In a pile of dust-covered documents in the vital records room of her office in the Wilkes County Courthouse, Wilkes Register of Deeds Misty Smithey recently found old records giving insight into care for poor in the county from the mid- to late-1800s.
Smithey came across a leather-bound ledger with minutes of the Wilkes County Wardens of the Poor, a predecessor to today’s Wilkes Department of Social Services. The minutes begin in 1854 and continue through 1879, with gaps of varying length.
Each county in the state had wardens of the poor from the late 1700s until the current state constitution was adopted in 1868. The wardens of the poor were initially elected by voters and later appointed by county courts. The term, “wardens,” apparently was derived from “church wardens” in Europe.
County commissioners were ex officio wardens from 1868 until the creation of Boards of Public Welfare in 1917.
The wardens of the poor received “poor tax” dollars collected by the sheriff and decided who received the aid and how much. The recipients, who included the aged and mentally or physically handicapped, were called “paupers.”
Records show a “poor tax” was collected in Wilkes as early as 1783.
The minutes include dates and places of meetings, names of wardens present and payment to wardens, clerks and ”keepers of the poor.” They also list names of people receiving aid, amounts of aid, reasons for aid in a few instances, receipts of funds and appointments of keepers of the poor.
They list men paid and amounts paid for securing food, clothes, beds, caskets and other items and orders for construc¬tion or repair of buildings.
For example, Jordan Chavis was paid $6 for making two coffins for paupers and Andrew Ferguson was paid $5 for digging graves for them in 1870.
Also in December 1870, R.L. Hix was approved for payment of $445 for building a poor house. Hugh Joines was paid $1.50 for building a coffin for a pauper that year.
The county’s wardens of the poor in 1854 were Hezekiah Curtis, S.J. Becknell, Hamilton Brown, Lytle Hickerson, John Hall, James O. Horton and A.G. Whittington. They elected James B. Gordon as clerk. Disbursements to about 10 people are listed that year.
In 1859, $508.61 was collected in taxes for the poor.
When the wardens for the poor met on Jan. 16, 1860, James B. Gordon was chairman. A little over a year later, Gordon enlisted in the Confederate Army and rose to the rank of major general before he was mortally wounded in 1864.
John Hall, John Rousseau, A.A. Whittington, Samuel Gambill and S.J. Becknell met as wardens of the poor in July 1862 to approve disbursements. Four recipients are listed, receiving $8 to $15.
According to the minutes, R. Smith was paid $20 for serving as clerk to the wardens of the poor and the wardens themselves were paid $10 in 1864.
S.J. Becknell was paid $50 as chairman from July 1863 to May 11, 1864.
Apparently actng in the capacity of wardens of the poor in January 1868 were B.C. Calloway, J.B. Dancy, H. Hays, Pickens Carlton and Allan Denny. They hired Ambrose Wiles as keeper of the poor through a bidding process. I.S. Call, former clerk to the wardens of the poor, was also paid.
For the period April 1, 1868, to Jan. 1, 1869, Emanuel Cranor was keeper of the poor and was paid based on the rate of $65 per person.
On Dec. 3 1870, the “paupers were sold to the lowest bidder” for their care for the coming year. The minutes appear to say E. Cranor & Sons was the lowest bidder at $39.90 per pauper for the year.
Over 50 people receiving assistance are listed in March 1879, mostly less than $10 apiece.
Dorothea Dix referenced the lack of a poor house in Wilkes in an 1848 report in which she advocated construction of a state hospital for the insane. Dix wrote, “Wilkes jail is an old building, and so far as the jailor is accountable, is well kept: it is isolated, and a wretched place whether for the prisoner, or the insane who are sometimes confined here. There is no poor-house in this County. Five or six cases of insanity have been reported to me….”
Many of the poor in Wilkes were provided for at the “county home” on N.C. 268 East in North Wilkesboro for much of the 20th century.