WARDENS OF THE POOR

Care of the poor, infirm, aged, mentally or physically handicapped, and other unfortunates was the responsibility of county Wardens of the Poor from 1777 until 1917. The Wardens inherited their functions and name from the church wardens and vestries of colonial times. They were occasionally called Overseers of the Poor. They received and disbursed monies for poor relief, determined what persons were entitled to public assistance, and supervised the operation of institutions for the poor.

From 1777 to 1868 each county had seven Wardens of the Poor, elected by the voters until 1846 and appointed by the County Courts thereafter. In 1868 the Boards of County Commissioners became ex officio Wardens, retaining the duties until the creation of Boards of Public Welfare in 1917.

Persons receiving assistance were often called paupers and sometimes pensioners. Some of them were housed in county homes, poor houses, or poor farms. Those who remained in their own homes were called the "outside" or "out‑of‑doors" poor. Inmates of poor houses were expected to make them­selves useful if possible, although persons eligible to reside in such institutions were probably in a very bad way, and their labor could be let out to the lowest bidder or commanded by the keeper of the house. Paupers might often have been ill‑fed, ill‑housed, and ill‑used, but they were ex­pected to remain in their own counties, not to travel about seeking a more comfortable poor house or a less severe master in counties they had never supported by taxes. However, Wardens could arrange to send them to the care of relatives in other counties or states. Much assistance was rendered by private citizens, some of whom received subsidies or reimbursement from the public treasury.

Most of the work of Wardens of the Poor is noted in the minutes of their meetings. These volumes show dates and places of meetings, names of Wardens present, names of persons receiving aid, amounts of aid, reasons for aid, receipts of funds, appointments of keepers of poor houses and of at­tending physicians, acquisition of food and clothing, orders for construc­tion or repair of buildings, and other things. Such items as payments to a parent for care of a blind child or to a child for a decrepit parent reveal family relationships; whole families of paupers may also be named. Deaths of paupers are sometimes mentioned, as well as the births of illegitimate children. Aid might be given as cash payments, provisions of food or clothing, or payment of medical or burial expenses.

Minutes and miscellaneous loose papers of the Wardens and of the poor houses may be filed in the offices of Clerks of Superior Court and Regis­ters of Deeds; the latter official is more likely to have post‑1868 records. Many are in the State Archives. County accounts, County Court minutes, County Commissioners' minutes, and tax records offer supplementary informa­tion. A few records of the colonial vestries may also be found.

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