Old 1857 Pauper's list
Genealogy Resources,  How To Trace Your Family Tree

How To Research Your Destitute Ancestors – Yes, It’s Possible

Were your ancestors poor? To research and find destitute ancestors, seek out records created for the care of the community’s poor.

One of the common frustrations I hear from you, my readers, is the lack of records for your destitute or poor ancestors.  Yes, our poor ancestors certainly present with some unique research challenges.

Why is that?

Your poor or destitute ancestors typically did not own land and will not be found in the land records.  Ancestors who had no estate that needed to be disposed of, did not typically leave wills or have estates that were probated. Your poorer ancestors may have moved frequently in search of jobs making them harder to track down.

I have a few of those in my family tree, too.

But here’s the thing…….

Your poor ancestors very well may be found in county and federal records.  

We have to think outside of the genealogy box  (again) and see what records we need to include in our search for these poor ancestors.

5 young children including one baby on a farm. Chicken in foreground. Green box with light text reading finding poor & destitute ancestors.
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How did a community care for it’s poor and destitute citizens?

Organized care of the poor in an community is a old concept. During the colonial era of America, responsibility for care of the poor was coordinated by the church or the Vestry.  Records for help provided to the poor can be found in vestry minutes.

Unfortunately, vestry minutes often did not survive particularly here in North Carolina where I often research. Check your state to see which vestry minutes survive.

Eventually the care of the a community’s poor often fell to the county government. The actual laws and set up of poor houses and other forms of monetary aid and physical assistance vary from state to state, but essentially remain the same in their goals:

  • To provide food and shelter for the poor
  • To provide that care in a cost conscience manner

Because county funds were used to help care for the poor, formal records were kept….and that is a good thing for genealogy researchers.

3 rural girls in coats

Examples of the types of records you might find in as a genealogy researcher include poorhouse registers, letters sent to the board of commissioners, ledgers for the poorhouse, ration books, or indentures books.  Within these records of assistance, you can find names of the poornames of those who provided assistance (Ex. doctors), and the type of assistance an individual needed.

Remember the names of the records and the specific records that were kept by the community will vary from state to state and country to country. If you are not sure what types of records were kept in your ancestor’s community, check with the state or regional archives.

Types of records created for a community’s destitute

You might be surprised at the types of records that were kept for the care of a community’s most needy residents. Let’s take a look at some of the more common ones.

County Poor Records

Potentially a researcher will find an ancestor listed on a poor house list supported by the county. County poor records will be found at the county courthouse or at the state archives. The type of information will vary by time period and by county, but for an ancestor of very little means, a poorhouse list can be one of the few records  placing him or her in a specific place and time.

1868 Poor house record
1868 Granville County, NC Poor House List

Above is an 1868 Granville County, NC poorhouse list. You will notice not a lot of information in provided on the individuals, but notice the number of women listed. Unfortunately, a county’s poor often consisted of many women and their children.  For some of these women, being listed in a poorhouse or on a county aid list may be the only record of her.

1867 poor house list
1867  Granville County, NC Pauper List

Not everyone who was receiving assistance from the county lived at the poorhouse.  This is an example of a list of paupers not at the poorhouse who were receiving county support. Again, notice the number of women listed.

When you find a poorhouse list or pauper list, study the list carefully. 

In the above example, the pauper list is dated 13 Aug 1867 and entitled “List of Paupers not at the Poor House for the next 6 mos”.

We can calculate this list and the notations on it covered approximately 13 Aug 1867 – 13 Feb 1868.

For individuals such as Patty Adcock with the notation “dead” beside her name, we can infer she died between 13 Aug 1867 and mid-February 1868. For a  woman who likely did not generate many of her own records, finding Patty here is a genealogical win.

Other types of county level records include:

  • Minutes of the Warden of the Poor meetings
  • Account records kept by the Overseer of the Poor
  • County home records (also known as the Poor House) as seen above
  • County Court minutes
  • Minutes of County Board of Commissioners

Most of these types of records will not be found online. Many require on-site research at the county courthouse or state archives.

old courthouse iith blue sky and flag

Genealogy Tip:  Before jumping into researching records of the poor for your ancestors, take time to learn how your ancestor’s community or location took care of their poorer residents. Learn what types of records could have been created for that time and place.

Counties  had town officials who were in charge of taking care of the community’s poor. Overseers of the Poor (also known as Poor Masters or Wardens of the Poor) were elected town officials who served in this role. Later, county boards of commissioners frequently acted as wardens of the poor.

The duties of an Overseer of the Poor included:

  • Managing monies received and dispersed to the poor
  • Assessing and making the determination of who qualified for poor relief
  • Managing the local poor house. Note: Not all persons receiving poor aide relief lived in the poor house. Many continued to live at home or with relatives, but received money from the county for their upkeep.

If the Overseers of the Poor were county officials, then records of their responsibilities and any moneys they were in charge of were kept.

Was your ancestor an “Overseer of the Poor”? If so, you can infer a few things about him:

  • He was not poor.
  • He was highly thought of by the community as he was an elected official.
  • He was known to be in a specific place in a specific time.

US Federal Census Supplemental Schedules – A Source To Finding Your Poor Ancestors

The 1880 US Census Supplemental Schedule is another great resource to check for your  poor ancestor. Let’s take a close look at the  1880 Supplemental Schedule 7, for the Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes.

