In October 1829, the seven members of the Trent family, of Amelia County, faced a dire situation. “Destitute of a house to live in” and lacking “all provision for support,” Polly Trent, her daughters Polly, Harriet, and Nancy, and three grandchildren were “encampted in the woods and suffering.” To help the unfortunate Trents, the county directed the keeper of the poorhouse to “cause them immediately to be removed to the poor house and provide for them as other paupers,” wrote the county clerk. There the women and children found beds, food, clothing, and a roof over their heads. Virginia’s most intractable and long-standing social problem, aside from race relations, has been the question of how to treat its neediest citizens. From its earliest years, the commonwealth’s attitudes toward and treatment of the poor—a category that also encompassed the sick, the lame, the dying, the aged, and the mentally incapacitated—have varied from place to place and time to time, as a look at official records such as meeting minutes, auditors’ reports, and laws will show. However, rarely do we know how these impoverished Virginians themselves felt about their situation.
It took only a short time before Virginia’s colonial legislators thought it necessary to implement poor laws. British law governed the colony, and Virginia’s original legislation mirrored that of the mother country. A mere thirty-six years after arrival at Jamestown, in 1643, legislators passed a law “for the releife of the diverse poore people that . . . are disabled to labor by reason of sicknes, lamenes or age.” The relief was small, to be sure: those who obtained a certificate “to testifie their poverty” were relieved of paying some of their taxes. However, the colony expected all to contribute to the local minister’s salary and parish duties. No real controversy accompanied the act, for burgesses merely were following established, well-known law.
From 1643 until the Revolution, the General Assembly struggled with the problem presented by an ever-increasing number of poor people. Its solutions became ever more harsh in an effort to legislate poverty and paupers away from the colony. In 1646, the House of Burgesses authorized county commissioners to send poor children to live and work in flaxhouses, where they would perform “carding, knitting and spinning.” In 1727, the burgesses attacked the “idle” with sharp language: “divers idle and disorderly persons having no visible estates or emploiments . . . frequently strole from one county to another, neglecting to labor,” and “shall be adjudged and deemed rogues and vagabonds.” Those deemed “of such ill repute” that no one would hire them could receive thirty lashes. Finally, in 1755, responding to complaints from the vestry, minister, and churchwardens of Bruton Parish, the burgesses established poorhouses and workhouses in the colony’s cities and parishes. Furthermore, they decreed that every person who received relief from the parish or was sent to a poorhouse “shall, upon the shoulder . . . in an open and visible manner, wear a badge . . . cut either in blue, red, or green cloth.” Anyone who refused to wear the badge could suffer five lashes or forfeit the parish allowance.
Although the colony left the decision whether to build a poorhouse to individual parishes, the burgesses hoped they would. Some cities and counties did, but most did not. Instead, churchwardens continued to aid paupers in their parishes by giving them cash, in-kind aid such as clothing and provisions, or grants of tobacco that they, in turn, might sell. Nonetheless, Virginia had sown the seeds for stricter legal treatment. Whether those seeds would bear fruit was up to the individual localities.
After the Revolution and the disestablishment of the Anglican church, the General Assembly ceded complete control of the poor to localities. Local, elected boards, called overseers of the poor, began to make policy, levy poor taxes, distribute public money, and deal with the underprivileged as they thought best. Many of the colonial laws remained on the books. Local overseers, left to their own devices and free to accept or reject the strictures of the General Assembly, produced an interesting and arresting array of plans and programs.
In 1829, the legislature required the overseers of the poor in all counties and cities to report annually to the state auditor on how they dealt with the indigent residents in their respective districts. Fifty-nine counties and two towns had poor houses, whereas forty-three counties and one town had none. Why such a widely divergent approach? The clerk of the board of overseers in Prince Edward County made the conflicts clear: “I approve of the poor or work house System, as being a saving of expense,” he wrote. “But . . . it excludes a number of worthy poor, who could with small aid from the public, make out very well from their own exertions on their little farms, most of whom are excluded from any aid from the public, unless they will consent & go to live at the poor or work house.” More than a few county overseers thought the same way, possessing a wide range of attitudes—which often changed quickly—toward Virginia’s poorest citizens.
