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OVERSEERS OF THE POOR/TRUSTEES OF THE POOR

Community responsibility for the poor has, in all probability, existed in Delaware since its earliest settlements. The Swedes, the Dutch, and the English sent many of their less fortunate, their unemployed, and their criminals to their colonies. Consequently, even though the need for poor relief emerged later in Delaware due to its small population, the existence of a dependent class of citizens in the colonies can be assumed. Early relief in Delaware was patterned after the European model which attempted to “fix financial responsibility, curb expenses [to the community], eliminate undesirables, and care for those the community believed to be their responsibility.”1

Swedish and Dutch relief efforts appear to have been shared between the churches and the courts.2 The English, heirs to the same relief traditions as other European nations, began codifying poor laws for their colonies which included Pennsylvania and, in 1674, the Three Lower Counties. Penn’s Poor Law of 1693 delineated requirements for relief eligibility and granted authority for such relief to the justices of the peace and the county courts.3

Increasing numbers of dependent people arrived in Delaware via New Castle’s port of entry. By 1741 the stress on county funds had increased to the point that New Castle petitioned the colonial Assembly for the enactment of legislation which would shift much of the financial and physical responsibility for these people to the hundreds (a political subdivision similar to a township) in which they resided.4

The resulting 1741 codification of poor laws for the Three Lower Counties authorized the justices of the peace to “nominate and appoint one or more substantial inhabitant or inhabitants of each of the hundreds within their respective counties to be overseer or overseers of the poor...for the ensuing year.”5 These overseers, in conjunction with the constables, were to find all of the “vagrant, poor and impotent persons” in their districts through “diligent inspection and enquiry.” The overseers were required to submit a list of names of those found to be dependent upon the community to the justices of the peace. The justices then issued warrants for court appearances for the poor for the purpose of determining their eligibility for community aid. The able bodied poor were directed to leave the county or to give surety to cover their indebtedness. A person not excepted and yet refusing to leave the county was liable for the receipt of fifteen lashes each day he remained in the county.

The Overseers of the Poor in each county were directed by the legislature to receive reports from all those citizens harboring members of “the indigent class”; to give consent to two justices of the peace for binding out of the children of the poor as apprentices in order that they would not become burdens to the citizens of the hundred; and to receive, decide upon, and recommend persons for public relief to the justices of the peace. Either the justice(s) or the overseer(s) then certified to the county treasurer the names of those needing assistance. The last duty assigned by the legislature to the early overseers was the designing of badges to be worn by the poor. These badges, or armbands, were cut from red or blue cloth and had a “Roman or capital P, together with the first letter of the name of the county” of residence sewn on them.6

Further legislation was passed pertaining to the “relief of insolvent debtors” in 1769 and amended in 1773, but no additional duties were assigned to the Overseers of the Poor. In 1775, however, the General Assembly decided that the laws respecting the poor of the State were insufficient.

In 1775 “Act for the Relief of the Poor” outlined the responsibilities of the overseers for maintaining the poor while again dictating that the justices of the peace nominate and appoint the overseers for each hundred. Their obligations, in addition to earlier ones, included collecting taxes to maintain the poor by “providing them proper houses and places, and a convenient stock of hemp, flax, thread, and other materials, for such of them as are capable of working...” The law further stated that the overseer could contract for a house or lodging for “keeping, maintaining, and employing” the poor.7

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Two other continuing responsibilities of note are the requirements which demanded that the overseer maintain lists of the poor (poor rolls) and bind out all orphan children, thus ensuring they would master a skill enabling them to support themselves in the future. Overseers were incorporated and could sue and could be used. They were also accountable for ensuring that vessels arriving in the area did not contain persons likely to become charges upon the hundred; furthermore, if such event should occur, overseers were to instruct the owner of the vessel to remove such person or persons. Overseers keep accounts of their activities which were presented annually to the Court of Quarter Sessions. The 1775 legislation further tightened the control of the movement and the manner of relocation of the poor from one hundred to another. Additionally, the legislature set forth guidelines for providing support for situations in which a parent or parents had deserted family or children.8

In order to finance such activities, Overseers of the Poor were empowered to collect taxes based upon the amount of money needed to meet the expenses of maintaining the poor and the rate of assessment of the county for each year.

