Remove Him to the Poorhouse: Poor-Relief in Montgomery County, VA, 1830-1880

TR Number



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Virginia Tech


In 1962, historian Michael Harrington published The Other America, the inaugural work in the field of the history of poverty. Part history and part call to action, Harrington argued that the poor have largely remained invisible in American society. He endeavored to make America's poor visible as the first step towards addressing the tragedy of poverty.

Today, 40 million Americans live in poverty, indicating that it is as much a societal issue in need of solution in the twenty-first century as it was in Harrington's time. Although the field is small, a few scholars have taken up Harrington's call and written histories of the poor and poor relief. This work seeks to complicate and expand upon the conclusions reached by these historians by studying poor relief at the local level of one singular community in the rural South.

This research asks how the residents of nineteenth-century Montgomery County, Virginia understood the county's responsibility for providing poor relief, and what underlying values and beliefs informed that understanding. Using local government records and state legislative and administrative records, this research will argue that, largely because the county had not yet industrialized, poor relief in nineteenth-century Montgomery County diverged from national and regional trends in three significant respects.: attitudes towards the poor in Montgomery County tended to remain more benign than national attitudes well into the postbellum era; poor relief in Montgomery County was available to black residents, both before and after the Civil War; and Montgomery County continued to offer outdoor relief well into the postbellum era. An analysis of why poor relief differed to such a degree in a rural, Southern community, as opposed to more urban, Northern, or Midwestern locales, illuminates the effects of economy, geography, and demography on societal conceptions of the poor.



Social Welfare, Poverty, Rural South, Race, Nineteenth Century