In 1820, the president of the Richmond board of overseers, Robert Greenhow, illustrated one set of attitudes when he lectured new members of the board on their responsibilities. “The Trust imposed on us, is indeed an important one,” he said. “We are the constituted almoners of the City; we are the nominated guardians, friends and protectors of the destitute & forlorn, the Widow & the Orphan, & we are invested with the power of administering to their necessities as . . . the applicants for relief, in our opinion deserve.” Greenhow also cautioned the new overseers about “thickly coloured deceptive tales of woe, painting in dolorous terms the wants and deprivations of the solicitor, [which] your ears will be frequently assailed with and every means to excite your sympathy will be practised. Fallacious too often these have been proved to be. You must turn a deaf Ear to them; and proceed to investigate them.”
Powhatan and King William Counties had their own standards. Each built poorhouses prior to 1829, only to close them within a few years. In Warwick County, forty-seven men voted to use the money acquired from the sale of the church’s lands to fund education for impoverished children and to help lessen the overall annual poor tax, but only one man voted to build a poorhouse, which antebellum Warwick never built. Other counties did build poorhouses, but also supplied what they called outdoor relief, cash, or in-kind assistance, which allowed people to survive outside of the poorhouse and afforded them some measure of self-determination and freedom if they desired.
Some cities and counties, though, hoped to drive paupers off the relief rolls by following the British practice of less-eligibility, which insisted that people go to poorhouses or work farms to receive any public assistance. In some cases, this attitude led to ridiculous expenditures. Between 1840 and 1842, the overseers of the poor for Kanawha County built a facility that housed no one, yet in 1842 the parish levy of $1,978.97 included payments for clearing the land, setting up the facility, and settling earlier accounts. Others, like Rockbridge County, built poorhouses due to a peculiar circumstance and time—to accommodate paupers who gravitated to Rockbridge from nearby Botetourt and Augusta Counties, which had such facilities, in order to remain free and to avoid the ignominy of institutional life. In the wake of the Panic of 1819, when state banks closed and the Bank of the United States foreclosed on western land, the Rockbridge overseers noticed a “daily increase in the number of paupers owing to the hardness of the times,” and in some cases felt “obliged to support the strolling paupers from Bottetourt and Augusta.”
Caroline County overseers insisted that recipients of aid go to the poor farm. To cut expenses even further, they began privatizing relief in the 1840s, each year leasing the farm and the care of its residents to the lowest bidder. Washington County made the same private arrangements for its poor farm, renting out the facility and the care of its residents as early as 1828.
Many counties and towns neither built a poorhouse nor offered relief to paupers outside of an existing institution. More often than not, any relief given was meager. The needy citizens who lived on their own and received a bit of aid from the county, town, or city often survived only with the help of a network of family and friends, whom the overseers of the poor might reimburse. Religious agencies in cities and churches offered only limited, ancillary relief, if they offered any at all. Ministers of all denominations seemed to care more about spiritual poverty than temporal poverty and often categorized poor people as evil, sinful, vicious, depraved, and idle. After disestablishment and during the antebellum era, churches gave little aid to the indigent, especially in rural areas, either for doctrinal reasons or due to their own straitened circumstances. Moreover, aid societies of any type were limited almost exclusively to the largest cities—Richmond, Petersburg, Norfolk, and Alexandria. Hence, the care of the underprivileged fell almost exclusively to the overseers of the poor.
Regardless of the locale and the attitudes toward their own destitute residents, cities and counties did not welcome beggars from other places. While the state expected communities to support their own down-and-out citizens, they did not expect them to take care of other communities’ indigents. Colonial laws dealing with the “strolling paupers” and street beggars were maintained throughout the antebellum era, allowing the overseers of Washington County in 1828 to order that Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Overly, who hailed from Sullivan County, Tennessee, leave the local poorhouse and be returned to Tennessee. In 1813, the overseers for Augusta County sent Ann Craig, “a poor free woman of colour,” back to Botetourt County, and asked their counterparts there to reimburse Augusta for her care. Similarly, in 1847, Gloucester’s equivalent of overseers, the trustees of the Gloucester Charity School, billed the overseers of King and Queen County for $27.48, “being the sum paid . . . to James H. Jones Jailor . . . for provisions and Clothing of Negro Woman Charlotte a pauper properly belonging to King & Queen.” In 1820, in Richmond, Robert Greenhow, president of the board of overseers, instructed new overseers who found a homeless pauper to “immediately apprise the police master of it; who will take the measures prescribed by law, to free the City from their expence, by removal to the place from whence they last came.” Greenhow further urged, “Use every effort in your power to put a stop to public street beggars; arrest them where & whenever you meet them; if they are nonresidents, advise them, immediately to depart, or they will be regarded as vagrants; if residents and without shelter, send them to the poor house.” For proper residents of the city, however, care was usually forthcoming.
