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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill -- 3/8/2006

Birth and Death at the Poor Farm

The Poor Farm
The county poor farm (or almshouse) was a fixture of many eighteenth-century counties in the United States. These tax-supported institutions were places where individuals who could not support themselves could go. Generally residents were required to work if they were able on the farm that was usually a part of the property (hence the name "poor farm".

Some individuals might find themselves in temporary dire circumstances and remain at the farm a short time, as did some of the individuals in the example that follows. Others may stay longer. Illness, injury, loss of job, death of parents, or a variety of other circumstances may have resulted in your ancestor knocking on the door of the county farm. In some cases, a county or township official might have had to request the person be admitted. Those who wish to learn more about the history of the county poor farm can do so at Linda Crannell's website. In today's column, we'll take a look at an example, and then discuss what you may find in these records, and how to locate them.

An Example
In late February of 1875, ten residents of the Mississippi River town of Keithsburg, Illinois, were admitted to the local county poor farm. Strangers would take one child home with them the next day. One mother and some of her children would return to their own home in a few months. The other mother would die at the home within the year and two of her children would eventually be taken by other families four years after their admission.

The almshouse register does not indicate any relationship among the ten admissions, but it is reasonably clear that two families came to the home on that cold February day. Forty-year-old Sarah Smith is listed first, apparently followed by daughters Louisa, Elizabeth, Susan, and Magie Smith, ranging in age from eight to one. Magie's name is followed by Nancy Kile, aged 26. Nancy's name is followed by the names of four more Smith children, ranging in age from seven to two years of age.

It seems unlikely that the Smith children all belong to Sarah. The eight children are aged:


What seems more reasonable is that two separate families were admitted to the poor farm that day--Sarah Smith and her children, and Nancy Kile and four more Smith children. The entry of the names in the register seems to imply this scenario as well. Based upon the ages, it seems unlikely that all the Smith children belong to Sarah. The listing of the children by age in two separate groups hints as well that they belong to two separate families.

A continued reading of the admissions indicates another Smith admission five lines later: Charles Smith. This infant's birthplace is listed as the "poorhouse" and his date of admission is given as 24 May 1875. A closer reading of the register's line for Nancy Kile indicates that on her 26 February 1875 admission date she was pregnant. Is she the mother of Charles Smith?

The register contains one line for each admission, also indicating that the Smith children abstained from alcohol and that the women were temperate. More telling is the column indicating the date of discharge.

Sarah Smith was released on her own account in late April of 1875, not quite two months after her admission. Her two youngest children, Susan and Magie, were released with her on the same date. Nancy Kile remained in the almshouse until she died there on 1 November 1875 of consumption.

Jennie Smith was released the next day to E. H. Brownson. The last Smith child was discharged in June of 1879.

Next week we will learn more about the Smith family. For now our attention turns to poorhouse records in general.

About the Records
Locating records is not always easy, but it is worth trying. For some of us, records of the county poor farm may be one of the few records available on our ancestor. Poorhouse records may be listed as county poor farm records, almshouse records, county farm records, etc. Be creative when searching titles.

What the Records Likely Contain
The amount of information contained in these records can vary greatly. In some cases, the register may list simply the name, age, and date for each admission. In other situations, information about the individual's residence, personal habits, discharge date, and "on whose authority admitted" may also be provided. Make certain the entire register is read or viewed.

Locating Poorhouse Records
Since the county or town maintained the farm, the county or town maintained the records. Locating the actual records may be difficult in some circumstances. The Family History Library does have some of these materials on microfilm, but again coverage varies. Poor farm records are usually located in the Family History Library's card catalog by searching for the specific county and then viewing the subject headings under that county. (Poor farm records are usually cataloged at the county level since they are county level records.)

The examples used in this week's column were cataloged in the Family History Library card catalog under Illinois, Mercer County, Poorhouses--poor law, etc..

Records that have not been microfilmed may still be housed at the county level or may have been sent to the appropriate state archives. These are the places to begin your search if the Family History Library does not have the materials on microfilm. Red Book may provide additional information on these records in general for the state of interest, as may the specific state research guides from the Family History Library.

Researchers who still are having difficulty locating the records may also wish to contact genealogical or historical societies in the area or post a query to the appropriate mailing list at Rootsweb or the message boards at A few of these records have been transcribed and published and may be available in print form.

Who Was Admitted?
Typically those admitted to the poor farm were unable to financially support themselves. Many were expected to work on the farm in some way or another. Children may have been taken by other families to either raise as foster children or to work as farm hands. Those who were unable to work or who had some type of "mental deficiency" might have been sent to a state institution. These are separate records which usually are kept at the state level.

Other Records?
In some cases there may be additional records, but not necessarily. If orphaned children were admitted to the poor farm, there is a slim chance that guardianship records exist for the children. Children with actual guardians were not usually admitted to the county poor farm since they were generally heirs to an estate whose value warranted having a guardian in the first place. Those admitted to the county poor farm usually did not have any means with which to support themselves.

If your ancestor disappears, consider looking for him in the records of the county poor farm. If your ancestor did not have the funds to generate other records (land, probate, etc.) perhaps his financial situation warranted a stay at the poor farm. In some cases, if you find him admitted to the poor farm once, you may find him admitted again, especially if his financial status did not change significantly.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS). He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

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