top of page

Martha & Frederick Zenn, Orphan Train Rider

Martha Zenn was placed in Ford County, Illinois in 1873 and was born in 1861 or 1864. Her name appears in the census as an inmate of the Juvenile Asylum in 1870 and her age was given as 6 years at that time. However, when she was living with the McKeevers near Drummer in 1880, she gave her age as twenty. She married in 1882 to Franklin Pearce Newhart and gave her age as 21. She also gave the names of her parents: Henry Zenn and Lettie Prell. Many of the children who came on the orphan train could not remember the names of their parents when completing their marriage licenses, so Martha was remarkable for remembering this information after being parted from her parents at such an early age. However, there are facts in the record that suggest Martha may not have remembered her parents names correctly.

After their marriage, Martha and Franklin moved to Meriden, Cherokee County, Iowa, where most of the children were born, but by 1900 they were living in Madison, Tennessee. Franklin and Martha owned their own farm at that time and had five children: Elizabeth, Mabel, Wilbert, Glenn and Clifford. Martha died January 6 1935 and was buried in the Hollywood Cemetery, Madison, Tennessee.

Martha had a brother named Frederick Zenn, born about 1863, who was also appeared in the 1870 census at the Asylum at age 7 and was sent to Illinois. Frederick lived on the farm of Mathias Newhart near Drummer at the time of the 1880 census. (His letter appeared in the 1874 Annual Report) These two must have maintained some kind of contact because Martha's husband, Franklin Pearce Newhart, was the oldest son of Mathias Newhart!

Now for the possibility that Martha incorrectly named her parents.

Martha's children were born in Cherokee County, Iowa, the same place where Frederick Zenn lived. When he married Lena Johnston in Meriden, Iowa, he gave his father's name as William, rather than Henry, and his mother as Elizabeth (for which Lettie could be a diminutive.) This Frederick Zenn continued living in Meriden and had six children: Edna, Bessie, Hazel, Lula, Sherman, Alice, and Margaret. Frederick died in December 1932.

After contacting several Zenn descendants on I received this truly amazing story from Tiffany Smith about her ancestor, Frederick Zenn:

Frederich William Zenn was born in May 1864 in New Jersey, the child of William Henry Zenn and Elizabeth (Prell) Zenn. He was raised in New Jersey and New York until about age 7. Fred and his sister, Martha were two of approximately 200,000 children placed from Eastern Cities to the midwest on the "Orphan Trains." Fred was placed on the farm of Mathias Newhart near Drummer,Illinois. Fred later married Jennett Lina Johnston (born and raised in Iowa) on January 11, 1888, in Cherokee, Iowa. They had seven children in 15 years. Life was likely a struggle for the young family. The Zenns were farmers and rented the land they worked. They may have had about 10 normal, productive years, before Lina began showing symptoms of Huntington's chorea (now "Huntington's Disease, HD) Lina would have been struggling with severe disabilities from Huntington's for 8 years before her death in 1907. When Lina passed, the children ranged in age from 18 (Edna) to only 2 (Margaret). The family went to live with Edna and her husband, Peter Frambach to help Fred with Lina's disabilities and with the young children. In the years between Lina's passing and Fred's tragic death, America was crashing into the Great Depression (1929-1939). It appears that Fred Zenn may never have fully gotten back on his feet from Lina's death. Fred Zenn and son, Sherman, are found on the census of 1920. They were living on the farm of Peter and Edna (and 6 of the Frombach's children- ages 1 to 12) All of the other Zenn siblings (Bessie, Hazel, Lula, Alice and Margaret were grown and moved away) Fred's daughter, Lula, said simply that her dad "went west," apparently after 1920. Fred's youngest daughter, Margaret, moved west to Washington State sometime between 1927 and 1931. It is possible that Fred followed her out there. A census in Applegate Oregon (near the California border) in 1930 shows a Fred Zenn, 64, born in New York in 1866 as a "boarder" with the Eihlinger family. It would be likely that this is him. Fred's son Sherman was with Fred in San Bernardino the day he died. Fred tragically passed away in the County Hospital in San Bernardino on December 24, 1932, and was buried in the Samaritan (County) Cemetery in San Bernardino. Fred's death certificate shows he passed away from severe injuries and blood loss, following a train accident. According to a newspaper article, quoting his son Sherman, they were riding a cargo train. They exited one train and Fred walked into the path of another oncoming train, severing his legs. The death certificate lists him as "transient". Times being what they were, Fred had lived out the last years of his life riding the rails, searching for work as many American men did. Fred's was a tragic life, book-ended by trains of great significance.

Many many thanks to Tiffany Smith for sharing this story of her family!


Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page