Posted by Amy Johnson Crow on September 16, 2016 in Website
Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress.
Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress.

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.

Amy Johnson Crow

Amy Johnson Crow is a Certified Genealogist and an active lecturer and author. Her roots run deep in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states. She earned her Masters degree in Library and Information Science at Kent State University. Amy loves to help people discover the joys of learning about their ancestors and she thinks that there are few things better than a day in a cemetery. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Amy Johnson Crow.

9 Comments

  1. John Arford

    My maternal grandfather was the superintendent in the early nineteen hundreds for the county Poor Farm or infirmary as it was called in Koscuisko County, Indiana.
    It was even there of that my grandfather was infected with bulbar polio. But years later after he left Warsaw area and went to Northwestern for law school Kama he returned and there he met my maternal grandmother that she was working for his mother as her personal secretary. The two met Kama they courted, and they were married.
    My great-grandfather was pastor, counselor, superintendent, grave digger, farmer, and patient caregiver. He also appeared in court to take over patience, inmates who were left in his care to take guardianship of them.

  2. Eileen S Phelps

    My great-grandfather, Joseph Allen Taylor, was superintendant of the Poor Farm in Weber County, Utah for a couple of terms. It was an elected office. I found some of the information about him in the Ogden City directories on Ancestry.

  3. Jane

    I found Amy Johnson Crow’s article about Country Homes very interesting, as I’d never heard of these! Even though the information is not pertinent to my family research (3 out of 4 grandparents were immigrants from other countries), I’ll definitely keep this in mind in the event I’m helping friends w/ their family research. Thank you, Amy, for your interesting blog!

  4. Nancy A. Cole

    my husband Charles was adopted from the Whittaker State Home in Pryor,Ok. in 1931/1932..by Mr.&Mrs. William Bryant Cole….could you find a record of this ?

  5. Nancy A. Cole

    my husband Charles was adopted from the Whittaker State Home in Pryor,Ok. in 1931/1932..by Mr.&Mrs. William Bryant Cole….could you find a record of this ?
    Join the Discussion

  6. Patricia Rohn

    My great grandmother, Margaret Carney, and her 2 siblings, were sent to “a home” around 1865, when they were very young, because their parents were unable to take care of them. After following up on some clues from the family story, I was able to determine that this “home” was the Hillside Home in Scranton, PA. It is now the Clarks Summit State Hospital. I wrote to the Lackawanna Historical Society about the Hillside Home, as well as finding out if any records existed for the “Scranton Poor Board.” Sadly, they replied that records for that time period are very scarce. They do not have records for the poor board starting until much later than the time period I’m looking for. The hospital does not have records at their facilties for the that same time period as well, and also have no idea where those records, if any exist, may be kept.

    I would like to know what became of Margaret Carney’s parents, Patrick and Bridget (McDonald) Carney, and was hoping records for the Hillside Home might shed some clues. I found the home and its inmates in the 1870 census, and there was a Bridget Kearney listed as an inmate. I do not know if this is Margaret’s mother or not. I was hoping to find out more about this inmate in the records as well.

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