Check the poorhouse records

The poor, it is said, are always with us.

Except when the records say they’re not.

At least on an individual basis, sometimes the records tell us just what happened to a person who was down on his or her luck and ended up for a time on the public dole.

Or, in Johnson County, Kansas, where The Legal Genealogist will be speaking tomorrow at the 2018 Annual Seminar of the Johnson County Genealogical Society in Overland Park, when they ended up for a time in the poorhouse.

Johnson Poorhouse

The reality for many of the very poorest members of society for many years was that they were subject to being placed–sometimes involuntarily–in warehousing and workhouse facilities variously called poorhouses, almshouses and/or poor farms. Persons who may have been in such institutions at one point or another in their lives included, but weren’t limited to, the homeless, destitute families, victims of violence, unwed mothers, orphans, the elderly, injured workers, the unemployed, the handicapped and those too ill to care for themselves or to earn a living.

That certainly was the case in Johnson County — and throughout Kansas — under a provision of the 1860 Kansas Constitution that each county “provide, as may be prescribed by law, for those inhabitants who, by reason of age, infirmity or other misfortune, may have claims upon sympathy and aid of society.”1

Johnson County had one of the earliest poor farms, or poorhouses, in Kansas, opening its doors in the 1860s,2 but its available records really begin in the mid-1880s. Microfilmed, available at the Kansas Historical Society and at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, the records of the poor tell us what happened to those who didn’t want to come to the poor house and to those who didn’t stay, whether they wanted to or not.

They tell us, for example, that:

• Mary Busby, age 45, and Arthur Busby, age 7, arrived at the poor farm on September 28, 1887. Arthur was bound out: placed involuntarily in someone else’s home.3

• W. Reed, age 27, came in on November 30, 1887, and left of his own account on December 6, and, the notation in the remarks column reads: “Stole the county razor.”4

• That same quarter, if the record can be believed, Lucy Washington died at the poor farm at the age of 117.5

• James Stevenson, age unstated, came in on February 8, 1888, and ran away on March 8th.6

• In the fall of 1888, J. H. Gentry, age unstated, spent 52 days at the facility before being sent to the children’s home in Leavenworth.7

• Sophia Ewing and three children — Irena, Edna and Bird — spent 71 days there in 1889 before going to Argentine with Sophia’s husband.8 That’s Argentine, Kansas, by the way, in Wyandotte County, not Argentina as in South America.

• 57-year-old Luther Hale came in on May 27, 1891, but spent only seven days there before he was discharged by order of the county commissioner.9

• William McDonald of Monticello Township, a Pennsylvania native, was in the records with the notation “always been on board” in 1890, and died there on the first of January 1893. The remarks column read: “Wm. McDonald died Jan 1 of old age. Suposed to be about 90 years of age. Was burred in the Olathe Cemetry January 2nd 1893”.10

• Lottie Ryan of Oxford, Kansas, was 15 when she arrived on May 19, 1893, and ran away on July 6th.11

• John Frederick Hauffman, age 42, of Shawnee, a native of Baden, Germany, was only in the poor farm for 10 days–from October 4, 1893, to October 14. The remarks column read: “John came with ague & feavor, John took the road Oct 14 — 93.”12

Note these are often not digitized and have to be consulted in microfilm or text format. But they’re worth every bit of the effort.

Just consider what they contain: Names. Ages. Towns where they’d been living. Birthplaces. Dates of arrival. Dates of departure or death. Causes of death. Illnesses. And more.

These are truly amazing records and, whether in Johnson County, elsewhere in Kansas or anywhere else in the country or the world, wherever they can be found should be prized by the researcher.

Check ’em out.


  1. Article VII, §4, Kansas Constitution of 1860, text version, Kansas Memory, Kansas Historical Society ( : accessed 25 Oct 2018).
  2. See Marilyn Irvin Holt, “‘Over the Hill to the Poorhouse’: Kansas Poor Relief,” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 39 (Spring 2016): 2-15; PDF, Kansas Historical Society ( : accessed 25 Oct 2018).
  3. Johnson County, Kansas, Record for Poor House, For Quarter Ending October 1st 1887, “Poor house (later a nursing home) records, 1885-1944,” Family History Library microfilm 1561512, Salt Lake City, citing Johnson County Historical Museum, Shawnee, Kansas.
  4. Ibid., Record for Poor House, For Quarter Ending Dec. 31 1887.
  5. Ibid., Record for Poor House, For Quarter Ending Dec. 31 1887.
  6. Ibid., Record for Poor House, For Quarter Ending March 31st 1888.
  7. Ibid., Record for Poor House, For Quarter Ending Sept. 30, 1888.
  8. Ibid., Record for Poor House, For Quarter Ending June 30, 1889.
  9. Ibid., Record for Poor House, For Quarter Ending June 30 1891.
  10. Ibid., Record for Poor House, For Quarter Ending Jan. 1 1893.
  11. Ibid., Record for Poor House, For Quarter Ending “June 31 1893.”
  12. Ibid., Record for Poor House, For Quarter Ending October 1st 1887.
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