Go West Young Man–and You Could Land in the Poor House…


poorhouse3Growing up I thought one of the worst things that could happen was to end up in the poor house. If we left the lights on, outgrew shoes too quickly, or took more than our share of food we’d hear, “Do you want to send us to the poor house?”

It wasn’t until I was an adult that it occurred to me that one, I never saw a poor house and two, I’d never even met anyone who lived there. As it turns out there really were poor houses throughout the country, including the Old West.

Though poor houses had been in the east since early colonial times, their numbers spread to the west following the westward expansion.   Dreams of striking it rich fell through leaving many destitute. Families separated by great distances could no longer turn to each other for help. The Civil War also created a great deal of poverty. Men often returned home to find farms gone or taxes in arrears.

What we call welfare today was once called “outdoor relief.” Indigent people would have to go to an elected town official called an Overseer of the Poor or Poor Master and plead their case.

I Do So Solemnly Swear…poor

Before a person could move to an almshouse they had to take the pauper oath swearing they had no more than ten dollars to their names. Poverty was considered a sign of moral weakness so feelings of guilt and shame prevailed.

Being poor wasn’t just an embarrassment it was also treated as a crime, and many of these farms also served as prisons.

No such thing as Social Security existed at the time so, as you might expect, many paupers were elderly people with physical ailments. The greatest number of residents was widows and mothers with small children. Some famous people lived in poor houses including Annie Oakley who was sent to one at age 9.

Oregon Poor Farm

Even back then, fraud flourished and people claimed to be paupers who weren’t. One farm superintendent accidentally found a $1000 dollars hidden in an inmate’s belongings. The man preferred living off charity than his own resources.

Paupers were expected to work and many of these farms grew cotton and other crops. Some poor houses were run with compassion, but most were not.

A Texas “Poor Farm” Romance

One story I came across involved a poor farm in Cass County, Texas. An elderly man ended up there after losing all his money. There he met a woman he had once been engaged to when he was a young man of 21 and she was 18. The families had been against the wedding and the two were forced to break off their betrothal. The elderly couple picked up where they left off and decided to marry. He asked the county supervisors to let them continue to live on the farm after they wed, but was denied permission. Two people were not allowed to marry after taking the pauper’s oath.

Soon after, the woman went to live with her daughter. She requested that a white rose be placed on her shroud to symbolize a love that had lasted through a lifetime, and hoped they would meet again in heaven.

Thank goodness Social Security put an end to poor houses, which brings up the question: What do parents threaten their kids with today?


Maggie Michaels is sent to Arizona Territory as an undercover mail order bride to track down the notorious Whistle-Stop Bandit. If she doesn’t prove the suspect guilty before the wedding—she could end up as his wife!

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25 thoughts on “Go West Young Man–and You Could Land in the Poor House…”

  1. What a sad story about the elderly couple! Reminds me a bit of The Notebook, but set in the Old West. Someone should give those two a happy ending.

    Thanks for this interesting and informative post, Margaret! I never realized poor houses existed in the west. Now my brain is churning with all sorts of ideas. 🙂

    • Hi Kathleen, yes, my mind churned with ideas, too, after reading about poor houses. Of course, I had to work one into the book I’m currently working on.

      The reason you probably never realized poor houses existed in the west is because they were often called farms or boarding houses so as not to offend inhabitants.

  2. Thanks, Margaret. I never wanted to be in the poor house either, but my mother often told that that was indeed where we lived. LOL
    My father often said, “God must sure love poor people; He made an awful lot of us.”
    Now I’ll have to see if the Undercover Bride gets her man!

  3. Margaret, what a terrific post…and the premise for your book! Oh, I do remember hearing the term, poor house, bandied about during my childhood. My parents used it mostly as a joke as I’ve always been kind of a princess. Then I started reading Dickens and about debtors prisons. Shudder.

    Years ago, I had a very short-lived career selling life insurance from a church company. (Oh, I was terrible at it.) But the company was founded long ago just for that reason–benevolence for widows and orphans. Because without the breadwinner, most had no choice but sink into poverty.

    Good job today as always. xoxo

    • Hi Tanya, I loved that bit about you selling insurance. We probably all had jobs we were terrible at. Mine was working in a department store gift-wrapping section. The first gift I was asked to wrap was a lamp. I didn’t last a day on that job.

      Hugs and kisses back!

  4. I have heard the term poorhouse, but did not know about the info you shared… that elderly couple’s story is so sad…

  5. i heard about the poor house growing up,so i really enjoyed this post so much,,very interesting to know it really exsisted,,i never saw one either,,i used to tell my kids there are starving kids in africa, to get them to eat or not spend so much,,,probably not politically correct this day and age

  6. Hi Margaret; I really enjoyed your blog ! I learned so much ! My dad used to say that all the time if we took long baths or had a lot lights on all the time ! Lol on realky wish you would write a book about that elderly couple and make it into a happy ending ! I already pre ordered your book in Feb. . I have all your books !;) thanks for serving the Lord and us by sharing your gift of writing ! Wow I learned so much from this blog! Thank you again Margaret! 🙂 God Bless you and your family !
    Darlene your loyal reader

    • Darlene,ah yes, the lights. Can’t forget about those. Leaving them on was a sure way to the poor house.

      Thank you so much for being a reader and reading my books. I’m both thrilled and humbled. God bless you and your family. Happy Easter!

  7. Hello Margaret. Yes, I heard that saying too. And learned about the poor houses.
    Sure got a laugh about your son starting to mail his veggies. I have heard of kids answering that “i wish they had mine”. LOL Your new books looks good.
    Thanks for your post. Maxie mac262(at)me(dot)com

  8. Hi Maxie, it looks like most of us grew up hearing about poor houses. They were kind of like the boogieman. We never really saw them but they sure did seem real.

    Have a great Easter!

  9. My husband will say to the boys, “what do you think we’re made of many”? Otherwise I can’t think of anything right now.

  10. Margaret – My family told us that we are not made of money & if we don’t mind them & do as we are told they will put us in the orphan’s home for children…..needless to say they didn’t have too much trouble from us. Love reading your books.

  11. My parents never mentioned the poor house, but with six children, I can remember them often claiming we were eating them out of house and home. I don’t remember ever hearing about a poor house when I was growing up in Northern NY. There is one near where we now live in NE Tennessee. It is closed now. When we moved here, it housed a few elderly people, but mostly those with marginal mental handicaps.

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