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Prince George Almshouse (Poorhouse)

Hagerstown Alsmhouse 30 years following that built at Prince George.

Hagerstown Alsmhouse 30 years following that built at Prince George.

In Maryland the state Assembly had long called for local county taxes for supporting the deserving poor. Annual pensions were long provided for elderly and infirm who could not otherwise meet their needs. Those particularly old or disabled were often provided home placements in the community, with caretakers receiving pay from county coffers. Other poor people were often deemed not worthy of public support. By the 1760s the number of pensioners receiving relief had increased considerably and was growing at a faster rate than population as a whole.

While support was becoming more expensive, broad social and economic changes were becoming even worse as farm plots were ever smaller, as soils were giving out and agriculture less productive, as tobacco markets which had always been fitful were experiencing long periods of low rates — creating a substantial class of landless vagrants roaming the region looking for the means of survival.

As soil productivity diminished for tobacco, many farmers switched to producing grains which required less fertile ground, though younger newly independent farmers often moved into Frederick County or inland where lands were more available and affordable, leaving behind a population whose average age grew. Poor tenant farmers, often obligated to turn over seven or eight hundred pounds of tobacco per year of sufficient quality to pass new inspection standards to pay for rent were increasingly not able to do so.

The population for Prince George went up 27 percent between 1756 and 1771, though the number of those who held land “free and clear” rose only four percent. Land prices had increased nearly 300 percent from early in the century. While free blacks were not unknown, they owned only a small portion of land, and only about one third of white freemen owned land by 1771. There was no urban development in Prince George though there were a few market towns primarily for wealthy planters. For most it was a life of meager subsistence and poverty. Nonetheless, while there was a widespread concern about the presence of vagrants and beggars, inspection of court records shows strikingly little petty crime in the area though there were occasional cases of bastardy and child abandonment. Prince George, while it was growing and changing, was still a small jurisdiction with only a couple thousand taxable citizens, and with justices of the peace who were quire familiar with the people in their community and those who they brought to court to bear witness.

These were generally young and able-bodied males, and the public often didn’t consider them worthy of assistance. As a result, locals were petitioning the legislature for the right to built poorhouses in order to confine and control bears and to provide less expensive means for caring for public dependents. While poor people had once been seen as worthy of pity and support, residents came to view the poor as shameful burdens needing to be separated from society. No longer were people even willing to try to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor. By 1770, almshouses and workhouses were well established for Prince George County.

Prince George was something of a Maryland in miniature. While adjoining Anne Arundel county and Annapolis, the colonial capital, Prince George was primarily rural and contained a large number of plantations from the largest to the smallest. The area contained rich and poor, landowners and tenants, slave-owners and non-slave-owners, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Roman Catholics. Many of the laborers in the area had been indentured servants who achieved small plots of land along with new outfits of floating upon their release, though land allocations had grown smaller over the years, and often failed to prove sustainable for a small family. Some migrated inland to new frontier territory, though many failing small farmers had no choice but to become tenants, sometimes after selling their own land for food, and failing that, landless.

If in England the poor had become wards of local parishes, colonial politicians had relegated these responsibilities to county courts, though some parishes continued devoting revenues raised from fining individuals breaking the Sabbath with the official church to the care for orphans. For the most part relief was administered through courts based on a process where those choosing to claim support presented petitions to quarterly court sessions. Justices alone had the authority to rule on the validity of a petition and supportive testimony for public assistance. By the early 1760s there were usually sixty or so such petitions a year with perhaps 20% deemed unable to handled the demands of everyday life and requiring residential care.

