Rhode Island Poor Farm/Town Asylum Records

researched, prepared & submitted by Bob Sherman   bsherman@rihs.org   (Please see his letter.   PHL )
Probably the most important thing to understand about Rhode Island Poor Farm/Town Asylum Records is that the Colony and later State was created in bits and pieces and because of that several town and city boundaries have changed over time with some towns being created as late as the 1880s and 1890s.  In short, records are not always where you would think they would be.  Also, county designations are meaningless, other than when you are accessing the state’s judicial records.  City and town clerks would have kept the records; there are no county records.  Also, town and city records are notoriously incomplete precisely because the individual city and town clerks kept the records.  Early clerks kept records in their homes or businesses before there were any town halls and if there was a fire or they died unexpectedly the records might be lost.  For all that has been lost though, much material remains.
The best places to begin any search of Rhode Island Records are:

The Rhode Island Historical Society Library,
Manuscripts Division
121 Hope Street
Providence, RI 02906
(401) 331-8575

The Rhode Island State Archives
337 Westminster Street
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 222-2353

Both these repositories have extensive holdings covering all areas of Rhode Island and its history beginning in the 17th century.  The R.I. Historical Society Library is also one of the largest genealogical libraries in New England and its staff is very experienced and can be very helpful.

The Dexter Asylum

One of the largest single collections of Asylum records are those kept by the Rhode Island Historical Society (see above for address) of the Dexter Asylum that was located in Providence, Rhode Island.  The records cover the years 1828 to 1956 and fill 27 linear feet of shelf space. 

The Dexter Asylum served as the city’s institution for the care of the poor, aged and mentally ill.

Note:  I have previously been totally stymied in my attempts to collect information about Rhode Island's poorhouses simply because I did not understand the multi-purpose nature of the institutions in the state. Nowhere else in my research have I encountered the term "asylum" referring to anything except a facility for the mentally ill -- not the poor. (Because the mentally ill people were usually segregated within poorhouses, poorhouse complexes often included a building called an asylum; but the overall poorhouse facility was almost never referred to with asylum in the proper name for the poorhouse.) I did not realize that institutions called asylums could be poorhouses also. Thanks, Bob!        PHL

It began through a bequest of Mr. Ebenezer Knight Dexter (1773-1824).  The Asylum’s population fluctuated greatly but from the 1870s until its closing it was kept at around 100 inmates.  Quoting from the R.I. Historical Society’s finding aid “The collection consists primarily of business records kept by the management of the Dexter Asylum property.  The bulk of the material is in bound volumes and the dates range from 1828-1956, while most of the collection falls between the 1850s to the 1920s.  The volumes detail sales of farm products, purchases of groceries and other supplies, cost of repairs, bills owed and paid and other transactions.

           However ...

A substantial body of records deals with inmates at the asylum.  Bound volumes and index cards list inmates from 1828-1955 and provide basic statistical information; other records covering limited periods of time concentrate on specific activities or areas of inmate life- for example, work records, physicians’ records, and permits to leave the asylum.”

Also in the R.I. Historical Society Manuscripts Collection:
Portsmouth, R.I. Records including lists of inmates, 1849-1882.
Cranston, R.I. Overseer of the Poor Account Books, 1749-1822 in Wm. Barton Papers

Poor Farm Records in Cranston Town Papers, 1780-1925.
Exeter, R.I. Poor Farm Records in Town Papers, 1740-1869

Listing of Poor Farm/Town Asylum/Town Farm records in Rhode Island Cities and Towns
(from a survey of records done by the Rhode Island Secretary of State, 1991)

Coventry Town Clerk
1670 Flat River Rd.
Coventry, RI 02816
(401) 821-6400

Property Book of Town Asylum, 1854-1887

Cumberland Town Clerk
45 Broad Street
Cumberland, RI 02864
(401) 728-2400

Overseer of the Poor Receipts & Correspondence, 1909-1924

East Greenwich Town Clerk
(401) 886-8607

Books of Indentures, 1741-1755

Foster Town Clerk
181 Howard Hill Rd.
Foster, RI 02825
(401) 392-9200

Account Book for Asylum, 1917-1920                                         Superintendent of Asylum, 1900-1917

Hopkinton Town Clerk
1 Townhouse Rd.
Hopkinton, RI 02833
(401) 377-7777

Town Farm/Asylum 1863-1945

Little Compton Town Clerk
P.O. Box 226
Little Compton, RI 02837
(401) 635-4529

Town Asylum Records, 1848-1882

North Kingstown Town Clerk
80 Boston Neck Rd.
North Kingstown, RI 02852
(401) 294-3331

 Town Asylum Papers, 1899-1922

South Kingstown Town Clerk
180 High Street
Wakefield, RI 02880
(401) 789-9331

 Town Farm Accounts, 1851-1917

Tiverton Town Clerk
343 Highland Rd.
Tiverton, RI 02878
(401) 625-6700

Overseer of the Poor Records, 1822-1886

Newport City Clerk
43 Broadway
Newport, RI 02840
(401) 846-9600

City Asylum, 1884-1913
& City Asylum Records, 1884-1913


In Newport you should also contact: 
The Newport Historical Society
82 Touro Street
Newport, RI 02840
(401) 846-0813 
Much of the Newport’s early records are kept there and they have extensive holdings in the Colonial era.

Note (for people doing more general research):
One other repository that could be helpful but would not hold poor farm/town asylum records is the State Judicial Archives.  They hold court records that date back to the beginning of the colony in 1636 and would also include such things as petitions, adoptions, divorces, etc

Rhode Island Judicial Archives
One Hill Street
Pawtucket, RI 02860
(401) 222-3249

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