Poor House

Artist rendition of the Poor House
Artist's reconstruction of the Poor House around 1800.

The Louis Berger Group, Inc.

 

An interesting building in this area at the time was the Prince William County Poorhouse, which sat in the northwest corner of the park. The Poorhouse opened in 1794 and operated until 1927. By the late eighteenth century, the states had different ways to help the less fortunate. In colonial Virginia, charity was left to the Anglican Church, then recognized at the official church of the state. This status ended in 1785 with Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom. The commonwealth’s government insisted that counties make a centralized place to care for the poor, rather than providing door to door relief. The government appointed Overseers of the Poor, who in turn collected a Poor Tax. This was used to fund the poorhouse.

Almshouses were deliberately designed to be harsh, the bare minimum, to influence the poor to work hard to advance up the economic ladder. However, most of the occupants at the Prince William County Poorhouse were not capable fo working. At the same time, administrators only admited those who could not make a living for themselves. In 1858, only four of the seventeen residents were physically able to work. Those living int he poorhouse were buried in a nearby cemetery. In 1996, archeologists found thirty graves, only thirteen of which had headstones. The county provided coffins for the poor who did not live at the poorhouse.

 
the poor house now
The Poor House

NPS Photo

A Revolutionary Idea

When the American Revolution ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1783, aid for the poor differed in varying states. In Virginia, which recognized the Anglican Church as its official church, Anglican parishes distributed relief. In 1785, with the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Virginia’s parishes lost this responsibility as the state ceased recognizing an official church. Instead, the poor became charges of county governments.

Like parishes, counties provided cash or in-kind payments to poor people living in their homes (a type of aid known as “outdoor relief”) and some supported almshouses or poorhouses. The resulting poorhouses, which were a form of “indoor relief,” became more common in Virginia and in other states during the 1790s and early 1800s. Prince William’s County’s poorhouse was one of the first ten built by a Virginia county government.

Poorhouses were intended to be Spartan and uncomfortable; living conditions were supposed to convince paupers that only through hard work would they escape the atmosphere of penury. However, overseers were late to realize that few inmates were capable of hard work. During the nineteenth century, almshouses also served as places to which masters sometimes emancipated elderly or disabled enslaved laborers and gave counties the responsibility for their upkeep. These former slaves were representative of the typical poorhouse inmate. As this 1794 list of residents shows, most were simply aged or physically or mentally incapable of working and not idle loafers.

 

Creating the Poor

Subsistence agriculture dominated the local economy between the 1790s and 1930s. Some residents owned farms, while others worked as tenant farmers or enslaved laborers before the Civil War, or as sharecroppers afterwards. Large tobacco plantations were established during the early 1700s, but by the end of the century most local planters became subsistence farmers, replacing soil exhausting tobacco with crops requiring fewer nutrients, such as corn (maize) and wheat. Even with the shift from tobacco to other crops, agriculture did not bring economic growth. Between 1790 and 1860, the county’s population fell from 11,615 to 8,565, while the state’s population grew by nearly 54%. Many people emigrated to new western states and territories. Those who remained supplemented their incomes by selling fish from the Potomac or through operating blacksmith shops or small dry-goods stores.

The Civil War significantly affected Prince William County. Two major battles occurred near Manassas in 1861 and 1862, and a primary route between the capitals of Richmond and Washington passed through the county. High inflation devastated the local economy; extensive troop movements destroyed livestock and crops.

In the early twentieth century, the county’s population remained low; census-takers found only 13,951 residents in 1930. Federal impressions of local poverty were contributing factors in the 1935 creation of Chopawamsic Recreational Demonstration Area by the Resettlement Administration. During the final years that the poorhouse operated near Independent Hill, its neighbors worked on their own small farms and supplemented their incomes through jobs at local military bases.

