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Researching Your Ancestors in the Poor Farm

In a previous article, I wrote about Poor Farms and gave some information about the Austin County, Texas Poor Farm. This week I want to provide you with some additional resources for conducting research on the poor farm in your ancestor's locality.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Gena Philibert-Ortega
Word Count: 911 (approx.)
Labels: Census 
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Over the hill to the poor-house-me child'rn dear, good-by!
Many a night I've watched you when only God was nigh;
And God'll judge between us; but I will al'ays pray
That you shall never suffer the half I do today. *

In a previous article, I wrote about Poor Farms and gave some information about the Austin County, Texas Poor Farm. This week I want to provide you with some additional resources for conducting research on the poor farm in your ancestor's locality.

The first source you should check when researching poor farms is the website for the Poorhouse Lady, aka Linda Crannell at www.poorhousestory.com. Driven by the knowledge that her grandmother spent her early years in a poorhouse, Linda has developed a comprehensive site devoted to the history of poorhouses and references to poorhouses in various states. On her site you can read about laws governing poorhouses, read about poorhouses in your state, and peruse the bibliography she has put together on the issue of poverty.

Once you have some knowledge of poorhouses from the Poorhouse Lady, check out Cyndi's List, www.cyndislist.com, which has a section on poorhouses and poverty that will provide you with additional websites to guide your research. The websites listed will help you in researching poorhouses in the United Kingdom and the United States. One site listed is for the Onondage County Poorhouse in New York. The site features pictures of buildings, transcripts of the poorhouse records and pictures of the day-to-day life there at the poorhouse.

How can you find out if there was a poor farm in the county you are researching? Try looking at the U.S. Federal Census to see if you can find the poor farm. When searching the U.S. Federal Census on Ancestry.com, fill in the state and county you want to search for, don't fill out a name of a person. Then, if you are allowed to fill in a relationship to head of household, see if one of the choices for relationship to head of household is 'inmate.' Alternately, on the 1900 U.S. Federal Census search on Ancestry, where you are allowed to do a keyword search, type in inmate on that search. When Ancestry provides you with 'hits' you will need to look at the individual census page to see if it is indeed the county poor farm or if it is the county jail.

The following list is not exhaustive, but provides you with just some of the state resources for poor farm data:

Illinois

Morgan County Poor Farm Record Index, 1850-1932 at www.cyberdriveillinois.com. This index is through the Illinois State Archives. Lots of great information including the transcriptions of the actual records of the poorhouse, Illinois laws and information on how to get copies of the records are on this website.

Kansas

This bibliography found on the Kansas State Historical Society's website www.kshs.org, documents resources that highlight Kansas poor farms from 1855-1974. This bibliography also provides a short history of poor farms in Kansas.

Iowa

This website, www.rootsweb.com/~iamusca2/1910countyhome.htm lists the residents of the Muscatine County Farm as recorded in the 1910 U.S. Census.

Michigan

The website for Michigan Historical markers, www.michmarkers.com, features a picture of the Van Buren County Poorhouse and a few lines of information about this poorhouse including years of operation.

Missouri

This website features information about the Monroe County Poor Farm but it is also a good resource for poor farm history, www.rootsweb.com/~monroe/poorfarm.htm. Linked to this website is a great series that ran on Minnesota Public Radio about poor farms.

New York

www.co.ulster.ny.us/poorhouse/ is a website for the Ulster County Poorhouse Project. This poorhouse website is really well done. It includes picture, both historical and more current of the poorhouse and its grounds, as well as historical information, laws, maps, admissions lists, burial records and research on this poorhouse. Whether you had ancestors in Ulster County or not, this website is a great one for learning more about poor farms.

Oklahoma

If you have family from Oklahoma, some of the work of finding the local poor farm has been done for you. Karen Wise's website at http://members.cox.net/awise120/ has taken information from the Oklahoma census on poor farms, orphanages and institutions and placed the information on her website. There you can find out on exactly what census page these institutions are found for various counties.

Other Resources

A Google search for 'poorhouse' will lead you to over 70,000,000 'hits' for additional poorhouse resources. Also, try the phrases 'poor farm' or 'almshouse' as you search in Google or Yahoo or your favorite search engine. Check out the state and county web pages hosted by Rootsweb at www.rootsweb.com for even more websites featuring poor farms.

Once you know the dates for the county poor farm you are researching, if you live near that county, you may want to go to the county court house and look through the county commissioner minutes for mentions of the poor farm. Those minutes would provide you with a history of that poor farm. Actual transcription of inmate records can be located with a local historical society or a county or state archives. Don't forget, that if traveling to your county of interest is not feasible, you can always hire a researcher in that area and still get the information you are looking for.

Unfortunately, in many cases, the records for poor farms may simply not exist anymore. However, the reward in researching the county poor farm is that you will learn more about the life of you ancestor and they area they lived in.

* From: Over the Hill to the Poor-House by Will Carleton

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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