Genealogy Tip: Keep a copy of the blank schedule beside you as you search.  This makes for easier reading of the columns!

In the taking of the 1880 census, if an individual was “defective, dependent or delinquent” they were enumerated on the regular population schedule. Then the census taker was required to enumerate the person on the supplemental schedule, too.

You want to look at that DDD supplemental schedule!

Langley Talbot of Halifax County, VA is one such indigent found on the 1880 supplemental schedule. In the 1880 population schedule, Langley is living in his son John Talbot’s household.  He was 84 years old and has not been able to work for 12 years.

Langley Talbott in 1880 census

Because Langley was being boarded at the public’s expense in his son’s home he was required to be listed on the supplemental pauper and indigent schedule.  [Previous research into John B Talbot showed John was not a man of means either.]

1880 DDD schedule

We also learn Langley Talbot was disabled due to “old age”.

[Langley Talbot is one of my more colorful ancestors. He descended from two wealthy Virginia families – the Talbot and Jennings families – and lost all of his part of the family money!]

If your ancestor was indigent or a pauper in 1880, he/she should be found on the population census. If you cannot find your ancestor on the regular population census and you suspect they may have been poor, check the supplemental schedule anyway.  Census takers were human and did make mistakes.

Take your research further.  If your ancestor appears on the pauper and indigent schedule, pursue records for the poor at the county level.  The county would have kept records for those citizens provided with county money.

Researching at a computer

Action steps for your research

  • Research what poor records exist in your ancestor’s location.
  • Create a research plan for using those records.
  • Determine if your ancestor appears on the 1880 Supplemental Schedule for the Poor & Indigent.
  • Share what you find in the comments below.

{Okay, that last one is optional, but I would love to hear what you find. }

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  • Nancy Wilson

    I never realized that there was a supplemental schedule for this. I had seen notations on the regular census like “pauper”, but the supplemental will tell a lot more about their situation. Thank you for this information.

  • Carol Yount

    Thank you so much for this blog! I have a great grandfather who was a warden of the poor but have found no info on it. Also a great great grandfather who was in the county home. I have found a few things on him but nothing about the poor house except it was listed on his death
    Certificate. This was in Rutherford county NC. So who would have the records of this? Also was wondering where they would bury an occupant of the county home? Did they have their own cemetery?

    • LisaL

      Carol, Often you find the poor records in the court records, but check with the county clerk’s office and ask how those were recorded for the time period you are interested in. The county home may or may not have had their own cemetery. Check with the Rutherford County county office that oversees cemeteries and see what they have on record.

      • Lisa Oakley

        Hi Lisa, I also have ancestors out of Granville Co, NC. and lo and behold the first two named on the list are two of my ancestors, Nancy Brinkley and Penny Oakley! Thank you for sharing this valuable information.


  • Patricia Indoe

    In Vermont, towns have a boards of elected selectmen. It was common that those individuals kept their own books in their homes and most have been lost. One was recently given to our historical society and I’ve been reading it. The payments for the overseer of the poor are most interesting. There will be a list of payment for upkeep and then a final one for a coffin. (I happen to live in the cabinet and coffin makers old house) There were also vender payments for food and firewood to help people in their own homes. We still elect an overseer of the poor.

    • LisaL

      Patricia, that must be fascinating reading. It is a shame so many have been lost, but the surviving ones are real treasures. Thanks for sharing this!

  • Shea Huey

    My maternal Harrison ancestors are from Virginia and Georgia. Some of them are related to the Talbot and Jennings families.

    My grandfather wrote of a Jennings fortune from an unmarried royal in England. It was never proven, as my grandfather expected, but it made for some interesting reading.

    Does any of this sound familiar? If so, I would love to explore!

    Thanks for your podcasts.

    Shea Huey

    • LisaL

      Shea, it does look like we are collateral relatives. I haven’t heard that story of the fortune, but I’m not really surprised. We’ll need to compare notes. Which line of the Talbots do you descend from?

  • Janelle Holmes

    You can also find inmates in mental hospital in the regular census. If you are lucky to find one of the Indigent, etc. schedules it will tell you more, like how many years, whether the patient has to be restrained, etc.
    My husband had a great-grandmother whose grandchildren thought she had died before they were born. Little did they know she was a patient at a State Hospital. And, on writing the hospital for records, all they could provide was a single card listing her date of admission, and cause (“depression”) and her date of death. The Death Certificate gave the wrong place of burial and we never have found her grave.

  • Judith Marie Loebel

    Not all **inmates**isted on Census records were criminals! I found a relative listed as such, at a very young age, in a. Unexpected location. The young boys parents had been killed in Mexico and he was being sent to relatives in NJ, who raised him. But he was in some Institution when the Census was conducted, before he was moved.


    Some counties posted expenditures, for the poor living with relatives, in their local newspapers. It didn’t list much – just the name and how much was paid to the relative who was also named. On my relative, it later listed a wife (we always thought he was single until he died). I looked for a marriage document but never found one. He was run over by a wagon as a child and couldn’t work so he always lived with relatives well into his old age. I often wonder if he married just to help the lady out as he and the lady were quite old.

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