Category Archives: Poorhouse

Did Your Ancestor Live at the County Farm?

As much as we like to think all of our ancestors lived an idyllic, comfortable life, the reality is that some struggled economically for various reasons and perhaps through no fault of their own.

The county farm, also called the poor farm, the poorhouse or the workhouse, existed for many years, not only in the United States, but in the United Kingdom and many other countries.

In England, for example, local church parishes were responsible for those who couldn’t work to support themselves. Those who were able bodied were sent to the workhouse.

In America, most of the poor farms were administered at the county level. I first came across my husband’s 2X great grandfather’s residence there in the court minutes. Judges generally issued a court order to send a person or a family to the poor house or, if ill, to the county or state hospital.

Who was sent to the county farm?

Well, men who were out of work and couldn’t support themselves and/or their families were ordered there. Widowed women and young children were also confined to the county farm if they had no economic means to take care of themselves. In short, anybody could be forced to live and work in the poorhouse. However, the aged and infirm were also sent to the poorhouse and often spent the rest of their lives in it.

Life was difficult in the workhouses and on poor farms. At best, those in need had a roof over their heads and daily meals.

Where can poorhouse records be found?

Poorhouse records might or might not be found for a particular locality. The FamilySearch Research Wiki is a great starting place, but be sure to search several ways – county farm, poor farm and workhouse all bring up results.

England’s Poorhouses has its own wiki page that provides an explanation of the laws and links at the bottom of the page to Records of the Poor, grouped by locality.

Finding such records in the United States requires a more place-specific search. Cyndi’s List has a short section with links to American records, but it is by no means comprehensive.

A Google search might be the quickest way to locate possible poorhouse records pertaining to your family.

My husband’s ancestor lived in Barry County, Missouri. A quick search brought up several pages, not with resident records, but with historical information.

Multnomah County, Oregon has created a research guide to its poorhouse records.

Morgan County, Illinois has posted an index to Poor Farm Records (1850-1932), found at the Illinois State Archives. A general search for Williams brought the following results:

Information about Labette County, Kansas poorhouse records is posted on Genealogy Trails History Group.

The FamilySearch research wiki is quite comprehensive and continues to grow. Don’t forget to look at your county page of interest to check whether or not there is an entry for poorhouse records.

Another source for poorhouse news is the local newspaper. Be sure to check not only for county court news, but also in general news. Someone took a liking to my husband’s 2X great grandfather and two updates about his health, while living at the county farm, were published before his obituary.

Some later censuses enumerate inmates living at the county farm.

In short, there are poorhouse records to be found, but there is no one place to locate them, so several searches must be completed. Locating residents’ (called inmates) records can be difficult as it seems records kept at the poorhouse itself, at least in the U.S., were often lost or destroyed when the poorhouse closed.