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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course United States: Institutional Records by Amy Johnson Crow, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Introduction To Institutional Records
Often the people listed on ancestor charts and family groups sheets are reduced to the facts shown on those charts-names with dates and places of birth, marriage and death. But between birth and death, there was a life.
Our ancestors, being human as we are, had their strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. They may have been pillars of the community or lived on the fringes of society. They may have been healthy their entire lives, or they may have battled disease with varying degrees of success. It is because these ancestors were real people that researchers must consider examining institutional records.
Charitable and penal institutions have been a part of America from the earliest days. Almshouses for the poor and orphanages for ‘friendless’ children dotted the landscape beginning in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. County jails date from the earliest days of this country. Prisons and workhouses saw their start in earnest in the 1820s. By the mid 1800s, many if not most counties in the eastern United States had a ‘county home’ for the poor and indigent, often doubling as a hospital or asylum for the physically or mentally disabled.
Although the success or failure of such institutions has long been debated by scholars, charitable and penal institutions often have valuable records for genealogists and family historians. Criteria for admission into such institutions in the past two centuries were often different than today, resulting in more of our ancestors being directly effected. The nature of the records, as you will discover throughout this course, can be of benefit to genealogical research even if it was a collateral relative rather than a direct ancestor who was institutionalized.
What Types of Institutions This Course Will Focus Upon
The term ‘institution’ can refer to a variety of organizations and localities. Libraries, museums, schools and theaters can be thought of as institutions, especially when run by a government entity. This course, however, will focus upon institutions dealing with the care of the poor, the sick, orphans, etc. It will also cover educational and penal (or correctional) institutions.
Sponsors of Institutions
Institutions are found at every level of government-federal, state, and local. The federal government maintains homes and hospitals for veterans and penitentiaries for those convicted of federal statutes. Individual states maintain their own prison systems, as well as hospitals for various conditions, most commonly mental illness. In addition, states also have schools for the deaf and the blind. Counties run jails and county homes.
Present-day America does not see very many government-run orphanages or poor houses. However, they were common in the 19th and early 20th centuries. That time period also saw various types of government hospitals, including those for tuberculosis and intemperance.
The government is not the only sponsor of charitable institutions. Churches have long run alms houses, orphanages and schools. Many hospitals in the United States have a church affiliation.
Fraternal organizations, such as the Masons and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, have run homes for elderly members, their wives and widows. Such organizations have also run hospitals and orphanages in locations across the United States.
Orphanages and hospitals (such as those for unwed mothers) have sometimes been sponsored by individuals or local community groups.
Soldiers, veterans, and their families were often served in separate institutions from those of the general population. Hospitals, infirmaries, prisons, and orphanages all have military counterparts. If you are researching someone who served in the military, include in your search institutions that served veterans and their families.
What Information May Be Found
Institutional records contain, at a minimum, the name of the person institutionalized. However, the records are often much more robust than that.
Benevolent institutions (those caring for the poor, the sick and orphans) often recorded family and health information. A family might be described as “consumptive” if many of the relatives came down with consumption (even though consumption, or tuberculosis, is an infectious disease).
Conditions of a hereditary nature, though not studied as ‘genetic’ until the mid-20th century, were indirectly referred to by medical professionals. Were the parents or any siblings similarly ‘afflicted’? Institutions were interested in this and often recorded family information.
The burgeoning fields of psychiatry and psychology also had their impact on the records that benevolent and penal institutions kept. What were the conditions in the home? Was the patient or any family members ‘intemperate’? Did the family have a religious background?
School records often yield information about all of the children in the family. In many cases, these records resemble the family group sheets that we use to organize our data. Beyond names and ages, school records might even reveal information about the family’s migration. Those schools which served a specific population (such as for the deaf and the blind) may contain health information. Private school records may give social and financial information about the family.
Many institutions kept death records even when such records were not required in the general population. Ohio, for example, did not require counties to keep birth or death records until 1867. However, the records of the Fairfield County Infirmary (also known as the Fairfield County Poorhouse) list numerous births and deaths starting at its opening in 1848.
| FETTERS, Catherine. Age 21, resident of Richland Township, admitted 27 March 1852. Died 3 October 1852.
FETTERS (infant of Catherine). Admitted 14 May 1852. “Born 14 May 1852, died 15 May 1852.” 
Even after jurisdictions were required to keep civil birth and death records, these events which occurred in institutions may not be recorded with those of the general populace. Consider the Fairfield County Infirmary as an example again. The register indicates the death of William A. Lamb on 28 September 1878 . This was a full 11 years after Ohio required county probate courts to record births and deaths. However, William’s death is not recorded in the death records kept by the Fairfield County probate court. This not the only instance of a post-1867 infirmary birth or death going unrecorded in the ‘regular’ records.
Institutional records, beyond the information they contain, can also serve as leads to other information. Penal records may lead researchers back to court records, police reports and even newspaper records. Veterans’ homes and hospitals can lead back to military service records. Records of almshouses, poor farms, and orphanages may lead to court records or even church records. In the coming modules, we will explore how institutional records can lead to other avenues of research.
Institutions, by nature, deal with groups of people in similar circumstances. Researching a specific institution (or institutions of that type in the region) can give genealogists a more complete picture of the person in question. The records which give information on individuals may reveal clues about that population. For example, looking at the admission records of a school for the deaf will give the researcher an idea of the average age of the student population. Reading the prisoner register of the state penitentiary can reveal the nature of the crimes for which the prisoners were incarcerated. With this information, a researcher can compare his or her ancestor against this norm.
Moving from the specific to the general, genealogists can also gain a sense of the ‘time and space’ in which the ancestor lived by reading documents such as the institution’s annual reports and trustees or directors reports. Such reports give overviews of conditions in the institutions and problems it may have faced.
Access to the Records
Access to any group of records is a two-part equation. First, a researcher needs to find the records. Second, the researcher needs to be allowed to examine those records. Institutional records may be challenging on both parts.
Finding the records of government-sponsored institutions is generally easier than those of private institutions. Government institutions, by and large, had more requirements about the records they kept. The records of these institutions also fall under the record retention schedules mandated by that particular jurisdiction. Obviously, not all government records have been maintained according to the schedules. However, the chances of government institution records being extant are greater than those of private institutions.
Private institutions have often had less stringent requirements about the information they collected about the people they served (meaning there may be fewer records to begin with.) These institutions are private businesses. Like any other private business, the records do not fall under any governmental record retention schedule.
When a school closed, for example, the student records may have stayed with the principal, been transferred to another school, or were thrown away when the doors closed. We will cover finding the records more in depth in Module 6.
The second part of the equation-examining the records-can be difficult for both government and private institutions. Because of privacy concerns, many institutions will not allow the public at large to view any records containing health information. Many state and local governments have established time frames for releasing the information to the public, not making the records available for 75 or 100 years after the event. Unfortunately, many institutions simply close the records regardless of when the event occurred.
All is not lost if you are working in a jurisdiction where the records are not open to the public. The institution (or the repository which houses the records) might allow inspection of the record in specific circumstances when, for example:
- the subject in question is deceased.
- the researcher is the person named in the record or the heir of the person named in the record.
- there is a legal requirement for the release of such information, such as the settlement of an estate. (This usually requires specific forms or affidavits of the parties involved.)
Surprisingly, penal records are usually considered open records (at least before a certain time frame). A recent search for the keyword ‘prison’ on the Family History Library’s online catalog yielded 746 results. A search for ‘penitentiary’ yielded 57 results and ‘jail’ 166 results. As you will see in Module 5, it sometimes pays off to have family members who ran afoul of the law.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US: Institutional Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.