The register of inmates for the Fulton County, Illinois poor farm includes a column entitled “Cause of Pauperism.” Old age, nearly blind, no home, silly, crippled in feet and ankles, sick, not right—these are just some of the causes listed.
It can be a melancholy realization to find ancestors whose lives were poor and desperate, but it’s a reality that many family historians face. Known as poorhouses, poor farms, almshouses, and county farms, these were places our elderly, poor, disabled, and ill ancestors often called home.
Poorhouses have had a long presence in America, dating to before the Revolutionary War. Boston had a poorhouse as early as 1664. Care of the poor in early America was largely a local undertaking. Communities, counties, and states devised their own systems. Many people received an early form of public assistance called “outdoor relief.” Despite the sad circumstances that warranted a poorhouse stay for our ancestors, the good news is that these institutions often produced records that can help our research.
Just recently, Ancestry.com released a new collection of records for New York, Census of Inmates in Almshouses and Poorhouses, 1830-1920. I’ve been researching an elusive Irish immigrant named Henry Irwin who lived in New York City. I plugged his name into the search box. Now I know why Henry disappeared from city directories in the 1870s. He had taken up residence at the almshouse on Blackwell’s Island.
His intake record contains a mighty array of clues: his birthplace in Ireland (down to the town), the birthplaces of his parents in Ireland (towns here also), when he arrived in the U.S. and through what port. (He arrived at Quebec - that dandy piece of information was news to me.) Other clues confirm that this Henry Irwin is probably my guy.
Despite my glee at finding this record, I can’t ignore the stark reality of Henry’s circumstances. According to the record he suffered from “paralysis and destitution” and his future was “doubtful.”
How do you know if any of your ancestors lived in a poorhouse? Look for clues, some obvious and some subtle. My great-grandfather’s obituary noted that he died at the “county farm.” I ignored that clue for many years. Eventually, I realized there could be a paper trail related to his home away from home. Regrettably, I discovered that when that farm closed in the 1940s the final head-mistress burned all the records.
Look carefully at the place of death noted on death certificates. Have you overlooked a reference to a poorhouse? Census records are another handy resource. Typically, residents of institutions were often identified as “inmates” and the census-taker usually noted the name of the institution somewhere on the form.
The 1880 census, in particular, gathered valuable data on our poor relations. Look carefully at the columns under the heading “Health.”
If any of those are checked, see if you can find your ancestor also listed on the 1880 special schedules of Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes.
The “Pauper and Indigent” schedule focused on people living in almshouses. You’ll find a few clues on these schedules, but equally important is the basic knowledge that your ancestral relative spent some time at the poorhouse. That piece of information should jumpstart your hunt for those records.
Poorhouse records could be in any number of places, just like most records we use. They could be at the county courthouse, at a local historical society, at the state archives or state library, or in the holdings of a local college. Check out the website The Poorhouse Story (www.poorhousestory.com) for more clues. As with all records that we pursue, keep in mind that errors can creep in. Not every detail you find on a poorhouse record may be completely accurate, but there sure can be some good clues.
Even if your ancestor didn’t die in a poorhouse, don’t rule out the possibility that he or she may have lived there for a while. Some people only stayed in poorhouses for a short time. One prevailing theory was that if the living conditions in poorhouses were miserable enough, those who were able-bodied would be inclined to seek out work and vacate the premises as soon as possible. If you’ve lost track of an ancestor, check to see if a poorhouse existed near his or her last known residence. If the records still exist, add “poorhouse” to your research list.
Have you had any experience with poorhouse records? Did you find some fascinating details? Have you ever been denied access to poorhouse records? Leave a comment and share what you’ve discovered about poorhouses.
Professional genealogist and writer Mary Penner can be reached through her website: www.marypenner.com.
> Search the 1880 Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes Schedules
Other articles in the 20 November 2011 Weekly Discovery: