WARDENS OF THE POOR
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.
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
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.
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
well as the births of illegitimate children. Aid might be given as cash
payments, provisions of food or clothing, or payment of medical or
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.