Overseers of the Poor (GOV.7)
Story describing how indigent town folk were cared for in the 1800s.
The Overseers of the Poor in Sedgwick, Maine. Written by Pam Simmons.
In the small villages of Hancock County in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds it was common for families and friends to help those who were unable to care for themselves. In a time when men often died young due to disease or accidents at home or at sea and many women died of disease or due to complications related to childbirth, those left behind were customarily taken into the families of relatives or neighbors where they were treated as members of the family. Some children took on the surname of their new families, and some did not.
The elderly who were no longer up to the physical demands of their farms or occupations were usually taken in by their children and remained there as valued members of the family until their deaths.
For some individuals none of these options were available and, in these cases, the town in which the person/s in need lived often took responsibility for their assistance and support. This responsibility was made law and detailed in The Laws of Maine, 1821, Chapter CXXII, An Act ascertaining what shall constitute the legal settlement; and providing for the Relief and Support, Employment and Removal of the Poor. The “legal settlement” part of the law was important in that it defined residency for a citizen of the town and made it possible to decide which town had responsibility for which individuals, a responsibility that included payment for support or services given a resident by another town or by an institution such as the Eastern Maine Insane Hospital. The rest of the law detailed the town’s responsibility to their residents in need.
Prior to the law, Sedgwick was already taking care of its own but, perhaps in response to the law, an Overseer of the Poor Board made up of the town Selectmen, was formalized and became responsible for decisions regarding the care of the indigent. The role continues to this day though the extent of their responsibilities has significantly changed.
In the 1800s care of the poor and the insane were line items in Sedgwick’s budgets and the annual reports detailed each expense. For example, in the Auditor’s Report of the Financial Condition of the Town of Sedgwick for the Year Ending February 17, 1897 there are line items in the budget for “Support of poor $500.00 and for Support of insane $175.00”. The report (last names have been redacted when possible to protect the privacy of the many descendants of these town folks) shows some of the monies expended as follows,
“North Sedgwick Grange Store, coat for Charles M., $4.50
Sidney Pert, board of Cora P., 13 weeks at $1.50, $19.50
Burley G. Young, support of infant child of Miss Maud P., 14 ½ weeks at $1.00, $14.25.”
Chapter CXXII of The Laws of Maine, 1821 was further expanded by Chapter CXXIV, An Act for Erecting Work Houses for the reception and employment of the Idle and Indigent. As you would expect, it detailed creation and use of poor houses but it appears that Sedgwick rarely had enough indigent individuals to require either a poor house or a poor farm.
In the 1800s in Sedgwick and other towns the care of persons in need was often “bid off” to town residents. Residents would bid to take care of an indigent for a certain amount. If another resident offered to care for the person for less, they would win the bid and be paid that amount by the town for providing food, shelter and, if children, education. Sometimes the indigents would be taken in and be able to help with the work of the farm or home, and sometimes they would simply be cared for in their final days, and when that person passed, the town would pay for digging a grave and burial expenses.
At times the town might give a set amount to a farmer in need with the proviso that the town be paid back with money raised from the sale of produce or other farm assets.
Occasionally children would be taken in with indenture contracts which required that, in the case of a boy, he be taught a trade and to read, write and do basic math. Girls were to be taught to read and write. Boys could be indentured until the age of 21 and girls until 18.
These approaches met the basic needs of the individuals and families but it’s hard to not feel empathy for the parents and children who were separated due to the reality that few townspeople could care for entire families. Too, widows usually had to move from their homes, and all of those in need had to move from household to household as bids for their care changed hands.
Excerpts from the journal or “Day Book” of the Sedgwick Selectmen reflect the system.
“For digging the grave of Captain Frederick C., a pauper, $1.25”
“David C.’s wife and youngest child (young David born 1818) bid off to John Dougherty @ 3 shillings per week,
Rachel C. (born 1814) indentured to Eliphet Grindle until she is 18,
Mary C. (born 1816) bid off to John Dougherty @ 3 shillings and 6 pence per week,
Widow Sarah E. bid off to Daniel Herrick for 1 year @5 shillings.
