consenting to go abroad if they do go abroad.

So that by the middle of the 18th century, there’s reports of these children being stolen and sent to the plantations, or they’re about to be. And these English guys sort of swoop in and save them, and they’re all very proud of themselves. And then they immediately put them in the British Navy to fight in the Seven Years’ War, which is not a really great place for them to be, either– very dangerous. But the whole thing is that what matters in that moment is that the children were– or at least they said they were willing to go into the Navy, whereas to go to the New World, they hadn’t given that consent.

PETER: What does it tell us that it’s so important to English people to imagine that children have consented? What does that tell us in the face of the reality of the lack of meaningful agency?

KRISTEN LASHUA: Well, I think it’s a story that they’re telling themselves about what it means to be English, or later what it means to be British. That English and British people are law-abiding, one, and that they’re free people. And so that they are not bound laborers without a choice.

PETER: Right. They’re not slaves.


PETER: Yeah, so this is the English people developing their own brand.


PETER: It’s the liberty brand. We don’t do that sort of thing. We aren’t the kind of people.


PETER: Even though they are.


PETER: So Kristen, you’ve cited this figure of 5,000 kidnapped children over the colonial period in the Chesapeake. And if you came as one of these kidnapped children, you would not have an indenture.


PETER: So then there are lots of indentured children, too. So the scale of child migration is actually pretty significant.

KRISTEN LASHUA: It’s quite large. Right. And usually what you hear about is that migration is a sort of young man’s game. So we’ll hear about young men choosing to go to the colonies to make something of themselves. But when you look at the number of children who were sent over and children who were kidnapped, you realize that’s not exactly the narrative for a lot of people. That a lot of people are much younger than we think, and a lot of people are going not because they choose to go, but because that’s sort of chosen for them.

PETER: Kristen Lashua is a historian at the University of Virginia.

ED: Most of our images of child migrants had to do with this kind of journey to America. But for nearly 75 years, small children were shipped, often on their own, hundreds of miles within this country. It was a program known as the Orphan Train. A man named Charles Loring Brace conceived of the idea in the 1850s, for reasons similar to those we just heard about in our last piece.

In cities like New York, there were tens of thousands of orphaned and homeless children living on the streets. And, as it turned out, as American farmers settled the Midwest, they needed extra hands to help run their farms. Supply and demand would intersect, the idea was, resulting in better lives for children.

PETER: The Children’s Aid Society, the group founded by Brace, joined with other aid organizations to send upwards of 200,000 children to new homes out west. Many of these kids did wind up in better circumstances and thrived. Two of them went on to be governors. But for others, the outcome was considerably less rosy.

We got our hands on some tape of interviews with some of the last generation of orphan train riders, tape that reflects this mixed legacy. And we’re going to play for you now a sampling of stories from the orphan train.

MALE SPEAKER: I remembered sitting in the train with a little teddy bear in my arms. That’s all I remember.

MALE SPEAKER: I came to Iowa in the year of 1919, when I was eight years old.

MALE SPEAKER: I rode the orphan train December 1922.

MALE SPEAKER: It was around 20 orphanages just in New York City alone.

MALE SPEAKER: I had been found in a basket in Gimbels Department Store on January the 12th, 1918. The authorities estimated my age to be a little bit over a month old. And so they set me a birth date of December the 2nd, 1917.

MALE SPEAKER: My father, after losing his wife, took my brother to his grandmother’s. She couldn’t keep both of us, so he took me to the orphanage. I was there for five years. And when I was eight years old, they put me on the train.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Oh, yeah, I remember the train. There were three of us girls were ordered, as they called it, from some ladies in Nebraska.

FEMALE SPEAKER: And I had my name tag, and it had my name and address of where I was going, like a package.

MALE SPEAKER: They told me that we were going to find a home, a mommy and a daddy.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Some of them cry and didn’t want to go, and some were happy to go.

MALE SPEAKER: And, boy, here I’d heard about mommy and daddy recently, but this sounded real intriguing.

MALE SPEAKER: I think we each one got a quarter when we left New York. Most of them spent them for candy bars on the way.

MALE SPEAKER: Took us three days to get to our destination. We’d hear whoo whoo whoo, that sort of thing. So we got quite familiar with that. We got very familiar with the clackety clackety clackety clack of the wheels. It was a lot of fun.

FEMALE SPEAKER: When I got off the train, these strangers picked me up and put me sleeping between them, the husband and wife, during the night, and I shook all night long. I wasn’t sleeping, I was shaking. I was three.

MALE SPEAKER: And they took us off the train in the center of a large farm country, where they raised a lot of corn, and livestock, and pigs and chickens, and all that sort of thing. We walked up to the United Methodist Church.

MALE SPEAKER: And we formed a half a circle, the 12 of us. And the farmers came in and picked us out.

MALE SPEAKER: There was a huge crowd of people. And they came from as much as 40 miles away. They came with wagons and horses and this sort of thing which was customary at that time.

FEMALE SPEAKER: And my foster mother had to sign papers before she could take us on.

MALE SPEAKER: They didn’t have to adopt us. You signed a contract. Keep you clothed and fed and send you to church and school. And when you got to 16, they had to hire you if they could.

MALE SPEAKER: I apparently got up on a man’s lap and asked him if he’s going to be my daddy. Turns out he was. The first thing they did when I arrived that day was hand me a little bucket. They sent me out to a building out here and said, go gather the eggs. Gather the eggs? I never gathered an egg in my life. Didn’t know hardly what an egg was, except they were good. So that was my first job on a farm.

MALE SPEAKER: They treated me just like I was their own son. They were very fine people.

FEMALE SPEAKER: My foster mother, she kept slapping me in the mouth all the time because I wasn’t talking like them. I had the New York accent, see? She keeps slapping me until I said the words like she did. And then by the time I’m 11, she says, well, I don’t want you anymore. I’m going to send you back.

MALE SPEAKER: I got a pretty nice family to go to, but this woman didn’t know how to take care of children. She didn’t have none of her own. But after she got pregnant, they wanted to send me back.

This woman up the road a ways on the farm, she said, I’ll take him. And just bring him up to my place. And everything changed that day. She just felt sorry for me, I think. She was a good mother.

MALE SPEAKER: You know, my frustration is, who am I? What am I? What is my heritage? What do I have in my body or my mind that was transported down from my ancestors?

INTERVIEWER: So are you at all bitter finding out that your father gave you up like that?

MALE SPEAKER: No. I wouldn’t have liked it in New York. I say there’s no place like Iowa. It’s home.

PETER: Those were voices of men and women who rode the orphan train. They were recorded by Annie Wu, Andrea Warren, and Lisa Lipkin, formerly with the Museum of the City of New York. Special thanks also to Renee Wendinger, author of Last Train Home and The Orphan Trains and News Boys of New York. Andrea Warren’s books are We Rode the Orphan Trains and Orphan Train Rider. We’ll post the links to those books and to Annie Wu’s one-hour radio special about the trains at


ED: That’s going to do it for us today, but we’re eager to hear your family’s stories about children starting over in America. Leave us a comment at, or send us an email. Our address is We tweet @backstoryradio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

BRIAN: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones, and Robert Armengol. Emily Gadek is our digital producer, and Jamal Millner is our engineer. We had help from Coly Elhai. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham. Special thanks this week to Michael Henderson and Joyce Martin.

PETER: We also want to extend a special welcome this week to our new listeners on KCLU in Santa Barbara, WCQS in Asheville, North Carolina, and KRCU in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Glad to have you on board.


ED: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Weinstein Properties, by the Tomato Fund– cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment– and by History Channel. History made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is Professor of History Emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.