Even thought the county courts were legally obligated to help the deserving poor, this often left others in need of support. Neighbors often banded together to help ill, destitute, widowed, or orphaned neighbors. Neighbors helped with alms to needy folk, providing shelter for ole and ill men and women, and with testimony before justices about the worthiness of petitioners. For perhaps a majority of the poor, private support was the first, and only option. Many would have felt humiliated to seek public relief, and doing so remained a last resort. Court dockets suggest, however, that those extending ‘charity’ were often quite willing to go to court and petition for awards in compensation for their generosity. In fact numerous people in the late 1700s were petitioning the court for reimbursement of the costs for caring for aged family members or for burying them. It’s not likely that they would have done so without warranting support since the stigma of rejection and criticism would have been strong. People of the era lived in a community where most people were well known to one another, and where it was a mark of considerable social distinction to be asked to be appointed as Justice of the Peace. Evidence of charitable activity within churches of Prince George could be described occasional, but not frequent.

Suddenly in the early 1760s, planters in their annual Assembly caucuses and elections began attacking costs of the poor relief system and supported Governor Sharpe’s idea of building “Work-houses”. By 1765, Three counties of the colony, including Prince George had petitioned to build poorhouses — “hospitals or work-houses” in order to relieve the heavy tax charges required for court grants to the poor. The idea was to get beggars and vagabonds out of the community in order to “check disorders”. The bills developed to address the issues over the next few years provided funds for the construction and operation of poorhouses to be managed by “trustees of the poor” nominated by local magistrates. Five appointees were responsible for proposing legislation and fines for vagrants, and the operation of the houses. It took a number of more years to collect sufficient funds to build facilities. By the year in which Ralph Forster was made Sheriff, 1772, the county had contracted with workmen to build a large brick building for housing the poor on one hundred acres of land. While these facilities were to provide for some who would need help only for a year or two, the vast majority of people who would be involved required support and care for ten years or more. The county expenditures for building and maintaining these facilities and their programs involved about a third of county budgets on an annual basis.

Along D’Arcy Road amid a cluster of public works buildings near Forestville of Prince George County there is said to be a red brick building which provides the remains of the first Alms House project for the county. Founded in 1771 according to some records, the 90 acres of land called Black Oak Thickett over time included a second addition called Offuts Adventure. All together, this 100 acres of land was used as a home for the poor, and now were vagrants were kept at hard labor. On the land there were tobacco barns, cornfields, a large orchard, and numerous farm operations. A story is told that money from the sale of pears grown there was used to develop electricity and water systems without cost to the county. In later years the place was solely a rest home for indigent poor. It’s name was changed to “County Rest Home”, and the facilities provided a pleasant place to live for many old folks in their declining years. A mixed community of 35 persons of all races, colors and creeds sat on the extensive porches in good weather and watched turkeys, chickens, ducks, cats, dogs, and even pigs and cows, or looked over their neatly kept vegetable garden. Citizen organizations, churches, and school children went there to entertain the inhabitants. A cemetery with 143 internments adjoins the house, and though few graves are marked, they’re thought to include British soldiers who lost their lives in the neighborhood during the Revolutionary War.

While workhouses had been developed primarily as a way of reducing tax load in caring for the deserving poor — primarily elderly and disabled, the economy and environment had produced a growing class of quite a different sort of poor, and the public’s sensitivity to distinguishing deserving and undeserving seems to have wavered. A shift was taking place from public support and community caring in homes and neighborhoods to more economical and controlling institutions oriented toward control and involving shaming. The shift disturbed some, though not enough to alter the tide. Persons appointed by justices actively searched and removed vagrants from the land, and in workhouse “sentences” of three months at a time, they were often treated akin to prisoners and expected to work at justifying their support. Beggars found in a county that was not their designated home could be captured and put to work. Under the poorhouse system which evolved, all people who receive public support had to wear a large letter “P” on the right sleeve of their garment to indicated their impoverished condition and dependence on poor relief. The distinction was not reserved solely for the “undeserving” poor, but provided a required display for all of those supported on public funds. Overseers had the authority to “compel” and “oblige” labor with any individual with sufficient ability to work on local projects, or as rented out for local labor in the community. Now the expectation was that those living off public support would help provide for their maintenance.

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