Virginians caring for indigent friends, neighbors, and family often petitioned their communities for help. In 1782, Sarah Turner, of Staunton, “humbly begg[ed]” the overseers “that your Worships will . . . allow me What your Worships think proper” for the care of her neighbor, the dying Sarah Price. “[H]er disorder was such as is not prudent for a Woman to Mention and her smell was such as no person could bear the Room,” said Turner. “I attended her almost two Weeks. I got her grave digged washed her Laid her out & attended her till buried.” In 1792, Alex Nelson, also of Staunton, relayed a plea from Robert Steven, who, “Tho his extreme Modesty has hitherto prevented him from complaining,” said Nelson, possessed “peculiar circumstances” that called “on all feelings of humanity to interpose without delay for his relief.”
While residents of Augusta County were quick to intercede for friends and neighbors in need, they were equally fast to protest when the same friends and neighbors betrayed that trust. In 1793, when Thomas Staunton was unable to “procure a living by Reason of the infirmness of his Wife,” his friends petitioned the overseers on his behalf. Soon, however, the same friends informed the overseers that the Stauntons’ “inability is removed . . . and the indulgance given them by the parrish only serves to anable them to Debach themselves with liquer and be troubelsom to their neighbours.” Their debauchery must have been impressive, for twenty-five people signed the complaint.
Some destitute people, like Steven and the Stauntons, and those in counties such as Lancaster and Warwick, received cash payments from the overseers. For most people, however, relief came in the form of poor notes (the equivalent of food stamps) or through in-kind payments of goods and orders to store-owners for goods with the promise of reimbursement. Ostensibly, these methods provided more efficient use of taxpayers’ money and prevented people from squandering their relief. Recipients redeemed poor notes for needed goods with local merchants, who would in turn bill the county through the overseers. Wary of profligate recipients like the Stauntons, the Augusta County overseers modified their relief system so as “to guard against . . . improvidence . . . [We] rarely pay them any money,” they decreed, “but furnish them with articles of first necessity as they are needed which they purchase on the best terms practicable.” In 1807, William Patrick, one of the Augusta County overseers, duly instructed a store-owner named Whealand to “let Charles Wallace have nineteen Dollars out of your Store as it will suit Best to answer his needs in proportions By the month and you shall be paid out of Next years funds.”
Poor notes and cash were rarely enough to live on, and recipients of relief had to be quite careful spending their meager sums. Thus, when Lancaster County’s overseers, who generally helped all in need, gave John Night a note for ten dollars, he used it only for necessities such as medicine, food, and clothing. When the same overseers gave Stephen Chilton eight dollars in cash to help care for his youngest child, it is doubtful he was frivolous with it. Both Night’s ten dollars and Chilton’s eight were all that they would receive for the year. Spending the money on debauchery, as did the Stauntons, of Augusta County, seems to have been the exception rather than the rule.
Overseers of the poor were not overly magnanimous. The amounts of money they gave to recipients were the same—or less—than many slaveholders set aside to maintain each of their slaves for a year. Throughout Virginia, payments to parents (overwhelmingly women) for each needy child averaged around eight dollars per year, while adults might receive anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five dollars. Overseers sometimes made higher allowances, but only in unusual cases, such as for the disabled or mentally ill.
While some counties, like Augusta, often gave only in-kind aid, relief of any sort was always welcome. Recipients attached little shame to receiving help, for often it was only temporary. Most recipients spent less than three to five years on the poor rolls. In 1787, Elizabeth Young felt no qualms about asking for help from Augusta County: “I would be glad to go on the Parish,” she told the overseers. “I am so sick I am not able to Work for any liveing. If you will give me some cloaths soon as I get well I will go in the country & try for a Liveing.” However a locality chose to pay outdoor relief, either with clothing, in-kind aid, or a poor note, the allowances permitted those who so desired to remain on their own, with their families, or with friends.
