Finding Your Roots: Poorhouse Records

Isabelle MacLean Drown
By Isabelle MacLean Drown September 15, 2010 12:16

Isabelle MacLean Drown

“If you don’t stop wasting, you’ll land me in the poorhouse!” was a phrase that many of us who were Depression babies grew up hearing.

Poorhouses have been with us for hundreds of years – and many people have been forced to go there as a result of economic failures. They existed in almost every country, and went by other names such as almshouse, workhouse, poor-farm, city home or industrial home.

If one of your ancestors or an entire family missed a census, it very well could be they were regrouping in a poorhouse. Not a happy situation for them, but for today’s researchers, trying hard to break through those genealogy brick walls – well, these poorhouse records could be the loose brick for which they’re looking. You see, because the governments of most countries sent tax money to the poor, they wanted to know how their money was being used; therefore, the names of each and every person entering these institutions were recorded. Now, we just have to find those records.

As I researched this column, I learned that a couple hundred years ago, there was no great shame attached to “going to the poorhouse,” as I had been led to believe. In past ages, a town’s wealthy citizens were expected to help the poor, or paupers, as they were called, and considered it a privilege to exercise charity – that is, until they themselves fell on hard times, mostly due to calamities like the bubonic plague.

After that, the paupers were required to work for their keep, resulting in becoming indentured to the “master.” And with that came the pauper auctions – yes, a white slave trade. This was carried out in all countries where governments had established poorhouses, including America and Canada, and as late as the 1870s.

Linda M. Crannel, known as “The Poorhouse Lady,” has done a remarkable job of gathering these records for American poorhouses.  Lucky for us, she has created a website with the genealogist in mind. Go to www.poorhousestory.com and search by state for the records. Make sure you read her “Letter to Genealogists” and other items she has posted.

In Scotland, before 1845, heritors, who were the landowners of the parish, were expected to pay for the upkeep of the church, minister and schools. They were also responsible for caring for the poor. It seems that at one time or other, most inhabitants needed help, and the heritor kept a record of their names. These records are kept at the National Archives of Scotland. You can also go to www.familysearch.org and in the Family History Library Catalog, search under Scotland, [County], [Parish] – Poorhouses, Poor Law, etc. The microfilms can be obtained and viewed at the Family History Center in Sonora (536-9206).This same procedure can be used for searching for the poorhouse records of any country – they all had to take care of their poor.

What about that ancestor whom you know was on that ship but he just disappeared? If he landed “without a penny to his name” he was sent to a poorhouse – most times in the very port where he arrived. Start by checking the “Poor” records for that port.

Don’t forget to Google your city or state or province or country, and add “poorhouse” for a surprise at the records revealed. A sampling:  www.institutions.org.uk/workhouses/ireland/ireland_workhouses.htm,

or www.jstor.org/pss/2990410 for the Genealogy of a German Workhouse.

The first time I saw a record of one of my ancestors dying in a poorhouse in Scotland, I was sent into a “Why didn’t the family take care of her?” tirade – that is, until I began to study the economy for that area and time, and saw that she probably was kept from dying on the streets, as it was a time of real poverty for everyone. And then again, she may have been so cantankerous that no one wanted her to live with them – who knows.

Until next time, good luck with your research!

Isabelle Drown of Sonora is an author and genealogical expert currently on a one-year history mission in Salt Lake City, Utah. Email her at roots@seniorfan.com.

­­ Copyright © 2010, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Isabelle MacLean Drown
By Isabelle MacLean Drown September 15, 2010 12:16
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