Overseers of the Poor, 1754-1911

RECORD GROUP: County Clerk
SERIES: Overseers of the Poor
DATES: 1754-1911
VOLUME: 1 manuscript box, 0.5 linear feet, 64 cases

Case of John Bird, pauper, 1792, heard by Overseers Gabriel Woodmansee and George Cook
***Click here to search the Overseers of the Poor database***
There are 64 records of cases in Overseers of the Poor collection. Mostly they involve a destitute person applying for aid, and the decision of the Overseer.

For centuries, government authorities have been concerned about three types of poor: deserving, undeserving (vagrants), and working poor who though employed do not have sufficient means to support their families.  Legislation addressing the needs of the severely economically disadvantaged in English society dates back to the Elizabethan Poor Law in 1601, which, as historian John A. Grigg has explained, “designated the parish as the administrative unit through which public poor relief would be dispensed.”  This law also established the office of the Overseer of the Poor. These Overseers were prosperous and respected local leaders who would try to find work for the unemployed and bind out their children as indentured servants or apprentices.

The system of leaving assistance for the economically disadvantaged up to those in the local community was continued in the colony of New Jersey.  In 1671, West Jersey passed legislation that permitted the establishment of workhouses and, in 1676, West Jersey authorized appointed officials to take care of orphans. The first law dealing with impoverished residents in East Jersey, including Monmouth County, was passed on March 1, 1682. It established county jails (“gaols”) for felons, vagrants, and idle persons.  The concern here was, in part, to discourage vagrancy.

To fund aid for the poor, the New Jersey General Assembly provided in 1704 that fines for drunkenness, cursing, swearing and breaking the Sabbath be given to the Overseers for the use of a town’s poor. Apparently, that funding source was inadequate, as seen by the next significant legislation on this subject.  “An Act for the Relief of the Poor” was passed by the New Jersey colonial legislature in 1709, the first in the state to specifically address how the dole would be managed. Since there were no parishes as in England, “Townships or Precincts” were designated.  Assessors were made responsible for collecting taxes on town inhabitants to fund payments to the penniless and designated the Overseers of the Poor with the responsibility for determining eligibility and delivering it. Those refusing appointments as Overseers or Assessors were fined 5 pounds.

This system remained in place for many years but additional legislation refined it.  One of the ongoing concerns of the towns was to avoid the necessity of providing charity to nonresidents. The Act of July 1, 1740, specified that relief would be limited to those who had been a resident for at least one year.  On July 21, 1740, another Act required the Overseers to bring vagrants before two magistrates, who could send them back to where they came from, accompanied by constables.

Back in 1702, after East and West Jersey merged, Queen Anne had instructed the first royal governor, Lord Cornbury, to build workhouses “for the employing of poor and indigent People.” But none have been definitely documented until the middle of the 18th century, when the Act of December 16, 1748, authorized Middlesex County to build one.  This Act also gave the workhouse committee the right to compel those indigents who had asked for succor, to live and toil at the workhouse.  In 1758, all towns in New Jersey were given blanket permission by the Assembly to build or purchase houses to care for locals with a dearth of resources, provided that a majority of the inhabitants approved.

The next significant legislation regarding care of the impecunious was the Act of March 11, 1774.  It distinguished between outdoor relief (supporting the poor in their own homes or in boarding homes) and indoor relief (maintaining the unfortunates in an institution).  The Act limited the number of a town’s overseers to four and specified that when a pauper applied to the Overseer of the Poor, the Overseer and a Justice of the Peace would investigate.  If the Justice of the Peace agreed to provide sustenance, then the overseer would give the indigent applicant an amount no greater than the Justice of the Peace specified.  The law also required the Overseer to keep a record book with the names of the recipients, how much was given, and when.  If the Overseer gave money to an individual without the authorization of the Justice of the Peace, he would not be reimbursed.  The Overseer was required to present his record books at the annual Town Meeting for examination and he was penalized five pounds if he did not make this accounting.

The same 1774 law also required that those on public support wear The Badge of Poverty, which had been introduced in New York City in 1707.  The Badge of Poverty was to be worn on the shoulder of the right sleeve.  It consisted of a large P with the first letter of the town, in red or blue.  If a poverty-stricken person on relief refused to wear the Badge, then financial support would be withdrawn. Badges were not abolished until 1874, along with another 1774 provision that authorized 15 lashes on male vagrants who returned without authorization after they had been deported to their last town of residence.