On the other hand, localities mainly interested in control of their destitute residents and in keeping taxes low built poorhouses, workhouses, and poor farms. Sometimes, as in 1840s Kanawha County and its vacant poorhouse, such measures did not work out. Counties that thought the poorhouse would save money often found out the reverse was true. To other localities, however, a poorhouse seemed ideal. In 1823, Chesterfield County wanted to expand the poorhouse and add a workhouse to accommodate women who had children out of wedlock. The overseers asserted that, rather than seek honest work, “a woman who has once had a bastard child considers herself dishonored & disgraced [and] . . . looks for consolation in the brothels and tipling houses.” They wanted to erect a workhouse to “give employment to these unfortunate women, (with a view of reformation).”
Officials in other localities had an even harsher view, perhaps to deal with harsher realities. The cities of Richmond and Norfolk, anxious to keep poor people off the streets or out of the cities altogether, built poorhouses that demanded strict adherence to rules and diligent performance of work, and meted out penalties for any disobedience. Richmond’s overseers based the operation and the physical configuration of its facility on the state penitentiary (which had opened in Richmond in 1800), frankly calling the poorhouse in 1811 a “a work-house, or House of correction for the safe keeping, employment & reformation for the Idle and dissolute.”
That same year, the Richmond overseers also decided to devote two rooms on the fourth floor of the poorhouse (the largest building in the city save the Capitol and the penitentiary) to “solitary rooms of confinement” for residents who had broken the rules of conduct. The overseers recommended that grates and latticework of iron or venetian blinds be “plac’d on the outside of the building, so as to admit air, and partially to obstruct the light, preventing those therein confined from amusing themselves with passing objects, and thereby induce them to exercise their minds on their former conduct, which may eventuate in their reformation.”
The residents of the Richmond poorhouse had to rise at dawn and report promptly to their work assignments. They had to “immediately obey” the keeper and “apply themselves to the best of their skill and ability,” according to an 1811 report. During visits with spouses and meals, people must respect “the order and quiet of the House.” On Sundays, inmates of “good character” could attend church but had to return before dinner. Such infractions as elopement, theft, resisting the keeper, drunkenness, use of obscenity, and “disorderly behaviour” brought swift punishment—solitary confinement for twenty-four hours with either half rations or bread and water, five to ten lashes, or expulsion. Conditions in the Norfolk poorhouse differed little from those in Richmond. Violations of regulations might bring “lashes, half rations or bread and water,” prescribed the Norfolk ordinance, or “withholding meals . . . or the ball and chain.”
Difficult conditions in poorhouses extended outside city limits. In late November 1827, at the poorhouse in Washington County, in far southwestern Virginia, inspectors found a Mrs. Wilkinson, “a poor person . . . almost naked.” A month later, overseers found conditions no better, as the steward had failed to provide the residents with “suitable cloathing, or to keep them clean according to the tenor of his contract, but on the contrary has permitted the helpless to remain in filth to a shameful degree.” Yet in the interests of control and discipline, Washington County insisted that “the Steward . . . may by way of discipline for idleness or misbehavior impose restraints by confinement [although] the rod is to be resorted to only in the moderate correction of such persons as are under the age of fourteen.”
In rural areas, the shame of being forced into a poor farm may well have been exacerbated by its resemblance to a plantation, both in its physical appearance and in the enforced labor of its residents. In fact, in many counties, old slaves who had no one to care for them often found themselves in poorhouses alongside poor free whites. Henrico County considered building eight wooden houses that measured just fourteen by sixteen feet each—the size and construction of many plantation slave quarters. Tellingly, the keeper’s house was to be considerably larger, a comfortable and purposefully more imposing eighteen by thirty-six feet. When Washington County took over a plantation in 1827 to serve as the poor farm, the overseers allowed the steward to use the plantation, the house, the kitchen, and the smokehouse, but they left the cabins “for the habitation of the poor.” Some rural facilities segregated black and white residents, but many localities were unwilling to spend extra money to keep blacks and whites separate, perhaps lending further shame to poor whites who considered such an arrangement improper.
