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Emma Davis, Mason County

One aspect of writing this blog that is very satisfying is hearing from OTR descendants. I have met descendants when I presented on Orphan Trains and others have contacted me through Facebook or my website. I was especially pleased when Emma Davis' descendant continued sharing Emma's story with me after she received confirming documentation from Orphan Train expert Clark Kidder. She had been looking for proof that her great grandmother came to Illinois on the orphan train for many years.

Emma was just 13 when her mother brought her to the New York Juvenile Asylum on April 24, 1882. Her mother, Sidney, worked as a nurse and was from Wales. Emma's father was deceased, so her mother was apparently unable to support her due to either a shortage of money or the necessity of living in her employer's home. They had been living at 417 9th Street in New York City.

Emma was sent West almost immediately -- on May 17, 1882 she was placed with the family of John Roughton in Rantoul, Illinois. She would be 14 on July 1 that year. By September, 1882 Emma was removed from Mr. Roughton's home and placed with the Frederick Bigalow family in Rockford, Illinois. Perhaps Emma was sickly, because Mr. Roughton wrote a letter to the agent about her delicate condition.

On March 16, 1883 Emma was reported as having left her place Rockford. The Asylum did not hear of her again until Emma wrote a letter from Dillsburgh, Champaign County in August 1884. She asked the agent to find her a place -- and promised to behave herself. She was directed to come to the agency in Normal, Illinois. After making her way to Normal, she was placed with the John Sargent family in Heyworth. From there, she wrote another letter to the Asylum and reported that she had a good home and had joined the church in Heyworth. However, the next report of Emma was from Clinton, Illinois on May 4, 1885 when Mrs. George Hanes stated that Emma's conduct was such that she had to send her away after just six weeks in the home. Emma moved on to work at a hotel (in Clinton?) -- The Magill House by Mrs. Hanes' report.

Emma wrote again in March 1886 to request another place. She had been quite ill and was out of a situation. No note was made as to whether she was given a new place, and the next record of Emma was on May 2, 1889 when Emma received her first "visit" from the agent. She was living in Springfield, Illinois and was married to Richard Cackley, a mechanic. They had been married in Bloomington in 1887 and had a little son.

Emma had moved from New York to Rantoul, to Rockford, to Dillsburgh, to Normal, to Heyworth, to Clinton, to Bloomington, all with no visible financial support! That is a great deal of traveling for a young teenager in just three years. There were no paved roads. No one paid the orphans until their indenture was completed, unless they began working for wages, which Emma was obviously doing. Emma had to make her way totally on her own, using farmer's wagons, trains, or her own feet, unless she was moving as part of a planned placement. As an unaccompanied female, she was vulnerable to robbery, sexual predation and simple exposure to the weather!

Emma and Richard had been married in Bloomington, Illinois in January 1887 and when she was visited she had a little son, Hugh. By 1900 Emma and Richard were living in Mason City, where Richard kept a saloon and they owned their own home. In later years Richard kept a grocery store instead of a saloon in Mason City. Emma's great granddaughter sent me a photo of the home that Richard built for Emma in Mason City:

Emma died in 1911 at the age of 43. She had the misfortune to eat a bad oyster and died of food poisoning. Her son had married sometime before 1909, but sadly, Emma did not live to see her grandchildren. Richard and Hugh continued in the grocery trade, living together in the house that Richard built with Hugh's wife and children. Richard died in 1955, never having remarried.

Emma's story is only too typical of other orphan train riders. Families who took in the children in the 1880s were not especially tolerant of children and expected them to be "seen but not heard" and behave like a child sized adult. Any deviation from perfect behavior was strictly scolded in an "own child" and grounds for dismissal of an orphan train rider. I do not attribute any orphan's inability to "keep a place" to their own failures but to intolerance, the stresses of being in a strange place and the trauma of orphanhood/poverty/separation.

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