The system of providing sustenance for those in a state of penury in New Jersey was maintained when the colony became a state.  To reduce costs, some towns shared almshouses and other institutions were operated by counties. In 1801, the Monmouth Board of Chosen Freeholders authorized the construction of a poorhouse in Shrewsbury.

Municipalities did not wish to support paupers who had recently arrived in their locality because it was felt that this would just encourage mendicants to move there.  To discourage the settling of chronically unemployed individuals in the state, residents who took the down and out into their homes became legally responsible for them, even for their funeral expenses if they died.

Sometimes municipalities battled in the courts of Common Pleas, Circuit Court, or Quarter Sessions, contesting who was responsible for the upkeep of an impoverished individual.  For example, in 1871, in Inhabitants of Millstone vs. Inhabitants of Freehold, the towns disputed the legal residence of nonagenarian Jennie Crummel, who had been a slave of Samuel Mount in Millstone until his death about 17 years previously, and had never been manumitted or sold.  Following Mount’s death, she had been supported by his executors in Freehold Township.  In 1872, at the age of 92, Crummel died in Millstone, after the Quarter Sessions court decided that town was responsible for her.

In 1883, the Bureau of Statistics of New Jersey found 41 poorhouses in the state, 12 managed by counties and 29 by municipalities.  While some towns boarded those without any means of livelihood with local residents, 196 townships used the 41 poorhouses. Thirty-three of the almshouses housed 4,661 inmates, including many children.  Some of these people were insane and all were disabled in some way.  Monmouth County reported that those confined were suffering mostly from “old age, poor health, and friendlessness.”

Authorities became sufficiently concerned about the prevalence of illegitimate children born in poorhouses that the Act of May 6, 1889, specified that men and women had to have separate facilities. The harm of exposing children to conditions inside these institutions was a factor in the State Legislature’s Act of 1899 that established the State Board of Children’s Guardians and forbade children between the ages of one and sixteen from staying in almshouses for more than 30 days.

A 1911 New Jersey law (Ch. 196) reassigned many of the responsibilities of the Justices of the Peace to the Overseers of the Poor, with the exception of cases involving fathers who deserted their families.  As previously, Overseers were required to keep books with records of the names of those assisted and the amounts paid.  To defray government expense, they were also authorized to sell property of those reduced to penury no earlier than one year after the support was provided, with any balance left over given to the pauper or the pauper’s designees.  One important change was that Overseers were authorized to give help to the needy regardless of residence; if settlement was found to be elsewhere, the cost could be charged to that place until deportation.

In 1915, the New Jersey State Charities Aid and Prison Reform Association reported that most of the town almshouses had disappeared although a few unsatisfactory ones remained.  It recommended that the destitute be cared for at the twelve county poorhouses.  By 1931, there were 3,061 inmates in New Jersey’s poorhouses, of which 1,225 were 70 years old or older.  In Monmouth, there were 78, fifty-four of whom were more than 70.

In 1924, the State Legislature passed two important acts that profoundly transformed government aid for the poor in New Jersey while retaining certain practices.  Chapter 67, March 7, 1924, mandated that the State would pay indigent expenses in both State and county institutions, thereby encouraging municipalities to discontinue their own almshouses.  A few days later, on March 11, the lengthy and detailed Chapter 132 was passed with 97 sections. With certain exceptions, it replaced municipal poorhouses with county welfare houses and established county welfare boards, consisting of the director of the county board of freeholders, plus four appointees, two of whom could be women.  These boards would be responsible for managing the welfare houses and appointing the welfare house superintendent.  District welfare houses for contiguous counties were permitted.  Poor persons continued to apply for aid to Overseers of the Poor, who could be men or women.  The Overseers would bring cases before the Court of Common Pleas.  Assistance could be provided in the indigent’s own home or in the county welfare house.  The Overseer could also contract with the poor citizen’s relatives for support. The minimum term of settlement that determined eligibility for a helping hand was set at five years.  At welfare houses, inmates with tubercular diseases had to be maintained in a separate building.  Females and males had to be segregated, except for aged married couples. These laws of 1924 established the framework for poor relief in New Jersey for the rest of the Twentieth Century.

See the Archives’ guide to the Monmouth County Welfare Board records for additional historical information.


