Chautauqua County Alms House

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Contributing Writer
Janet Wahlberg

Some of you may know the Alms House by other names: County Poor House, County Home or maybe the Dewittville Poor House. This complex existed from 1832 until 1961 when a new facility was constructed in Dunkirk. All the land in Dewittville at the original site was sold, except that of the cemetery.

In 1830, the County Board of Supervisors decided to buy a farm and erect a building to house the poor. This was an answer to the problem of caring for the orphaned, destitute or sick in each community. In the Introduction to the book Chautauqua County Alms House and Asylum, Virginia Barden wrote, “As in any society, there were those who were unable to provide for themselves and their families, and the Poor Master found ways to alleviate their plight. The penniless widow, the orphaned children, the mentally ill, the homeless, and the terminally ill had nowhere to turn for help except to “The Town”. The homeless were boarded at town expense in private homes until they could make their own way again.”

You may be asking yourself why I have shared this very brief history of the Alms House. I have done so because many of our ancestors may have lived here at one time. In past times, there were few if any resources for those who were down on their luck either physically or financially. These folks could find shelter either temporarily or permanently at the Alms House. To find more information on this institution, simply Google Dewittville Poor Farm.
At the Hall House, we have a book written by Virginia Washburn Barden that is a compilation of the surviving records. It includes an introduction that offers an overview of what you might expect to find in these two volumes. You will find the names of the persons sent there, their place of birth, the town from which they came, the date that they were committed and the date that they were discharged. In additions there are often comments made as to their physical condition or health issues. In many cases an entire family will be listed. The records were originally listed chronologically but Mrs. Barden has listed then alphabetically making them much easier to search.

Mrs. Barden offers a list of abbreviations at the beginning of the book to assist you with your interpretation of the entries. Two that are particularly helpful are abs. (absconded; left with our permission) and bound (indentured, legally apprenticed). A typical entry reads: Archibald, Andrew 1 Dec 1836 ae. 87 weaver fr. Sheridan b. Scotland Died 8 March 1839 of old age. Another reads: Ackerman, Caroline 12 Nov 1840 ae. 8 idiot fr. Sheridan. This last entry reminds us that there were no specialized facilities to house and care for those who were retarded or mentally ill if their families could not care for them. Also, be aware that at this time period if you had epilepsy you were categorized as insane.

This is a brief introduction to a local source that can be used to fill in details of the lives of our local ancestors. Next month I will highlight another resource for emigrants. It is titled, Emigrants Aided in Chautauqua County New York 1853-1876. The Hall House Research Center at the Fenton is open Monday – Friday from 10AM to 4PM and by appointment on Saturdays.

To read Janet Walberg’s previous genealogy columns or to delve deeper into her writings and insights for searching out and recording your own family’s genealogy, please go to jamestowngazette.com and visit Janet’s own web page.