Famous photo of destitute pea pickers in California, 1936 [Credit: Library of Congress]
Did your parents used to warn: “We’ll end up in the poorhouse!”

Nowadays, it’s just an expression. For earlier generations, though, it was a real fear. But what was the poorhouse? And who ended up there?

There really were poorhouses, though sometimes they were called by different names. In some areas it was the almshouse, or the poor farm, or the county farm. It was typically a government-run facility where people often ended up when they were poor, blind, crippled, or otherwise disabled, or when they were elderly or homeless and didn’t have family that could care for them.

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Times were different then, and people didn’t have the kind of social services we have today as a safety net. Or rather, poorhouses were the social services. In the U.S., most seem to date from the 1700s.

If you are doing genealogical research and one of your ancestors has “fallen off the radar,” you might consider searching for poorhouse records. The system for caring for the poor and needy was not standardized, so each county or state had its own system of record keeping.

First, look for any clues in the records you’re already looking at. On the U.S. census, for instance, poorhouse residents were often referred to as “inmates.” Or perhaps one of your ancestors is listed on an obituary as having died at a “county farm.”

Ancestry has some searchable poorhouse resources, such as the 1880 Schedules of Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes for 21 states. This was a supplement to the 1880 U.S. Federal Census that enumerated the disabled, poor, homeless children, and prisoners. Forms include individuals’ names, race, gender, age, and residence. For people with mental or physical illness, questions about medical history were asked. Information about homeless children’s parents and details about prisoners’ imprisonment are also included.

Some of the entries can be heartbreaking to read. see some of the information on those lists. The schedule from Red Bank Township, Armstrong County, Pennsylvania includes Fianna Dinger, who was noted to have been 6 when “idiocy” occurred due to scarlet fever. At 22 years old, she had never been an inmate at a training school and was “partly self-supporting.” If you happened to be searching for Fianna or the Dinger family, this might be information that would be hard to find otherwise.

The searchable database of New York, Census of Inmates in Almshouses and Poorhouses, 1830-1920, includes 64 poorhouses and almshouses in New York and details about their thousands of residents. The forms vary but can you may find names and ages, birthplace, marital status, naturalization details, whether they were considered “intemperate,” occupation, and questions on the extended family’s tendency toward self-sufficiency or dependence.

For instance, Anne Brooks, 56, was born in Ireland, widowed and was living at Richmond, N.Y. County Poor House. She had been in the U.S. for 30 years and worked as a cook. She had one child living, who was self-supporting. She was, it was noted, of “intemperate” habits. Her “existing cause of dependence” was listed as “intemperence and old age.” She had “no chance of recovery,” and under remarks, it was stated, “She is old and infirm and no chance of being able to leave.”

One tip when searching U.S. Federal Census records on Ancestry for poorhouse records is to fill in the state and county, but leave the name fields blank. If the form allows, enter “inmate” for “head of household.” (Some census searches will allow you to enter “inmate” in the keysearch search.) You’ll need to check the pages to see if they are indeed a county poor farm or the county jail.

—Leslie Lang