As I have done research on my family's history, I've come to learn that some of my ancestors were poor, possibly living in dire poverty. I say possibly only because I am still doing research into my ancestors, to find out what their lives were like, and I do not know exactly how poor some of them were.
What the little that I do know about the financial conditions of my ancestors comes from the research that I have done so far on my family. Out of the few ancestors that I have an idea of their economic standing, the one I know the most about is my Civil War ancestor, Adam Oswalt. Outside of his service in the Civil War, Adam earned his living either as a farmer, farm laborer or laborer (depending upon the document where his occupation was listed). In addition, it appears that he was poor most of his life, and that he could not afford to own land, except for one time in his life.
In the summer of 1870, Adam purchased a piece of land in the village of Three Rivers, Michigan for about $2,000. In addition, as part of the terms of purchase, Adam had to pay a $125 mortgage that was on the property as well. Of course, it is hard to comprehend now how much that money is worth, so I decided to look for a historical currency converter online. I found a site, and although I am leery of using online sources, this site suggests that $125 dollars in 1870 would be worth about $2,092. 65 today. I also looked to see how much $2,000 would have been worth back then, and today that amount would probably be worth about $33,480.96. In short, my ancestor spent a considerable sum of money on a piece of property and the mortgage for that property, especially when one takes into account that he worked as a laborer and had to support a wife and five children (one of which had just been born in June of that year) as well.
As one might imagine, Adam did not own the property for very long, and about a year later, in 1871, he sold his land to two men (from what I can recall off the top of my head, one of them was a lawyer) for less than he had paid for the land. I think it is safe to assume that Adam could not afford to pay the mortgage and had to sell his land. I can only imagine how discouraging it must have been for him to work so hard and save enough money to buy a piece of land only to be forced to sell it within a year. (I should also mention that Adam was illiterate at the time he sold his land as this factors largely in the types of jobs he had.)
After Adam sold his property, I do not know what finances were like for him or his family until the 1880 U. S. census. (I'll have to do further research.) In 1880, Adam's wife had died, and the family was split up. The children had been sent to live and work with other families, and Adam was living in the household of another farming couple near (possibly) his children. By this time, it is obvious that Adam could not support his family and he had to have other people take in his children. In addition, Adam never remarried, and I believe it is due to his inability to support his family that he never did so. (I should also mention that the United States had just pulled out of a economic depression the year before, and undoubtedly, that played a role in Adam's inability to support his family.)
After 1880, life for Adam apparently did not get better. Between 1884 and 1890, he moved to Rockford, Illinois, and although I still do not know why he moved there, I do know that he struggled to survive while he lived there. According to Adam's pension file, Adam worked at manual labor jobs such as road construction, and he was unable to support himself by 1890 when he applied for a pension for his service in the Civil War. He was unable to work much due to problems with his back and eyesight, and he was given a $10 per month allowance as his pension. In 1894, the pension board apparently reviewed his file, and believed that he could still earn a living by working as a laborer. Adam, of course, fought that claim, and among those who testified to his inability to work was his employer. Adam's boss claimed that he had to give my ancestor lighter load than the other men working for him because of my ancestor's problems with his back, and Adam's boss also indicated that he could barely work most of the time. Other citizens of Rockford also gave testimony to the fact that my ancestor could only work infrequently, and one of those witnesses also indicated that Adam's illiteracy prevented him from being able to work in any other type of job besides manual labor. In addition, they also indicated that without his allowance he would be forced to take charity, and it is obvious from that testimony that Adam was living in poverty. With that testimony, Adam's pension was reinstated and he continued to received $10 per month.
By 1900, Adam had moved back to Michigan, and was living with his youngest daughter and her family. In 1907, Adam would apply for an increase of $5 in his pension. Although I'm sure the economic depression that occurred that year played a major role in his desire to seek more money, I'm sure that his living with his daughter and son-in-law was financially straining for his daughter's family as well. (They also had a growing family and Adam's son-in-law was a farmer as well.) Indeed, within a year of his applying for an increase in his allowance, he had applied and been accepted to live in the Old Soldier's Home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He would spend the last two years of his life there, and when he died, he only had $45 dollars as his estate. His daughter and son-in-law would use that money to pay for his funeral and burial.
As I think about Adam's life, I can see that he lived in poverty for most of his life, and I believe he was unable to do better to provide for himself and his family because he lacked an education. I can only speculate, but if Adam had been able to read and write, I can imagine he would have had much more of an opportunity to escape his poverty. I can't give a solution to end poverty, but I am sure that access to more and better education would help alleviate the instances of poverty in this world as I look at the example of my ancestor's life.
Indiana Genealogical Society blog
9 years ago