By 1791 the General Assembly had decided that the earlier relief system was oppressive to the poor of the State and did not achieve all of its intended benevolent goals. With the passage of an act entitled “An Act for the Better Relief of the Poor,” the assistance program in the State was restructured.9 A group of twenty-four men, seven from New Castle County, seven from Kent, and ten from Sussex, were designated as the Trustees of the Poor for the State of Delaware and were appointed by the county justices of the peace to serve three year terms. These trustees were incorporated as a “bodies politic” with all of the legal powers and responsibilities afforded such groups.

No longer were the poor of each county to be housed with its citizens. The trustees were tasked with either purchasing, or causing to be erected, houses for the poor. Each county was to have one house under the direction of an overseer appointed by the county Trustees of the Poor. Admission to the county institution for the poor had to be authorized by at least two of the Trustees of the Poor. An Overseer of the Poor who admitted unauthorized persons to the poorhouse (almshouse) was penalized. The trustees served eviction notices to those residing in the home without their express consent. With the new legislation, each county had only one overseer, now simply a salaried employee, who served as the administrative head of the county poorhouse. (It is noted in the 1791 act that Christiana Hundred already had an operational poorhouse which was to be considered for the county institution.)10

The Levy Court of the particular county determined the tax rate necessary to ensure sufficient sums were collected to meet the stated needs of the trustees and guarantee the orderly and efficient operation of the poorhouse (almshouse). County Levy Courts appointed collectors of the poor tax who were issued warrants authorizing them to collect such taxes. The overseer was again required to keep the poor lists, also known as Pauper’s Lists, and, in addition, maintain the accounts of the almshouse for the approval of the trustees. Overseer were further obliged to find work for those able to do so; fees collected for such work were used to maintain and support the worker. Under this act, the overseer was no longer responsible for monitoring the entrances into and exits from the county of persons likely to become charges on the community; this responsibility was given to the trustees.

Yet another power removed from the overseer and placed with the trustees was the authority to bind out through apprentice indentures orphan children likely to become charges upon the county. As before, males were bound to the age of twenty-one; females to eighteen. In cases where a family was deserted by the husband/father and such family became a charge upon the county, the trustees were permitted to search out and seize portions of the deserter’s holdings to be used to maintain the family. If the deserter had no property, he could be imprisoned by the trustees. The master of any servant imported into a county could be required to give security to any two justices of the peace or trustees if the probability existed that the servant could become a ward of the county. If said master refused compliance with such request, he was jailed until he posted the necessary bond.

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Trustees met four times a year at the county poorhouse and were required to maintain proceedings or minutes of their meetings. In addition to their aforementioned responsibilities, the trustees were authorized to make rules and pass regulations governing the cleanliness and employment of the poor. Additionally, they mandated which records (i.e., admittance, discharge, birth, death, burial, permits and releases, and support) were necessary to ensure the proper documentation of almshouse procedures. Any resident of a poorhouse who acted in a disorderly manner could be “moderately and properly corrected” or dismissed from the house by the trustees. The Trustees of the Poor required the overseer to submit quarterly accounts of the income and expenses of the almshouse.11

In 1792 a supplemental act was passed adding three trustees to the seven already in New Castle County and authorizing the Levy Court in each county to replace trustees on a rotational basis. By this legislation, Christiana Hundred in New Castle County was allotted two trustees; Murderkill in Kent, three; and all other hundreds in the State, one. One trustee of each county was to be appointed treasurer to administer the sums collected for the poor.12 Guidelines, similar to those in the 1775 act, for collecting maintenance costs from individuals with surviving family members were noted; the responsibility for such collections was given to the trustees.

