with suggestion regarding the location of poorhouse records
(with specific references to Machias in Washington County)

by Clayton Spencer,  IBSSG   e-mail:   oldsofa@hotmail.com

     In Maine, until the mid 1970's the towns [rather than counties  PHL ] were responsible for the poor in their community. Originally, a poor person was helped by their families and neighbors. Occasionally, they would get help from the church, but this was very rare until after the Revolutionary War. Until then the churches were supported by town taxes.

     After the Revolution, the towns gradually took on the responsibility for the poor and infirm... which probably accounted for a large percentage of the poor. When someone became "poor" they were placed in various private homes. The person taking in the poor person would bid for them and the town paid the amount to them. For example, you might bid $1 a week and I bid 90. I would get the 90, but I was expected to provide for their necessities (somewhat similar to the arrangement in foster homes of today.) In return, they would work for me on my farm or business.

     An aside here, about 1810, there is the case where a resident of one town was found in another town. The town he was in tried to bill the town he came from for his support. The courts ruled that he was the responsibility of the town where he was found. [Note: This is in marked contrast to NY and most other states who, during this period, expended a great deal of time and money returning poor people to the town which was considered the place of their "legal settlement" or what we might call "legal residence" ... which was usually where they were born or had last paid taxes for a significant period of time. PHL ]  This principle held until the State of Maine took over the responsibility for the poor in the mid 1970's.

     Now, this arrangement of bidding out the poor to households for their support was fine as long as it dealt with an individual. When it came to a family of 10-12 people, nobody could/would take on that much responsibility. The towns were faced with a dilemma, either break up families or find an alternative. The solution was to provide a farm with a house where they would live. The residents of the "Poor Farm" would work the farm and the town would pick up the amount they could not provide. This was a better arrangement for everyone. It allowed families to stay together and was less expensive for the town.

     The problem with the Poor Farm concept was, what to do with the farm when not needed? If it was not used for a couple of years, the weeds and alders would reclaim the fields, and someone would still have to take care of the animals. Thus, the Poor Farm was abandoned for the "Poor House." This was more expensive when used, but less expensive in the long term. These Poor Houses continued to be used until after World War II.  [In Machias, the Poor House was discontinued when it burned in my lifetime.]

     The Poor House was replaced with the "Town Order" system. A person in need would go to the Town Office and ask the Overseer of the Poor for assistance. They would be issued a town voucher, a letter called a "Town Order." This letter could be redeemed at the specified merchant.

     As you have noticed, from the bidding process to the Town Order, it involved the expenditure of town funds. Every year the town had to make a report of its expenditures. This meant the listing of each individual who received any money from the town, not just a total amount for the support of the poor. In the month of  March, it was a popular form of entertainment to find out which of their neighbors were in the Town Report for being poor or delinquent in their taxes.

     The point of all of this is that these were official town records. As such they would have been maintained, providing they survived the fires of the 1890's. When I worked for the Town of Machias, I sorted these records for storage. The reason they have not been used by genealogists is, unlike the Vital Records which are separate from other records,  the researcher would have to sift through various other items to find these reports of the poor.

To see a good example of such poorhouse records from the Annual Town Meetings in Oxford County -- click here.
[Note: Unfortunately -- before states began to pass laws or regulations to preserve historic documents -- many poorhouse records (not the information mentioned above which can be found in annual town meeting reports, but the records kept by the supervisors or keepers of the poor farms or poorhouses) -- were considered merely the "personal effects" of those who held such responsibilities. As a result, those records have often been lost from the public domain. Indeed, recently such documents involving the poorhouse in Canton, Maine were up for auction on the on-line eBay site. Your state archives were unable to assist with their purchase.  PHL ]

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