 

Poor House Residents

In some areas of the United States, nineteenth century poorhouses housed all sorts of people, from young orphans to the destitute elderly. However, county overseers of the poor distributed cash or in-kind payments to approved able-bodied poor. They remained in their communities and did not live at the poorhouse. The amount of the allowances varied over time. In 1820, payments averaged $11.40 per year, while in 1860 they were $16.22, rising to $47.42 in 1874. In 1912, individuals on the county’s poor list each received about $34.28 per year. Taxes and, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, timber sales, funded these welfare programs.

Most individuals who lived at the county poorhouse were elderly or disabled women without the means (or close family) to support themselves. Individuals applied to the overseers of the poor for admission and only gained entry to the poorhouse if they were deemed to be “worthy poor,” people not responsible for their poverty and incapable of improving their own life. Children sometimes lived at the poorhouse for short periods, but the overseers usually apprenticed them to a farmer or tradesman. Most nineteenth-century welfare officials opposed allowing children to live in almshouses and be exposed to the ‘idleness’ of paupers.

 
Poor House cemetery
Poor House Cemetery

NPS Photo

Poor House Life

While it always had many more white residents than African-Americans, the poorhouse was racially integrated. However, integration does not imply equality. Records from before the Civil War rarely provided African-American residents the small dignity of listing their surnames. African-American residents were almost always physically or mentally disabled. What happened at the poorhouse during the war that freed the slaves is a mystery; none of its records from 1861 to 1874 survive.

Able inmates, together with a few hired farmhands, grew most of the food for poorhouse residents. However, most residents were unable to work due to age and illness; of the 17 residents listed in an 1858 annual report to the state’s Auditor of Public Accounts, only four were healthy enough to work.

Archaeological excavations in 2001 found harmonica fragments and pieces of tobacco pipes in the ruins of the poorhouse, suggesting that smoking and music were leisure activities for some poorhouse residents. Medical care came through a contracted local doctor.

 

Archeology of the Poor House

The Poor House Site is in the northwest corner of the Park, on the crest of a large east-west ridge. Archeologists found a well and at least four buildings on the site. They date to two different periods, one before and one after the Civil War.

The earlier buildings were at the eastern end of the site. A rubble foundation measuring 14 x 30 feet, with a stone chimney base at one end, was probably the Poor House of the 1790s. Near this barracks building is another level area, with a pile of brick and stone at one end. The artifacts from this area also date to before the Civil War. This area may be the location of some of the log cabins the overseers ordered.

The Post-Civil War buildings are a house with stone foundations measuring 18 x 20 feet, probably the residence of the overseers; a barn foundation; and a level area measuring about 20 x 100 feet where excavation produced hundreds of nails. This level area is almost certainly where the large barracks described in the 1920s stood.
 
archaeologist looking at foundation of the Poorhouse

NPS Photo

Artifacts Recovered from the Poor House

The artifacts found around the Poor House structures are similar to those found at farm sites throughout the park. The finds included decorated ceramics, bits of glass tumblers, tobacco pipes, and part of a harmonica reed.

The residents of the Poor House seem to have used dishes, drinking glasses and other objects that look much like those of their neighbors. Of course, these objects may have been donated to the poor, or purchased second hand by the overseers. We can't tell from archeological fragments whether the dishes were chipped or cracked by the time they came to the Poor House. The harmonica reed is an evocative find, and we can image some elderly resident sitting in front of the Poor House playing a lonesome tune.

 

History of the Poor House


The Poor House sheltered about a dozen of the county's poorest residents, both white and black, who were mainly elderly and handicapped people. The site therefore represents the poorest and least capable of the county's residents, people about who almost nothing is known. The first surviving list of the residents at the Poor House is dated 1795 and reads:
  • William Miliner deaf and a very old man
  • James Wilky a very deaf old man
  • William Martin deaf and blind
  • Celia Wilkinson very infirm
  • Ann Lunceford and Child
  • Arrabelle Baze a blind troublesome old woman
  • Elizabeth Wood an insane woman
  • Elisabeth Doughty to assist in washing
At least one description of the Poor House survives, written in 1926 by a welfare reformer:

