Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Poor, Insane, & Abandoned (PIA)


Fulton, MO Insane Asylum
White Inmates (1863); Colored Inmates (1865)

Researching Poor Farms, Home for the Friendless, and Asylums
They came to America and they were poor.  Or, she was divorced, deserted, and penniless. What about the children? A client mentioned today “I know they had almshouses, poor houses, and insane asylums in New York and in the eastern states. She continued, “I’ve heard about them in the south too like in South Carolina and even in Virginia.”But,” she said, “they didn’t exist in the Midwest. We took care of our own.”

Double Take…WHAAT!?!!? What history is that? Although true, NY was stuffed full of benevolent societies, poor farms, the Home for the Friendless, asylums and almshouses, but these havens for the paupers and homeless cross America from NY to Oregon. The Midwest too had them to house and hopefully protect, feed and care for our ancestors. Many of the buildings still stand. Have you checked the history of that old jailhouse or workhouse in your ancestor's county? Let’s explore how to find your PIA ancestral records.  Yes, PIA is coined by a3Genealogy - Poor, Insane, and Abandoned.

Where Did They Go and Who Supported Them?
For today we are only going to tackle Asylums, Poor Farms and Home for the Friendless. For additional information you may wish to review Orphanages, Almshouses and Researching Institutionalized Ancestor Records

State Asylums for the Insane

Most asylums were state run, but others, like today, were ran by religious groups or private benevolent groups. Asylums weren't just for adults. Many took in children. In Chicago, Illinois there was a Catholic Orphan Asylum as early as 1849, and a Jewish Orphan Society in the 1890’s. Other groups also took in children. 

Many county almshouses across America had a “colored” ward.  Most often this ward was in the same building, but housing and care was segregated. 

In Missouri the Fulton Insane Asylum, (one of four), began caring for colored inmates as early as 1865, within a few years after its opening. These Asylum records are still held at the facility.

Knowing how to obtain the records can be tricky. In Missouri, ancestral patient records may require a written request through the court. Like Missouri, the need to conduct family history research and genealogy is most often accepted as a reason to obtain ancestral patient records. I've also had great luck in other states like Pennsylvania. An alternative is to review the County Court Minutes, County Clerk Records, or those of the County Registrar. 

Poor Farm
A poor farm may be known by many words: poorhouse, poor asylum, county farm, county infirmary, or the county home. Indiana, Switzerland County had a Poorhouse in 1832. Benton County Arkansas had one of the early state poorhouses, 1858. The idea was to make every county responsible for their own paupers and “misfits.” 

Be sure to check online databases and resources. The Multnomah Oregon County Farm records can be found digitized on Other’s may be held within State Archives or within the former facility.

Home for the Friendless 
The oldest Home for the Friendless in the USA known to the a3Genealogy crew is New York’s 1847. This Home for the Friendless was constructed by the American Female Guardian Society. 

In St. Louis Missouri Charlotte Charless established a Home of the Friendless in 1853. This Home offered relief for elderly women, widows, and destitute women.

Remember, there were also Home for the Friendless who took in children in the 19th century.St. Paul, MN had a Home for the friendless that sheltered women and children as early as 1867.

14 Sources to Ancestral PIA Documents
Again, we don’t want the researcher to forget the women. So here’s a hint. Your female ancestor may be found under convent care. The a3Genealogy team recently found a Swedish ancestor ensconced in an Illinois Catholic convent. She was determined insane by the court.

Remember your research must cover both county and state repositories and records to uncover these ancestors. It's not an easy search, but it can be quite rewarding. 

1. County Court Minutes

8. Guardian Records

2. State Archives

9. State Historical Societies

3. Deed Books

10. Church Records

4. Death Certificates

11. Benevolent Society Records

5. Warrants

12. Hospital Records

6. Divorce Records

13. Wills

7. Newspapers

14. Convent Records

Be Historically Correct  

Kathleen Brandt 


  1. To judge by county histories and newspaper articles of the late 1800s, some counties in the Midwest were quite proud of their poor houses and county children's homes and residential schools. It's hard to know whether the residents of the institutions agreed with those opinions, but there were tax funds set aside for the purpose, and county officials oversaw them.

    1. Exactly. All of that can be uncovered in the court records. And newspapers usually printed the county official responsible for setting the funds aside and the amount. And no, not all the residents would have agreed, as one will see with the Haskell Institute in Lawrence where the purpose was for assimilation against their will!