"Give Me Your Poor..."
Although I started off my local history journey as an amateur family history researcher, I've long since shifted my focus away from genealogy toward broader place and social histories. They overlap in many instances and for both patrons and my personal interest, I still occasionally go barking up the proverbial family tree, but for the most part these days, I stick to the bigger picture histories.
Every once in a while, though, newly discovered resources send me into a fit of genealogical epilepsy. That recently happened when I came across a dusty, unlabeled ledger that contained the minutes for the Spartanburg County Commissioners of the Poor from 1796 to 1827.
This ledger had been missing since the WPA era when a rough transcription was apparently made and the original vanished either from the state archives (where the transcription resides) or the Spartanburg County Courthouse. Its intervening history remains unknown. I found it in the history museum archives, but it had not been processed. What appears to be part of a WPA transcription form marked a page in the ledger. It was as if some transcriber stopped, put the book down, and never picked it up again.
There are several reasons this ledger could be particularly useful for family historians with a connection to Spartanburg County. The first has to do with its age. As you can imagine, there really aren't too many records from the late 18th and early 19th century in this part of the state. Courthouse records, military pension records, church records, the occasional family bible, and woefully inadequate census records form nearly the extent of the primary resources available. Combine the scarcity of resources overall with a documentary bias toward social elites (after all, wealthy landowners leave far more records than the forgotten, illiterate poor) and what you have is virtually no information for the small scale farmers and sharecroppers of that time period. From my own experience in tracing my family's history, some of those poorer families just disappear into the silence as you try to trace them further back. There just aren't records to show what their names were or that they were even alive.
This ledger, on the other hand, is focused on the destitute and the wealthier individuals and families that oversaw their well-being. The commission operated by distributing funds to folks who petitioned the commission on behalf of a neighbor who could not take care of him- or herself either because of old age, abandonment, the death of a family member, or some other extenuating circumstance. The commission then awarded the money for as long as the individual needed assistance. Essentially, it was the older form of welfare, and it's all documented here.
I hope to be able to browse through it soon and make it more accessible to patrons. These are truly the forgotten, and I hope this ledger can help reunite them with their families today.