Overseers of the poor expected the physically able inhabitants of poorhouses and poor farms to work. Men, regardless of race, cut timber, did small mechanical work, and farmed, although the task of raising crops most often fell to slaves hired for the purpose. White women spun or sewed, and black women generally were assigned the cooking. Although women made some garments for their fellow residents, the local merchants, cobblers, seamstresses, and storekeepers usually kept the poorhouse provisioned and its residents clothed. Counties and overseers always hoped to sell the products of the farm at a profit and thus make the facility self-sustaining. However, the majority of poorhouse residents were “unable to labor,” in the phrase of the day, and few if any counties realized the desired goal of self-sufficiency.
Especially in rural areas, the poorest of Virginians, the elderly, the sick, the dying, and the mentally disabled lived in institutions for the indigent. In 1830, Josiah Cawthorn, of Augusta County, transported “old Misses Wylie to the porehouse it was a grate deal of truble and she stunk for she had durtled her cloes,” Cawthorn told the overseers. “More than that she was helpless and I had to help her up and down: and she was very hevvy aboute two hundred weat to lift up and down.” In 1829, the president of the Richmond overseers, Robert Greenhow, described the city’s poorhouse as the de facto “City Hospital” in view of the necessary—and expensive—medical care that it provided.
In Shenandoah County in the 1820s, about half of the poorhouse residents were over sixty-five and, according to the steward, many suffered from “lameness,” “palsey,” epilepsy, or insanity, or were a “lunatic.” In 1832, Caroline County housed Polly Ellet, Patsy Toombs, Sooky Frawner, Betsy Lord, and Sooky Samuel, calling each an “Ediot”; Dafney and Winey, two “old negro wom[e]n”; William Cowen, an “afflicted boy”; and thirty children with their mothers, as well as three orphaned children under age eight. Warren County’s poorhouse had eleven residents in 1854: Sally and Rachel Cain, both “aged,” the latter mentally disabled; six members of the Parnell family, aged eighty-five, forty-two, thirty-five, six, three, and seven months; and Patrick Halahan, also mentally incapacitated.
Of twenty-nine residents of the poorhouse in Fauquier County in 1816, eight were over the age of sixty-five and eight were twelve and under. All except the children had some physical or mental incapacity: Nancy McCormack, only twenty years old, was deaf and mute; George Arnold, aged sixty, was insane; Elizabeth Sharpless, forty, had a broken wrist; Will Smith, a free man of color, was only thirty but suffered from “white swelling”; and Elizabeth Smith, age twenty-four, was pregnant. The overseers obtained little or no labor from poor souls such as these. There were, of course, exceptions, as in Rockbridge County in 1852: “cripple” Jacob Walters chopped wood on 100 days; Sarah Welch, “afflicted,” performed twenty-five days of housekeeping; and the “weakly” Lucy Moore spun fifty days’ worth of yarn.
Poverty-stricken Virginians forced into poorhouses in large urban areas like Richmond or Norfolk faced the harshest lives of people confined almost anywhere save the penitentiary. After the overseers toured the Richmond poorhouse in 1823, they found the air in the men’s sickroom, where some inmates suffered from “bowel complaints,” so foul that they ordered tar burned “to remove the offensive smell.” The crowded conditions exacerbated the spread of diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis, and, in 1824, measles. The city’s mentally ill and disabled residents who were unable to work often found themselves shunted to the poorhouse if no one would care for them. For instance, Richmond’s overseers found it necessary to care for Sally Pollard, a woman “at times deranged,” they said, because “there was no room in the Lun[ati]c Hospital.”
In rural areas, many of the disabled and mentally ill citizens fared no better than their urban counterparts. Even though strides had been made in their treatment as physicians began to recognize mental illness as a treatable disease, many people still found refuge only in the poorhouse or in the local jail because, prior to the construction of a facility in Staunton in 1828, the state had only one asylum, in Williamsburg. Hence, in 1820, Fauquier County’s overseers decided to bring to court “the case of Becca an insane negro woman now in jail” to see what might be done for and about her. In Washington County, the overseers allotted William Wallis three dollars “for keeping Dorcas Moss a poor crazy woman nine days & for bringing her to jail.” After 1841, many of the insane poor remained in poorhouses or jails because of either the distance from the facilities or a lack of room at the hospitals. Moreover, in 1841, the General Assembly specifically decreed that “no idiot shall be received in either asylum . . . All idiots heretofore admitted, and now remaining in either asylum . . . shall be delivered to some overseer of the poor of said county.” The majority of Virginia’s indigent, mentally ill citizens, with no other resources, became, in essence or in fact, wards of the overseers of the poor.
