Digging into Our Ancestors’ Lives: Finding Social History Records – Part 5, The Poorhouse

“We’ll end up in the poorhouse!”

Hearing a threat of ending up in the poorhouse struck fear into the hearts of most people. Sadly, for more than most realize, it was much more than an empty threat, whether it was the poorhouse, the workhouse, the almshouse, the poor farm or the county farm, they all amounted to the same thing.

In the earliest days of colonial America, there were no poorhouses in any form, but there were poor people, in spite of the best efforts of town officials to curb poverty.

As I mentioned in the post about children’s lives, binding out orphaned children was a necessity so that they would have a trade as adults and be able to contribute to the livelihood of the community.

Children born out of wedlock were also often not only bound out, but efforts were made to force mothers to name the baby’s father so that financial security would be provided as the child grew up.

Where would one find information about being these topics? Most often, these records are found in local court records.

In colonial New England, towns adopted the practice of warnings out. When a family arrived in town, even if a father was present, and it became obvious that they had no means of support, town officials warned them out. They were ordered to return to the town from which they came, as that town was legally responsible for their upkeep.

Warnings out aren’t the easiest records to locate, as they would be in town minutes. Most town minutes are not digitized and are not accessible online. However, local genealogical periodicals sometimes have articles about warnings out that have been found.

Here is an example from the New England Historic Genealogical Register, published in July 1993. They are from the town proceedings of Corinth, Vermont and are scattered through minutes dating from 1805 to 1817.

July 1993, page 257

Most often, these warnings out in the town records don’t give further details other than names. Occasionally, there might be an additional comment such as “lately of Stoneham,” which means they were told to return to Stoneham!

Permission had to be given to newcomers to purchase land and settle in a town. If the applicant/s were unacceptable, they were expected to go on their way.

Josiah Henry Benton wrote an entire book on the topic in 1911, Warning Out in New England, 1656-1817.

This system worked in the early years of the colonies as there weren’t all that many people. However, the constant influx of settlers brought additional problems and the idea of the workhouse or poorhouse took root.

A second book, not digitally available, Unwelcome Americans, by Ruth Wallis Herndon and published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001, takes a more modern look at the early colonial New England attempts to curb poverty. It’s $25 and available online.

Warning Out – An article which details the process used by town officials

Warnings Out – 2017 blog post on Vita Brevis

There doesn’t seem to have been any similar system in the South; I imagine that churches and towns likely provided some support to the elderly, sick, orphans and widows. However, binding out children was a universal practice in colonial America.

It wasn’t until the 1800s that poorhouses began to appear, usually at the county level. As mentioned earlier, the terms poorhouse, the poor farm and the county farm all meant the same thing. The workhouse had a slightly different take, in that residents did exactly what the place name said – they were able bodied and worked.

The workhouse was more common in Europe than America.

Men, women and children who could work DID work. In this manner, they learned a trade and contributed to society in a positive way.

If you have an ancestor or ancestral family that you suspect might have lived in poverty, where would records be found about them?

As with warnings out, they will be found at the town and county levels, IF they exist. Accounts and ledgers from specific almshouses are scarce, but orders to pay for upkeep of individuals may be noted in court records.

A more accessible source of information is the newspaper, as summaries of court proceedings were often published so townspeople would know what their elected officials were doing.

I personally have found newspaper mentions of costs for maintaining my husband’s 2X great grandfather, Isaac Sturgell, at the Barry County, Missouri county farm. An article published on 6 March 1902  in the Cassville (Missouri) Republican newspaper includes payment of $10 to J.A. Barnes, for Isaac:


The death certificate for Isaac’s ex-wife’s husband, Ben Cookman, who died in Peoria County, Illinois in 1885, noted that he lived in the almshouse:

Census records are another source of information about poor farms. However, some enumerators seemed to have omitted stops at them. Isaac Sturgell lived at the county farm for at least nine years in the first decade of the 1900s until he died in 1909 and I suspect he may have lived there for at least part of the 1890s, too. However, he is nowhere to be found in the 1900 census, but the county farm isn’t to be found in that census either. I know because I’ve read every page of Barry County’s census and also contacted the public library there to ask for information. The same thing might have happened in other communities.

What was life like at the county farm? There are many online resources:

The Poorhouse Waif – Life in the Poorhouse

Life in the Poorhouse, Lee F. Dunne, $14

Life in a Poorhouse, Powerpoint by Joseph Bonneau at the University of Maine

Poorhouses by Sarah Albee

Before Welfare: True Stories of Life in the Workhouse

Poorhouse Sweeney: Life in a County Poorhouse by Ed Sweeney, 1927, pricey on Amazon, but it’s available and an option

In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America, Michael B. Katz – preview is available on Google, but there is enough viewable text to learn a lot.

The Poorhouse Story – website about the history of poorhouses

If you have ancestors who lived at an almshouse, search out their records to learn their stories. They need to be remembered!




2 thoughts on “Digging into Our Ancestors’ Lives: Finding Social History Records – Part 5, The Poorhouse”

  1. So far, I haven’t found any ancestors in American poorhouses, but my husband’s grandmother was in and out of notorious workhouses in London for several years — when she was under the age of 10! Her siblings were in the same situation. All turned out well, good family people and solid citizens, thankfully.

  2. RootsTech 2019 Contest Entry

    I have been really interested in trying to find my ancestors in the poorhouses. Thank you for sharing this information. Now it is time for me to go search. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.