"Poor farm located 13 miles south of Manassas, way back on poor, cutover land, off any traveled road, in a woods. Very few known that such a place exists. The poorhouse is an old frame shack, one story, about 14 x 84 with 6 rooms, some without doors, windows boarded up. Fertilizer sacks filled with straw and old buggy cushions for mattresses on broke-down beds. Bed covers are rags - parts of old blankets or quilts, very filthy. An old man, clothes ragged and filthy, asleep on a pile of dirty rags, in a vile room swarming with flies and vermin. Poor and insufficient food; poor, filthy clothing; no music, amusement or religious services. No medical attention whatever; no screens, the place reeking with bedbugs and body lice. Well water, filthy outside privies used by both sexes, no sewerage, slop and garbage just thrown through the doors. Contaminating diseased inmates use same bedrooms and toilets as do other inmates, and their clothes go into a common wash. Men's and women's bedrooms adjoin."

There is also a sketch of the buildings at the Poor House that was made when the property was surveyed for the county in 1872. Although smudged, this sketch clearly shows three buildings, one smaller than the other two, and a well. The Poor House was closed and the property sold off in 1928.
 
Archaeological dig that exposed the poor house chimney
A NPS Archaeological Dig exposed the poor house chimney

NPS Photo

The Poor House Legacy

Today, poorhouses built to coerce the able, indigent poor into working are gone. In Virginia, a system of district nursing homes for chronically ill poor people superseded its almshouses. Several programs created as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal response to the Great Depression of the 1930s, such as Social Security and Medicare, supported (and continue to support) people with low incomes in ways similar to nineteenth-century ‘outdoor relief’ programs.

In the 1910s, the Virginia legislature considered several bills to consolidate county almshouses into district homes for the indigent elderly. At that time, most county poorhouses had fewer than ten residents and were in remote locations. Their superintendents were poorly trained and did not provide the needed level of medical care. Legislators believed that merging poorhouses into regional facilities would save local governments money by brining a larger number of needy to one location with a higher quality of care than counties could provide individually. The legislature enacted a law allowing consolidation in 1918.

Prince William County was one of five counties that merged their poorhouses to create the first district home. Together with Culpeper, Fairfax, and Fauquier Counties, and the city of Alexandria, it opened a new residential facility - today known as Birmingham Green - in Manassas on January 28,1927. After the opening of the district home, Prince William County sold its poorhouse property of 296 acres for $2,000.00.

By the early twentieth century, healthcare professionals viewed poorhouses as dumping grounds for the unwanted elderly,“characterized by poverty, disease, and filth. At least one description of the Poor House survives, written in 1926 by a welfare reformer:

Poor farm located 13 miles south of Manassas, way back on poor, cutover land, off any traveled road, in a woods. Very few know that such a place exists. The poorhouse is an old frame shack, one story, about 14 x 84 with 6 rooms, some without doors, windows boarded up. Fertilizer sacks filled with straw and old buggy cushions for mattresses on broke-down beds. Bed covers are rags— parts of old blankets or quilts, very filthy. An old man, clothes ragged and filthy, asleep on a pile of dirty rags, in a vile room swarming with flies and vermin. Poor and insufficient food; poor, filthy clothing; no music, amusement or religious services. No medical attention whatever; no screens, the place reeking with bedbugs and body lice. Well water, filthy outside privies used by both sexes, no sewerage, slop and garbage just thrown through the doors. Contaminating diseased inmates use same bedrooms and toilets as do other inmates, and their clothes go into a common wash. Men’s and women’s bedrooms adjoin.

When poorhouse residents died, the county buried them in the poorhouse’s cemetery. A 1996 survey found nearly 30 graves, though only 13 are marked with headstones or footstones. The county also provided coffins for dead poor people not resident at the poorhouse. An onsite superintendent managed the poorhouse; research shows that at least one superintendent, John J. Carter (1865-1928), is buried within today’s park boundary. The poor house cemetery is one of over 45 cemeteries in Prince William Forest Park. The cemetery and foundations of the Prince William County poor house are protected by federal law. Removing of any artifacts or disturbing the site is punishable with a fine of up to $5,000.00.

Last updated: October 16, 2017

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