During the fall semester of my senior year here at CSU I got the opportunity to work closely with a history professor, Dr. Ann Little, on an independent study research project that substituted for my senior capstone seminar class. This opportunity allowed me to combine my passion for history with my family’s personal experience with a major historical phenomenon that occurred during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the orphan train. My family has a unique connection to the orphan train through my great-grandfather. When my great-grandfather was 3 years old he was taken from an orphanage, the New York Foundling Hospital in New York City, by train to a small town in rural Kansas. Through this experience I was able to piece together the puzzle that was the orphan train and explore how it has affected my family and American society as a whole from the mid-nineteenth century through today.
The process I went through while conducting research for this project was unlike anything I had done before. I had personal family records at my disposal and this helped shape the overarching story that my research was going to tell. I knew I had my topic, the orphan train, but I was unsure where to go from there. This is where Dr. Little’s advice and guidance became invaluable. The next step was beginning my actual research, which included reading multiple secondary sources that would compliment the primary sources I had available to me, which included letters, church records, various state legal records, and photographs. Figuring out how to cut out insignificant details, no matter how interesting they might be, was another challenge I learned to overcome, and this new skill helped me produce the desired results for my project. My final project is something that I have been able to share with several family members to explore the story of my great-grandfather. Although the orphan train is not something that a lot of people know about, there is a growing number of scholarship regarding the topic and even a few community groups and social media pages that descendents of orphan train riders can join and share family stories. Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned through my research is that the small town in Kansas that my great-grandfather was transported to also became the home of several other orphan train riders throughout the program’s existence, and there was even a book written about a young girl that was taken to that same town as an orphan train rider. This book was written with the help of that girl when she was an older woman, and though she was almost ten years younger than my great-grandfather, she knew of him and he is mentioned in the book.
This project forced me out of my writing and research comfort zone and I became someone that could actually DO history. This experience made me grow in my ability to write and collaborate with professors to create something meaningful for both me and my family. While participating in this independent study course I became better acquainted with the basic essentials of historical research and I now feel comfortable with the historical writing process as a whole. Through this independent study I learned how to choose a topic and narrow down my research in the most efficient way to produce something that I am proud of. My experience doing an independent study has proved to be invaluable and I believe it was the last step I needed to take to round out my experience obtaining a Bachelor’s Degree from CSU.