Ellis, William J.  Public Welfare in New Jersey.  Reprinted from The Story of New Jersey. William S. Myers, ed.  Lewis Historical Publishing, 1945.  [Sinclair Collection, Rutgers Special Collections & University Archives]

Grigg, John A. “’Ye relief of ye poor of sd towne’: Poverty and Localism in Eighteenth-Century New Jersey,” New Jersey History, 125:2, 23-35. http://njh.libraries.rutgers.edu/index.php/njh/article/view/1057

Monmouth Quarter Sessions, Minutes Book, 1856-1874, Monmouth County Archives.

Stanton, Martin W., Rev. History of Public Poor Relief in New Jersey, 1609-1934.  Ph.D. Dissertation, Fordham University, 1934.  [Sinclair Collection, Rutgers Special Collections & University Archives]

The series contains records of the cases of 64 people in 20 different towns. Cases comprise two or three pages each.

This records are open to researchers without restrictions.

Overseer of the Poor records are listed online at Overseers of the Poor and at the Monmouth County Archives.  The index at the archives includes: Year, Name, Town, Removed To, and Notes. A container list is also included with this finding aid.

The records are arranged alphabetically by person.

Monmouth County Archives
125 Symmes Drive
Manalapan, NJ 07726
Phone: 732-308-3771

This collection was transferred to the Monmouth County Archives by the County Clerk, Jane G. Clayton, before 1994.

An Access database index was created by Mary Ann Kiernan in 2007. The records were digitally scanned in November 2012. The finding aid was created by Tara L. Christiansen in July 2012 and updated by Gary Saretzky and George Joynson in February 2016.

About 50 more Overseer of the Poor cases are in Common Pleas loose papers, 1723-1900, when two Overseers from different towns contested the residence of the poor person and which municipality would ultimately be responsible for paying living arrangements. There is another case in Circuit Court records and two more cases in Quarter Sessions.

Name of Individual Town Year
_, Kate Ocean Twp. 1851
Agin, Margaret Ocean 1854
Aston, Cornelius 1785
Bennett, Richard A. Ocean Twp. 1881
Bennett, Thomas Shrewsbury 1877
Benson, Jesse Millstone 1881
Brash, Jacob Millstone 1874
Brown, John Perrine Raritan 1876
Brown, Rebecca Millstone 1868
Burd, John 1791
Carhart, Anabelle Raritan 1876
Chadwick, Albert Keyport 1884
Champlin, Howard A. Raritan 1894
Cheesman, Lucy Upper Freehold 1792
Combs, John Freehold 1806
Conk, Samuel 1888
Conover, Anna Atlantic 1876
Conover, Charles Atlantic 1876
Conover, Frances Atlantic 1876
Conover, Henry Raritan 1886
Conover, Richard Atlantic 1876
Conover, Samuel 1876
Conover, Silas Higgins Marlboro 1874
Cooper, Hester Freehold 1785
Crumell, Jenny Freehold 1869
Eades, William Shrewsbury 1856
Erwing, Isaac G. Atlantic Highlands 1888
Giles, Nelson Asbury Park 1911
Gravatt, David Upper Freehold 1879
Hendrickson, Daniel G. 1857
Higgins, Lewis Manalapan 1864
Hill, Lydia Middletown 1885
Himadi, David Asbury Park 1902
Holmes, Arintha Freehold 1886
Hughes, Charles Shrewsbury 1877
Johnson, Ezekial Shrewsbury 1899
Jordan, Rosanna Manalapan 1874
Lacey, Jane Eatontown 1882
Lee, Isaac Howard Long Branch 1889
Longstreet, John Wall 1859
Lynch, Martha Matawan 1878
McCoy, William Upper Freehold 1845
Megill, William Howell 1885
Morris, George Eatontown 1884
Morris, Lydia Shrewsbury 1790
O’Connell, John Oceanport 1878
Opey, William Perth Amboy 1785
Powelson, Absalon Marlboro 1881
Reeves, Josephine Eatontown 1887
Rogers, John M. Millstone 1853
Smock, Henry Keyport 1884
Soffel, John C. Shrewsbury 1898
Sparks, James Upper Freehold 1758
Stewart, Alice Freehold 1892
Thuxon, Harris Manalapan 1874
Tinney, Annie Marlboro 1877
Truxson, Joseph Manalapan 1856
Vanbrunt, Annie Atlantic 1884
Walker, Ann Freehold 1754
West, Sarah 1783
White, Frank Wall 1883
Willett, William C. Middletown 1878
Williams, John Matawan 1878
Williams, Margaret Eatontown 1889
Wilson, Charles H. Atlantic 1896