Those who possessed their mental and physical faculties but were impoverished and dependent upon the overseers were, more often than not, desperately poor. In the 1820s, pauper John Boatman, of Lancaster County, who had been on the poor rolls off and on for more than ten years, had to give up all of his possessions in a lawsuit: “2 Boxes, 1 canoe, 1 axe, 1 paddle, 3 or 4 old knives, 3 or 4 old plates, 2 old pots.” In 1808, John Duncan, of Augusta County, owned only “1 Jacket Pattern & Trimmings, 1 Jacket Pattern, 1 Blue Surtout [overcoat], 1 Hatt, 1 Small Bible, 1 Testament & Psalm Book,” valued at $4.72. In 1842, Polly George, of Lancaster County, possessed a bed, a couple of quilts, a spinning wheel, a teakettle, a chest, a box, fire tongs, a griddle, a trunk, a table and chair, and a pair of cards, worth $6.62. After the deaths of both Duncan and George, the overseers sold their possessions to defray funeral costs. George was relatively wealthy, at least in terms of possessions, compared to other recipients of aid. Few paupers owned beds and quilts, to say nothing of teakettles, tables, and chairs.
For many Virginians, the poorhouse or poor farm, no matter how simple or crude, may well have been a step up in living conditions. The cabins of the poor farms in Henrico, Fauquier, and Caroline Counties probably were little better than slaves’ quarters on many plantations. The clapboard building in Southampton County was so shabby that it required almost constant repair to keep it livable. By 1857, the overseers of Washington County found the poorhouse so dilapidated that they advised its replacement. Exceptions existed; the brick facilities in Frederick and Shenandoah Counties were so sturdy and well-built that they still stand.
Desperately poor residents may well have been better off than if they had remained on their own. For instance, Frank, an ill, elderly African American man with no means of support, wandered around Washington County until he found shelter at the poorhouse. He died within a month of his arrival. To Amelia County’s Polly Trent, her children, and grandchildren, surely the poorhouse was preferable to the forest. Residents of the Warren County facility slept on feather beds with bedsteads; those in Petersburg may have slept in straw beds, but they spent their nights covered in new blankets. Almost all poorhouses possessed knives, forks, spoons, and plates, either of iron or pewter, items most residents had never owned and may never have seen. Inhabitants ate fairly well, certainly better than they would have otherwise. Augusta County provided beef, bread, bacon, potatoes, coffee, sugar, licorice, and snuff. Petersburg’s residents ate much the same fare, as well as pork. In April 1824, the Richmond overseers ordered the keeper of their facility “to use Salt Beef occasionally, instead of fresh… . Meals on Sunday should be Soup, Rice, and Vegetables boiled with it; Monday Pork, with Potatoes &c; Tuesday Fish and Vegetables; Wednesday Beef and Pork with Vegetables; Thursday as Sunday; Friday as Tuesday; and Saturday as Monday.” Perhaps less than appetizing, it was a steady diet, something many Virginians—not just the poor—could not always count on in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Aside from providing shelter, food, money, and poor notes, counties helped needy children with basic education. Even though the state refused universal public education, the General Assembly, through the Literary Fund, provided money each year for the instruction of poor children throughout the state. Local boards established schools and hired teachers to educate children who would and could attend. Although the curriculum was little more than the three Rs, with history and geography occasionally offered to the most precocious students, and some of the teachers often were barely more literate than their pupils, the education offered was important inasmuch as it provided an opportunity to acquire basic literacy and numeracy at a time when both were relatively rare in Virginia and the South.
The counties also procured apprenticeships for impoverished children. While many people thought apprenticeships were merely unpaid, near-slave labor (and indeed some may have been just that), a good apprenticeship could provide a way out of poverty to a better life. As with poor relief in general, the quality of apprenticeships varied from locality to locality. Accomack County’s children, for instance, did not fare especially well. Of the more than one hundred apprenticeships registered between 1835 and 1859, almost all of them were for farming, spinning and weaving, or house servant. Only eight boys were lucky enough to be apprenticed as shoemakers, a portable trade.