Widow Ann C. bid off to Lemuel Smith 1 year @$13 “
“David Cs wife and youngest child bid off to Abraham Reed at .80 cents per week.
Widow Ann C. bid off to Robert Wilson for $17.99 per year
Widow Sarah E. bid off to Amos Eaton @ $28 per year “
“Henry E. wife and child bid off to Andrew Gray @$32/year and in 1827 to Peter Dodge at $40”
The 1831-32 Journal or “Day Book” of the Selectmen of Sedgwick, Daniel Morgan Jr., Hezekial Dodge and Samuel Herrick included the following entries:
“This day we agreed with Enoch Hale to give him $40 for supporting John H., a pauper, for our year ending 3/10/1832.
Gave Hezekial Dodge an order for $4.29, it being for the support of Catherine C., daughter of Ann C., while in jail in Castine.”
“Gave Hezekial Dodge an order of $18.38 it being to pay the doctor bills of Judith G. and attention to her in her last sickness and funeral charges in full as set forth in several bills and receipts now on file she being a town pauper. Town Poor disposed of in 1832:
Abraham D. and wife bid off for $60 to John Dodge
George B. bid off for $22 to Israel Harden
Henry E. is to have for self and family $20
Enoch Hale took John H. for $50
Ann C. bid off for $17 to Robert Gray
Abigail G. widow was bid off to Mr. Andrew Gray for $15 to be taken care of till next March annual meeting; doctor bills and funeral charges to be paid by the town.
Elisha Allen to get $2 per week for Nathanial L. and wife”
“Mr. Carleton to board Nathanial L. and wife for $9 per week until March meeting
Jacob Pert $.50 digging grave for one of Ann C’s (a pauper) children.”
“$90 payment to Eastern Maine Insane Hospital for care of Ruby H.” (a Sedgwick resident)
In the following case, a widow (Mrs. P.) and her children were cared for by putting each child in a different home. “John Emerson took Mrs. P and child, Hiram H. Gray to take one P. girl, Levi C. Gray to take a P. girl, John F. Gray to take P. boy (Charles) and his brother.”
If a Sedgwick resident received assistance while in another town, that town could request reimbursement from the town of origin. Examples in 1897 included:
“Overseers of poor, Deer Isle, aid to Mrs. George M. C’s family, 1895 and 1896, $49.93.
Overseers of poor, Ellsworth, aid to Lucy J. P, $16.00.
Overseers of poor, Bangor, aid to Mary C, $26.20”
The Sedgwick selectmen were careful to balance their responsibility for the town needy with the town’s need for a balanced budget. Each request from another town for reimbursement was reviewed and sometimes refused, as seen in the following 1843 letter (with a transcription to follow), from the Overseers of the Poor of the Town of Castine to their counterparts in Sedgwick. As happened in this case, funding would be denied if the person in need was not a Sedgwick resident.
Castine July 22. 1843
Gent. Mr. Thomas Gray having his legal settlement in the Town of Sedgwick was about a month since found in this Town in distress and standing in need of immediate relief—Necessary supplies & medical aid have been furnished him by this town & charged to the town of Sedgwick. Will you cause the same to be paid & oblige.
Overseers of the Poor of the Town of Castine
To the Overseers of the Poor of the Town of Sedgwick Me.
Sedgwick Augt. 8. 1843 Gent.
Yours of the 22d — is before us notifying us that you had a charge against this town on account of Ths. N. Gray, a pauper. Gent. the said pauper Ths. N. Gray we disclaim. Therefore shall pay no charges on his account. As he is no doubt an inhabitant of Bluehill and has been supported there as a pauper.
Very respectfully yours-
D. Morgan Jr. Per order of the board of overseers of the poor–Sedgwick
Beginning in the 1920s and 30s much of the responsibility for assisting the needy was taken on by the State or Federal Governments or other programs. These additional resources have had significant impact on the town but Sedgwick continues to budget for “general assistance” and the selectmen, as Overseers of the Poor, a designation that continues to this day, provide limited, and confidential support to townspeople in need.