Life wasn’t always dreamy–but, for a family historian, even the less-than-perfect times may have had silver lining.
It is easy to romanticize the lives of our ancestors. We like to think of them as hard-working, independent people. Long hours in the field or factory earned them enough money to feed and shelter their family, and even if they weren’t rich, they were self-sufficient—and proud of it.
That’s the dream. The reality was sometimes much harsher. Crops failed. Husbands were killed in war. Mothers died in childbirth. People suffered from diseases and addictions. Any number of tragedies could befall a family, rendering them incapable of surviving on their own. When that happened, most families would turn to the county home.
County homes or poor farms began in the early- to mid-1800s as the nation became more socially aware. They played a number of roles—as hospital, mental health facility, home for the elderly, orphanage, and home for unwed mothers. Patients, often called “inmates,” could be there short-term (unwed women about to give birth) or long-term (chronically ill patients). People could enter the home voluntarily or by order of the court.
Admission records can yield a wealth of information, including age, birthplace, reason for admission, occupation, and physical description. The admission record for the Parke County, Indiana, Asylum tells us that William Murphy, a 68-year-old native of Ireland who had light hair and blue eyes, was admitted in February 1896. Although the record does not tell us why he was admitted, we do learn that he received a leg wound during the Battle of Gettysburg—this warrants a search for military and pension records.
Many county homes kept separate volumes to record births and deaths. Sometimes these predate civil records in the county. Even if you have a civil birth or death record, you should consult the records of the county home if that was where the event occurred since additional information might have been recorded. For example, John Riggleman died in the Athens County, Ohio, home in 1872. The register at the home lists his place of burial, something not included in civil death records.
Because most county homes no longer exist, it can be confusing to know where to find their records. Local genealogical societies are invaluable in the search. They know whether the old records can be found in the county courthouse, the local library, the state archives, or the state historical society.
Unlike state hospitals, county home records are surprisingly open. Some of them have been published by county genealogical societies, and even more are available on microfilm through local Family History Centers. Numerous websites list burials at county homes or poor farm cemeteries.
We don’t like to think of our ancestors as falling into a bit of bad luck, but for some of our ancestors, it happened. It’s for those times that we should look at county home records to learn about the realities some of our ancestors faced.