In 1803 supplemental legislation passed which allowed those bound out by the trustees to obtain redress for ill-treatment through appeal to the Trustees of the Poor and the Court of General Quarter Sessions.13 The trustees were tasked in 1811 with the guaranteeing that the children of free negroes or mulattoes did not become charges upon the county. Parents of black children were required to issue bonds to the trustees as proof of their ability to care for their children. If, upon examination of the free persons of color and their children, the trustees believed the parents were unable to support their children, they had the authority to bind them out.14

In 1815 legislation was passed authorizing the issuance of court orders mandating the removal of lunatic and insane persons from the public jails and requiring their placement in the poorhouses of the State. Any property which belonged to such persons became the property of the trustees and was used to defray the maintenance and support costs of those persons.15

1818 legislation permitted Sussex County Trustees of the Poor to “board out” the poor as in 1775 albeit with certain restrictions. Limitations were placed on the allowable expenses for boarding as well as the number of permitted out-boarded paupers. No more than one-third of the number of paupers in the poorhouse could be lodged with county residents.16

In 1823 the criteria for entrance into, and removal from, the poorhouse was reiterated along with certain expected behavioral standards for inmates and trustees. Legislation established the procedure by which the trustees were permitted to sell any resident female negro giving birth to a bastard child. The term of servitude was not to exceed eighteen months. Trustees were still expected to indenture, or apprentice, any children likely to become wards of the county. Parents were compensated for their children should they be bound out. No one in the poorhouse could marry. Trustees were not permitted to furnish or provide anything for the poorhouse. Deserting husbands were still liable for the maintenance of their families. Duties and procedures for appeals for fathers charged with fathering bastards were required to be enumerated in bastardy books; policies were also established for the manner by which such children were to be apprenticed.17

In 1826, with the building of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, concerned citizens in New Castle County feared that transient workers imported to work on the construction might become burdens on the county due to illness, injury, or job loss. Legislation passed the General Assembly which established guidelines for both the company and the county, safeguarding it from any undue financial burden resulting from the Canal construction.18

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OVERSEERS OF THE POOR/TRUSTEES OF THE POOR

The General Assembly amended and consolidated the poor relief laws in 1829. While all of the previously noted responsibilities still existed, certain significant changes were made. The term of servitude for negro females giving birth to bastard children while in the poorhouse was legthened from eighteen months to three years. The order of support liability for relatives having an indigent member within their family was established. The law providing assistance for New Castle County during the construction of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal was broadened by this legislation to include any and all corporations bringing workers into New Castle, Kent, and/or Sussex County. Rules for the assessment and collection of the poor tax were delineated. The expenses for maintaining the poorhouse were now required to be published and distributed annually in pamphlet form.

Such reports also included statistics on buildings, conditions, and inmates in addition to a financial picture of the institution.19

In 1849 the legislature decreed that the homes for the relief of the poor would no longer be referred to as “poorhouses” but rather as “almshouses.”20 New Castle County benefited from legislation passed in 1851 which permitted a change in the location of the county almshouse and allowed them to purchase a farm “in the center of the county” for the support of the poor. Necessary buildings were to be erected on the site, and the profits from the farm were to be used to maintain the paupers of the county. The Levy Court was allowed to borrow money, from time to time, to meet the needs of the trustees. The trustees were further authorized to dispose of currently owned property as they saw fit and apply the proceeds to the support of the poor. The poor, as they were able, were to be employed on the farm.21 Existing surveys, insurance records, specifications, contracts, and construction records document the evolution of the State almshouse system during this period.

