In the early 1800s port cities in the United States bore the burdens of immigration. By the time immigrants arrived from their native country, many were tired, hungry, and poor. Many newly arrived immigrants ended up in the City Almshouse or Poorhouse. This meant the citizens of their new country had to take care of them.
At first citizens of port cities such as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York asked their Mayors for funds to support the poor. Eventually they asked the states, and by mid-century some states set up state agencies to deal with the issue. Eventually, beginning in the 1880's, the Federal Government nationalized the programs.
Dating back to the colonial era, New York City assumed responsibility for its citizens who were destitute, sick, homeless, or otherwise unable to care for themselves. The city maintained an almshouse (sometimes labeled a house of refuge), various hospitals, and a workhouse on Blackwell's Island (now called Roosevelt Island) to care for the poor. Some were admitted on a voluntary basis, others were sent by the local courts.
There are many women in these records. Widows or single women with no families to support them often had no recourse except to ask the city for help for themselves or their children. Abandoned children are also found in these records.
These Almshouse records are a genealogist’s treasure and often contain immigration details. Some contain basic information on each person admitted, such as the name of ship, the date of arrival in USA and the port of arrival. Others contain much more information.
Almshouse records for New York City exist from 1758 to 1953. Olive Tree Genealogy has an ongoing project to transcribe and publish all New York Almshouse Records that contain immigration information.
Project Number One
The first set of New York Almshouse admittance records is for the years 1782 to 1813.
New York Almshouse Records 1782-1813. Records contain name of ancestor, date admitted, age, where from or born, complaint [illness], discharged, died, remarks.
Project Number Two
This set of New York Almshouse Admissions covers the years 1819-1840 and includes Name, Age, Place of birth, Ship Name, Where the person is from, Ship Captain's Name, Date of Bond, Sureties, Date Discharged, Death Date, Remarks, etc. Remarks often include genealogical details of the indigent person.
For example, under date 1820 March 11 Elizabeth Kennedy age 34 is listed as having died June 14, 1820; her daughter Mary Ann died Nov. 5, 1820
Researchers can use the clues in the Almshouse records (admission date, ship captain's name, owner's name, etc) as well as census records, to narrow the time frame of arrival. Families with children born in one country, such as England, and then in New York will find it much easier to narrow the time frame of immigration.
Project Number Three
The third set of Almshouse admission records for New York city is for 1855-1858 and contains the following information: Name, age, country of origin, date of arrival, arrival port, departure port, name of ship, captain of ship, married or single, name of someone who knows them, how many times they have been on the island, and a section for remarks. The remarks field often contains the date of discharge from the Almshouse.
Other New York Almshouse Resources
There are 30 sets of Almshouse records for New York City that are available on microfilm through FamilySearch.
For New England poor records see "Looking After the Poor: Finding Your Ancestors in New England Poverty Records" in the Legacy Family Tree Webinar library.
Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "House Of Refuge, Randall'S Island." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1853. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-d364-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Left and Right side of pages from Admission Book copied by Lorine McGinnis Schulze from microfilm.