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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 ($).


Court Records

Obviously court records will give clues about incarceration in penal institutions, whether they are county jails, state penitentiaries, or federal prison. When a defendant is found guilty in a criminal trial, the case file will contain information on the sentencing, including the place of incarceration and the length of the sentence to be served. This information may also be found in minute books or other volumes kept by the court. Probate courts may also handle cases which involve institutionalization. Depending upon the jurisdiction, the probate court may be the venue for determining legal sanity (or insanity). Some insanity proceedings had merit. If an heir to an estate were not able to understand his or her rights and responsibilities in the probate process, the court could appoint a guardian to oversee that heir’s legal rights.

However, some insanity proceedings had less than honorable motives. Insanity was grounds for divorce in some states; having a spouse declared insane and institutionalized gave a basis for a divorce. In the instance of an “insane” heir, an unscrupulous guardian could divert property and other assets rightfully belonging to that heir.

Township trustees were often charged with providing for the indigent in their jurisdiction. Some, especially children, were bound over to individuals or families for a period determined by the trustees. Others were sent to county infirmaries, poor houses, or work farms.

Similarly, county commissioners had responsibilities toward the poor and infirm. Most of the references to institutions in county commissioner records tend to be of a business or financial nature—how much it cost to operate the infirmary, salaries for the employees, etc. On occasion, you will find references to specific individuals.

The Freeborn County (Minnesota)Standard of 26 March 1884 reported on the minutes of a recent County Commissioners meeting:

Messrs. Roasberry and Colby appeared before the board [of County Commissioners] with a communication from John Noyes, Esq., superintendent of the Minnesota school for the deaf, requesting an appropriation in the sum of $30 from the county for the purpose of defraying the expense for articles of clothing for Bertoline and Maren Daur, two mute children placed in the above named institution from this county...

Clues in the Census

Researchers often use the federal census to glean information about dates and places of birth, residence, and relationships. A closer examination of census records reveals a world of research possibilities.

Census records began as simply a way to count the population in order to allot the proper number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. That remains its official purpose today. Over the years, however, the census evolved into a means of collecting additional demographic information.

1830 and 1840 Censuses

The early censuses (1790 through 1840) enumerated households simply by naming the head of household and showing the number of males and females in specific age groups. Genealogists are often frustrated by these censuses because of their lack of specific information. However, two censuses in this period—1830 and 1840—offer information about physical conditions. Not everyone with these conditions were in an institution, but it is certainly a lead worth following.

The 1830 census asked the number of people who were:

  • deaf and dumb, aged under 14
  • deaf and dumb, aged 14 and under 25
  • deaf and dumb, aged 25 and up
  • blind

These categories were divided between whites and ‘slaves and colored persons’.

The 1840 census gives additional information. For whites, it asked how many were:

  • deaf and dumb, aged under 14
  • deaf and dumb, aged 14 and under 25
  • deaf and dumb, aged 25 and up
  • blind
  • insane and idiots at public charge
  • insane and idiots at private charge

The breakdown for ‘colored persons’ was not as detailed. The categories were:

  • deaf and dumb
  • blind
  • insane and idiots at public charge
  • insane and idiots at private charge

The 1840 census also ask the number of household members who were:

  • students at universities and colleges
  • scholars at academies and grammar schools
  • scholars at primary and common schools
  • scholars at public charge

It is important to realize these are clues. You do not know which of the people in the household is represented in these categories. Further, you do not know if they were ever institutionalized. Those who were shown as being students were in school, but you do not know which one.

1850, 1860, and 1870 Censuses

The federal census continued to evolve. The information took a giant leap forward with the 1850 census, due in no small part to the efforts of Lemuel Shattuck of Boston. Shattuck, a founder of the American Statistical Association, was instrumental in the design of the 1850 census, the first federal census to list each household member by name.

Shattuck had a keen interest in statistics and public health. HisReport of the Sanitary Commission of Massachusetts, 1850 is considered a key document in public health history. Shattuck believed that by gathering and analyzing information about a population, steps could be taken to improve the public health. (Shattuck was also a genealogist; he was one of the founders of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. One has to wonder if his efforts in designing the 1850 census were done partially with an eye to the needs of future researchers.)

Beginning with the 1850 census, you can see specifically which person in the household was deaf, blind, etc. You can also see the names of the people in jail on the census date. Heading 13 on the 1850 census asks whether the person was ‘Deaf and dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper, or convict’; enumerators were instructed to write the applicable term. Further, when a jail or penitentiary was enumerated, they were to write the offense of which the person was convicted. Next to the inmate’s name, they were to write the year of conviction.

In 1850 and 1860, slaves were enumerated on schedules separate from the free population. The number of deaf, blind, insane, or idiotic was shown in a table. Like the 1830 and 1840 censuses, you cannot tell which person was so noted.

The 1860 and 1870 censuses are virtually identical to the 1850 census with regard to the notations of blind, deaf, insane, idiotic, pauper, or convict.

The 1880 federal census, specifically the population schedules that we are accustomed to using, brought the greatest revelation in federal censuses— relationships to the head of household. From 1850 through 1870, we could see the names of everyone in the household, but we could only make suppositions about their relationships. Beginning in 1880, the census tells us how everyone is related to the head of household.

Like the earlier censuses, the 1880 census asked if a person was blind, deaf and dumb, idiotic, insane, ‘maimed, crippled, bedridden, or otherwise disabled’. As you will see, that is only the beginning of the information in 1880.


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

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.