Legislation was enacted in 1861 which allowed the authorities to place beggars and vagabonds in the workhouses rather than the almshouses, leaving the almshouses with the care of the aged, infirm, insane, and chronically ill.22 Within ten years the legislature realized that facilities within the county almshouses were not adequate for the care of all of the insane. In 1871 the General Assembly authorized the Governor, upon receipt of recommendations from the Chancellor of the State, to house up to five indigent insane residents of the almshouses of each county in institutions within the State of Pennsylvania in order to ensure more effective and efficient care for those persons. The respective county Trustees of the Poor were to allocate up to $250.00 for each person so housed.23 In the early 1880’s the almshouse in New Castle County erected an insane asylum, known as the “Insane Department” on its grounds. Legislation passed in 1883 authorized the Governor to remand up to ten persons from each county to remit funds for their care to the Trustees of the Poor for New Castle County.24 In 1889 the name of the almshouse in New Castle County was changed to “New Castle County Hospital;” the State assumed responsibility for the care of the insane, leaving the New Castle County Hospital to care for the aged, infirm, and the chronically ill.25 (The State Hospital for the Insane officially became the Delaware State Hospital at Farnhurst in 1891.)26

At many times throughout its history, the trustees and the Levy Court have shared duties and responsibilities for the care and maintenance of the poor. Between 1875 and 1903 the number of representatives allotted to each hundred was altered and the county Levy Courts authorized to appoint members to fill vacancies. In 1875 Wilmington was authorized four Trustees of the Poor and the other hundreds in New Castle County, one. These members served three year terms.27 Between 1898 and 1903 the Levy Courts of Kent and Sussex Counties were empowered with control over the placement and terms of office for their respective Trustees of the Poor. Both counties were to have one representative per hundred; the representative had to be a resident of the district he represented and file a bond guaranteeing the proper and efficient performance of his duties; each of the trustees served a two year term.28 In 1905 the New Castle County Levy Court was authorized to purchase medical care from private hospitals in the Wilmington area.29

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While legislation dealing with the county almshouses was passed during the years between 1904 and 1931, the duties and/or functions of the Trustees of the Poor were not significantly altered. Most of the legislation occurring during the twenty-seven year period deals with financial responsibilities incurred by the county trustees as they attempted to modernize and update aging facilities. The county Levy Courts were tasked with coordinating the finances of these efforts for their respective facilities.

In 1931 an act was passed that revamped and consolidated the poor relief system in the State. A State Old Age Welfare Commission was created; the almshouse properties in each county reverted to county ownership; the Trustees of the Poor transferred all of the funds in their custodianship to the county treasurers; and the Trustees of the Poor as a corporation was dissolved. The new Commission was charged with the care and support of indigent persons in Delaware and received financial support from both the State and the counties. The duties, powers, and responsibilities of the Commission remained largely the same as those of the Trustees of the Poor.30

For a comprehensive history of poor relief in Delaware see: The History of Poor Relief Administration in Delaware, by Elizabeth Goggin, 1938.

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1 Goggin, Elizabeth. The History of Poor Relief Administration in Delaware. (M.A. Thesis, University of Chicago, 1938), pg. 23.

2 Ibid., pp. 24-27.

3 Duke of York Laws, p. 115.

4 Goggin, p. 32.

5 Cushing, John D., editor. Earliest Printed Laws of Delaware. Wilmington: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1978. “An Act for Relief of the Poor,” pg. 217.

6 Ibid., pp. 216-223.

7 1 DL, ch. ch. 225.

8 Ibid.

9 2 DL, ch. 218b.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 2 DL, ch. 249.

13 3 DL, ch. 121.

14 4 DL, ch. 164.

15 5 DL, ch. 36.

16 5 DL, ch. 184.

17 6 DL, ch. 193.

18 6 DL, ch. 343.

19 7 DL, ch. 195.

20 10 DL, ch. 376.

21 10 DL, ch. 584.

22 12 DL, ch. 92.

23 14 DL, ch. 57.

24 17 DL, ch. 76.

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25 18 DL, ch. 553.

26 19 DL, ch. 126.

27 15 DL, ch. 56.

28 21 DL, ch. 22, § 7; 22 DL, ch. 54, § 7.

29 23 DL, ch. 41.

30 37 DL, ch. 189.

???; Rewrite: SLE, August 25, 1989.