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This article originally appeared in "Business, Institution, and Organization Records" by Kay Haviland Freilich, CG, CGL, and Ann Carter Fleming, CG, CGL in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy
Almshouses were established over one thousand years ago, and since that time most societies have made provisions of some type to care for the citizens who could not care for themselves. Depending on the time period, the location, and the type of care provided, the facility might be known as an almshouse, a house of refuge, a poorhouse, or a poor farm. More often than not, they are government funded and operated, frequently on the county level.
Our ancestors may have resided in of one these facilities for any number of reasons. In some cases, their stay was brief; in others, it may have lasted for a number or years or even for most of their lives. Many times they had no family in the area to take over their care. One group of residents was the elderly, who because of illness or the effects of aging simply could not care for themselves any more. Another group was those who suffered from a debilitating illness or handicap that prevented them from working. Still another was children whose parents could not care for them.
Just as the type of support offered varies with the individual institution, so do the records vary. Most of them include the name of the occupant, sex, age, race, and dates of admission and discharge. The record may include health information and date of death if the resident died at the facility. More detailed records might also add marital status, names and birthplaces of parents, personal habits, and amount of education. Typical of the records are those of Shelby County, Illinois. Published abstracts show name, age, sex, state or country of birth, and date of admission (see the attached image). The original Almshouse Register for Shelby County, Illinois also shows occupation before admission, marital status, birthplace of parents, ability to read or write, health, habits, property brought to the almshouse, authority for admission, and cause of pauperism.57
The current location of the records will of course vary. Many remain in the custody of the county, either in the courthouse or an archives facility. Others are found in the offices of the institution that replaced the almshouse. If the county nursing home of today occupies the site of the former county poor farm, the farm’s records may well be at the nursing home. Still other records may have been retained by the last director and are now in the hands of descendants. Some records have been microfilmed by the Family History Library and can be located by searching for available county records. Others are identified and located by searching the county’s own Web pages or a genealogy list for the county.
A wide variety of records are available online. Some examples follow:
- Pauper information is available in census records as displayed in this Page County, Iowa, example.
- Mercer County, Illinois, almshouse records, 1858–1948, at the Illinois Secretary of State website.
- Morgan County, Colorado, old age pensions, 1933–36, at http://www.colorado.gov/dpa/doit/archives/oap/morgan.html.
- Warren County, New York, poorhouse records at http://www.co.warren.ny.us/records.
A typical entry from the Warren County records shows that Homer Jackson was a seventy-year-old black male, a widower, who was admitted to the almshouse in 1880 and died in 1882. Homer stated his father and mother were slaves in Arkansas before they bought their freedom.
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