Records of the Poor

by Ruby Coleman

After the Civil War, she roamed the hills of northeast Tennessee carrying her meager belongings in a sack on her back. Folks claimed she was mentally unstable. Almost all the inhabitants of the hollers and hilltops knew her and many took her in for meals and lodging. Occasionally, in her almost 100 years of life, she is shown on federal census records. She was never placed in a poorhouse or poor farm, but the county frequently gave her tokens of monetary support.

Stories such as this can be found in almost every family. As long as there has been life and poverty, society has dealt with the paupers. Their social well being and neglect has always been a concern. Thus, records do exist, if we only search for them. First, researchers must acknowledge and deal with the status of their ancestors.

The categories under which a person was determined a pauper can include the homeless, destitute, unemployed, mentally or physically handicapped, elderly and orphans. The classification of being a pauper could also result from lack of initiative. Finding a place for such people in society fell upon the courts or towns.

It is also important that you find a place for them in your research. Accept the fact that some of your ancestors may have been poor. Consistent clues to this, besides family stories, can be found in the lack of land transactions and tax records. They may be found on census records in specific listings of almhouses or poorhouses or farms. If they were simply living out a poor existence and receiving monetary support from the county, they will not be shown specifically as a pauper on the census enumeration.

Your search for records to support the clues or stories, should begin on a local level. Determine through county histories or court records if there was a poorhouse or farm in the area. Is there an extant listing of the residents? Some records may be in ledgers within a courthouse or deposited at other repositories, such as historical societies.

Depending upon the county and state, it is beneficial to check county court records. There may be mention of money given to paupers for their up-keep. Sometimes the money is given to a close relative to dispense to the pauper, thus providing even more clues. The same court records may contain information on the location of poorhouses or farms and those who managed and occupied them.

Upon death, the pauper may have been buried in a family cemetery or public/town cemetery. While there may not be a stone, it is worthwhile to check cemetery records, burial permits and funeral home records for any clues regarding their death and burial. Many poorhouses or farms maintained their own cemeteries. Those burials are often in ledgers that have survived either at a county or town level.

Your research should also include checking for records in state archives or libraries. Many courthouse records and manuscripts are deposited in these repositories. DonŐt assume that the county court records or town records contain all the information that is available.

In 1880 information was gathered on the Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes. It was not a part of the actual 1880 Federal Census and was taken only in 1880. Researchers refer to these as the DDD Schedules. The information was collected regarding dysfunctional individuals for the health and social reform movements. This included the pauper and indigent persons, along with homeless children.

Some of the DDD Schedules are in manuscript form and others have been microfilmed. To locate these records, in either form, check with state libraries or archives. For some states the National Archives holds microfilm copies. It is also helpful to check the Family History Library Catalog of the Family History Library for microfilm of schedules.

Your research should also include the Internet. The Poorhouse Story,, is an excellent web page. Links to cemetery records, poorhouses by states, types of records and state archives can be found on the web page.

Whether your ancestor was slightly poor, begging in public or lacking in initiative, there may be records just waiting to be found. Your research is never complete without exploring these possibilities.

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