Lancaster County’s orphans fared better. The bindings had the desired effect, for none of the children bound out between 1820 and 1860 ever reappeared on the poor list. Some bindings were quite successful, with erstwhile orphans eventually buying real estate and acquiring slaves, thus counting themselves among the middling classes. The same situation adhered in Rockbridge County, where few boys were indentured as house servants or spinners but acquired potentially lucrative trades such as tanner, millwright, blacksmith, tailor, bricklayer, or wagon maker. Throughout the commonwealth, however, orphaned girls, especially free African Americans, were ripe for exploitation of their labor and of their bodies. Usually indented as house servants, as spinners, or to learn housekeeping—and often hired out to men and thus open to sexual exploitation—most poor and orphan girls probably fared worse in apprenticeship than their male counterparts, if only in terms of their inability to acquire a trade that might make them truly self-sufficient.
Overseers often cared for paupers literally from cradle to the grave. They paid or reimbursed the midwives and physicians who attended poor women in childbirth. Between 1847 and 1850, Washington County paid Rachel Murray $1 for serving as midwife to Betsy Adams, Susan Black $1.50 for her services as midwife to Nancy Hobbs, and Elizabeth Moore $4.50 for midwifery at the poorhouse for Temple Venable, Polly Ann Dye, and a woman called “Black Ellen.”
Occasionally the cradle and grave overlapped. In 1830, Washington County paid Sarah Wallis three dollars “for her services as midwife who delivered Rhoda Crabtree a poor person who died of a child and for nursing her.” Wallis received another three dollars “for acting as midwife to Ann Smith a poor person in the delivery of a dead child.” And John Stoop earned ten dollars “for nursing Sally Jones seventeen days, suckling her infant and for funeral charges including two dollars for a coffin.”
Overseers also paid for the funerals of those who could not afford a decent burial and a proper funeral. All counties and cities paid for coffins and burial shrouds, although sometimes they sold the belongings of the deceased to offset the expenses, as with Polly George, of Lancaster County, and John Duncan, of Augusta County. Some went even further. In 1813, William Patrick, an overseer of the poor for Augusta County, instructed Hannah Macer’s neighbors on what to do when she died: “Please get A plain pine coffin made . . . and bury at the nearest place of burial. We pay for haling Corpse & Diging Grave and if there is Shroud or anything that is wantting to fix the Corpse Either you furnish or get at A store. . . . If there is a Little Liquor Wanting for people that sitts at the wake or for the persons that Digs the Grave or any thing that I have not mentioned it will be Duly paid.” The board also paid in mixed currency for the 1803 funeral of John Pluncket, “one of poor of this County”: coffin, $3.00; shirt, $1.00; overalls and stockings, $1.00; “a Sheet to lay him in,” five shillings; a gallon of whiskey, three shillings, six pence; and “diging the grave and the halling to the grave,” $3.00. Such acts of benevolence offered the poor a dignity in death that they may not have had in life.
The question of how Virginia treated its poor citizens in the antebellum era has almost as many answers as Virginia had local governments. Those who resided in counties without poorhouses or generous with outdoor relief probably fared better than their urban counterparts, if only because they had some choices about where they lived. Still, even in the worst of circumstances, poorhouses and poor farms served a charitable purpose for many indigent Virginians. Moreover, many overseers of the poor believed that they and society had a duty to the underprivileged, as perhaps best expressed in 1849 in the Lexington Gazette by Dr. J. McDowell Taylor, the superintendent of the poor of Rockbridge County: “It is a high obligation upon the part of every community to care for its poor . . . . It is a delightful feature in our free Institutions, that the blind the mame, the deaf and poor are by law provided for.” The superintendent continued, “We hope . . . that the time is coming when the virtuous poor, may look to this place not with dread of disgrace by entering it, but where sorrows may be alleviated, their wants provided for, their good name not tarnished by association with its inmates, or by the acceptance of that charity, which a generous public acknowledges its obligations to bestow.”
While some such statements might be viewed with skepticism, the poorhouse and the poor farm surely were lifesavers for many people, especially for the physically and mentally afflicted and the aged poor, whether black or white, free or slave. Moreover, many poorhouse residents, if left to their own devices and without family or friends to give them a home, surely would have perished. Dickensian stereotypes and historiographical efforts that perpetuate them are unhelpful, misleading, and need revision. While it is easy to perceive poorhouses and poor farms as evil, exploitative institutions, such sentiments often run counter to reality. Even the worst of Virginia’s poorhouses cared for people who had neither shelter nor anyone to take them in. That should be remembered.