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Pennsylvania’s colonial inmates

So earlier this week The Legal Genealogist set off to explore the use of the term “inmate” in U.S. census records.

The blog post began: “When is an inmate not an inmate? Or, more accurately, when is an inmate not the kind of inmate we might expect? Not, that is, a prisoner.” And the answer, of course, was “much of the time.”1

PaStatTurns out others had been thinking about the same thing at the same time! Reader Dana, who launched The Enthusiastic Genealogist blog earlier this year, had just posted about that just a bit more than a week earlier,2 and Harold Henderson, CG, had just published a short related piece related in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly that I finally had a chance to read yesterday.3

And no sooner had the blog post hit the website when a cousin, Mary Ann Thurmond4 responded that she was under the impression that the term had also been used, in a different way, in early Pennsylvania records.

And she’s absolutely right.

Pennsylvania first used the term in its 1724-1725 tax law, which required the constables to return lists of:

all and every the persons dwelling or residing within the limits of those townships or places with which they shall be charged, and the names of all freemen, inmates, hired servants and all other persons residing or sojourning in every of the said townships, together with an account of what tracts and parcels of land and tenements they respectively hold in such township…5

The term was new in that act; it hadn’t appeared in the earlier statute passed 22 February 1717-18.6 And the term meant “persons who lived in the house of someone else, sometimes in exchange for payment. They were not family members of the houseowner, nor were they guests or servants.”7

Lodgers would be inmates; boarders would be inmates;8 so too inmates were “heads of families who occupied cottages on the lands of landowners in return for their seasonal labor.”9

The term was gone from Pennsylvania’s law by 1795: it doesn’t appear in the statute passed that year or in any law thereafter.10

But it continued to be used in some tax lists even after 1795, so don’t be surprised to come across it later.

And be aware that even earlier, in England, the term was used to apply only to the poor. Inmates were:

Persons who are admitted to dwell with and in the house of another, and not able to maintain themselves. These inmates are generally idle persons harboured in cottages; wherein it hath been common for several families to inhabit, by which the poor of parishes have been increased; but suffering this was made an offence by statute… 11

There, at least, it did not apply to those who simply rented quarters: “If a person take another to table with him; or let certain rooms to one to dwell in, if he be of ability, and not poor, he is no inmate.”12

Inmates of all different stripes!

Who’d have thunk it?


  1. Judy G. Russell, “Of inmates and families,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 19 Aug 2014 ( : accessed 21 Aug 2014).
  2. Dana, “When is an Inmate Not a Prisoner?,” The Enthusiastic Genealogist, posted 11 Aug 2014 ( : accessed 21 Aug 2014).
  3. Harold Henderson, “Who’s In the Jailhouse Now?,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 102 (June 2014): 110.
  4. A real “we can identify the common ancestor” cousin. Honest-to-goodness no-foolin’ second cousin once removed, fellow descendant of our common ancestors Gustavus Boone Robertson and Isabella (Gentry) Robertson.
  5. Section IV, “An Act for Raising of County Rates and Levies,” 4 Pa. Statutes at Large 10, 13 (Harrisburg, Pa. : State Printer, 1897); digital images, Pennsylvania Legislative Reference Bureau ( : accessed 21 Aug 2014). Emphasis added.
  6. See “An Act for the More Effectual Raising (of) County Rates and Levies,” 3 Pa. Statutes at Large 175 et seq. (Harrisburg, Pa. : State Printer, 1896); digital images, Pennsylvania Legislative Reference Bureau ( : accessed 21 Aug 2014).
  7. Kenneth W. Keller and Lee Soltow, “Rural Pennsylvania in 1800: A Portrait From the Septennial Census,” 49 Pennsylvania History (Jan. 1982), 25-47; PDF, Pennsylvania History Archives ( : accessed 21 Aug 2014).
  8. See Karin Wulf, “Assessing Gender: Taxation and the Evaluation of Economic Viability in Late Colonial Philadelphia,” 64 Pennsylvania History (July 1997), 201-235; PDF, Pennsylvania History Archives ( : accessed 21 Aug 2014).
  9. Jack Marietta, “The Distribution of Wealth in Eighteenth-Century America: Nine Chester County Tax Lists, 1693-1799,” 62 Pennsylvania History (Oct. 1995), 532-545; PDF, Pennsylvania History Archives ( : accessed 21 Aug 2014).
  10. See “An Act to Regulate the Mode of Assessing and Collecting County Rates and Levies,” 15 Pa. Statutes at Large 322 et seq. (Harrisburg, Pa. : State Printer, 1911); digital images, Pennsylvania Legislative Reference Bureau ( : accessed 21 Aug 2014).
  11. T. E. Tomlins, editor, The Law-Dictionary : Explaining the Rise, Progress, and Present State, of the English Law… (London, England : p.p., 1729), vol. III, pp. 449-450, “Inmate”; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 21 Aug 2014).
  12. Ibid.
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