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Introduction to Going West. Luke, Stephanie Maureen.
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Introduction to Going West

By Stephanie Luke

An Expanding Nation

Alexander's Going West recounts an era in American history that was defined by rapid growth and national expansion. The country was moving away from an agrarian to an industrial and urban society. Long-established cities like New York were struggling (and often failing) to meet the needs of larger and larger populations. Railroads crisscrossed the country, taming the once "wild" West. A new generation of prospectors, like Alexander’s characters Joe Clifford and Mr. Brown, dreamed of striking it rich in one of the newly established mining towns, like Leadville, Colorado (scene of the latest "rush" in Going West), and of joining the ranks of self-made millionaires like "Stewart, Astor, and Vanderbilt."

By 1870, there was over 50,000 miles of railroad track laid across the country. By 1879, the year in which the events of Going West take place, over 100,000 miles of telegraph lines allowed Americans to learn of events hundreds of miles away, even as the nation expanded further and further west. By 1870, the demand for newspapers outpaced even the substantial upward trend of population growth of America. In comparison to fifty years before, by that year the number of daily newspapers increased from 42 to 574, and the number of weeklies increased from 512 to 5,091.

Alexander's novel is a fictionalization of the historical theme of expansionism—of country, industry, and press. Alexander"s background as a journalist, and her attention to journalism within the novel, offer the reader a distinct view of the history and growth of the American press following the conclusion of the Civil War. As Perry J. Ashley notes: "During the last three decades of the nineteenth century, the American newspaper was going through the final stages of its evolution from a vehicle of opinion into a vehicle which emphasized news, human interest, and entertainment." The records of Alexander’s career as a journalist, especially her time as a special correspondent to the Indianapolis Times, show that these were the stories that she was interested in reporting.

Alexander's inspiration for Going West, the newspaper report in the New York Herald-Tribune given at the end of this introduction, is indicative of this transitional period in the American press. It was published in 1879 on April 23 (not 25, as she has it), the third in a series that followed groups of boys who had been relocated from New York City to the Midwestern states by the Children's Aid Society, a private charitable institution still in existence. Newspapers of this period often supported such reform movements, as Ashley notes, "through their famous editorial crusades and campaigns aimed at making life better for all … the New York World campaigned for funds to build a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty; the Kansas City Star promoted community improvements and helped run the gamblers out of the city; and the Chicago Daily News advocated fresh-air sanatoriums."

The press's role as champion of the people was important in a period suffering from the growing pains accompanying quick national expansion. Journalists like Whitelaw Reid, the editor of the Tribune in 1879, had a voice in debates of national importance. Reid, in particular, became so well-known through his work at the Tribune that he would later run on the presidential ticket with Benjamin Harrison and serve as ambassador first to France and then to the United Kingdom. Alexander's Going West vividly illustrates the importance of the press to this era in American history.

Growing Pains

Going West offers a portrait of the negative consequences of industrialization and urbanization. By the end of the nineteenth century, the nation's population would be double what it was in the wake of the Civil War. Local and federal governments were ill-equipped to handle the rise in population. The urban poor and new immigrants were most affected by overpopulation. New York City stood as the foremost example of the consequences of unchecked growth. In 1852, the city's chief of police estimated that out of a population of five hundred thousand, there were over ten thousand homeless or orphaned children. Statistics for the same year show that almost eighty percent of those prosecuted for felonies in the city were minors. By the time Alexander took up the cause, the figures were much worse.

Governmental aid for homeless or orphaned children would not be established until the beginning of the twentieth century. State and federal systems of foster-care and adoption were not pursued until 1909. The only options offered to such children were state-run orphan asylums, almshouses, or prisons. Many homeless children survived as newsboys or boot-blacks or sold matches on the street. With little or no public support, private charities and individual philanthropy were central to social welfare. One such charity made a significant impact in placing children in better environments than the slums and tenement houses of New York.

In 1853, Charles Loring Brace, a Methodist minister who worked the Five Points district, founded the New York Children's Aid Society (CAS). The Society was at the forefront of child welfare reform. By 1879, the year in which Alexander's novel takes place, like the report on which it is based, CAS had opened lodging houses for boys and girls, established industrial schools where children could learn a trade, begun the tradition of "fresh air" vacations, and launched over thirty schools that offered day or night classes to immigrants who wished to learn English. But the CAS program that is most well-known today is the Emigration or "Placing-Out" program, more familiarly known as the "Orphan Train Movement."

The "orphan trains" placed impoverished and orphaned children in homes outside the city. The program was active for over seventy years, from 1853 to 1929, placing over one hundred thousand children in forty seven states. Other major cities established similar private children's aid societies to assist the urban poor in making a better life for themselves. The families that took the children were expected to clothe, feed, and educate them. They were not obligated to adopt them, although many did.

CAS tried to place children three times a month. The groups could be as small as three or as large as one hundred and fifty; one placing agent estimated that the average number was twenty-eight. As the Tribune indicates, sometimes adults or whole families were placed. The Tribune article Alexander quotes in her introduction and from which spring key moments of her plot, describes the journey of one party of boys who were sent to Parsons, Kansas—although one boy will turn out not to be what he seems, by a peculiar and quite impressive twist of Alexander's quirky imagination, and the novel gets railroaded halfway through by an insatiable appetite for romance and adventure. Whitelaw Reid gave a short speech and advice to the real boys of the orphan train before they started their journey from the city. He told them that "the gentlemen to whose gifts they were indebted for the opportunity of leaving New-York for Western homes would watch their future course with interest, would have the name and address of each, would get reports about them, and would feel amply repaid if they were always said to be doing well." Alexander's novel, in many ways, is that report to history, and is as full of can-do attitude as Reid's newspaper and the nation it served.

Alexander's personal generosity to her small town of Mt. Vernon, Indiana reflects the attitudes of Reid, Brace, and the Children’s Aid Society. Although her donations appear small in comparison to the large programs of the CAS, she shared their purpose in providing education and opportunities to younger generations of Americans, and deserves the remembrance offered by this text.


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  • Brace, Charles Loring. The Best Method of Disposing of Our Pauper and Vagrant Children. New York: Wynkoop, Hallenkoop & Thomas, 1859.
  • --. Short Sermons to Newsboys: With a History of the Formation of the News Boys’ Lodging-House. New York: Charles Scribner & Co., 1866.
  • --. The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years Works Among Them. New York: Wynkoop & Hallenbeck, 1872.
  • --. The Life of Charles Loring Brace: Chiefly Told in His Own Letters. Ed. Emma Brace. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1894.
  • Bamford, Lawrence. “Streets from Silver: Leadville’s History through Its Built Environment” . Colorado Heritage (1 December 1987). 2-11.
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  • “Further Reports of the Terrible Tornado.” Indianapolis Daily Sentinel (2 June 1879). 1.
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  • “Homes in the West. Poor City Boys in Kansas. Fortunes of the Party of Boys.” New York Herald-Tribune (19 April 1879). 2, 8.
  • Leffel, John C., ed. History of Posey County, Indiana. Chicago: Standard Publishing Company, 1913.
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  • The Oxford English Dictionary Online. Second edition, 1989; online version, November 2010. <>
  • “A Terrible Cyclone. Marshall County, Kan., Visited by a Disastrous Storm. Fifty People Killed.” New York Herald-Tribune (1 June 1879). 11.
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  • Wheeler, Leslie. “Orphan Trains.” American History Illustrated 18.8 (August 1983). 11-23.
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