Monday, November 7, 2016

Life After the Poorhouse: The fate of one family

As many of you know, working with the inmate ledgers of the Erie County Poorhouse was what inspired the writing of the Orphans and Inmates series. More often than not, transcribing the names and ages of the men, women and children admitted there resulted in more questions than answers. In many cases, the mysteries remained unsolved.  These next few blogs will focus on the few inmates for whom details were available before or after their time in the poorhouse.  All of them became characters in the series.

When the doors of the poorhouse opened in 1829, the very first family entered in the ledger was the Pixley family.  This family made an impression on me from the moment I transcribed their names.  I have always wondered how they ended up seeking institutional relief and what happened to them when they were discharged.  The Pixleys make a brief appearance in A Lifetime Again, the fourth book in the series coming out this month.  In the book, Maude is similarly struck by the desperation that must have driven these people to the poorhouse and also wonders what became of them.  It appears as though we finally have some answers.

Erie County Poorhouse Records 1829-1877
Courtesy of the Buffalo History Museum
On January 8, 1829,  the Pixley family was admitted to the Erie County Poorhouse. According to the inmate records, Kenaz, Apphia, and their seven children came from Albany, New York, however, other records indicate the family's origins in Massachusetts.  The town of Chester, Massachusetts, vital records show that Kenaz and Apphia were married there in 1809.  The 1820 Federal Census indicates that the family was living in Franklin County, Massachusetts at the time. Sometime after that, the family moved to Albany. The City of Albany Directory for 1827 indicates that there was a Kenah Pixley working as a shoemaker. It is reasonable to assume based on additional records, that this person was Kenaz Pixley.

We don’t know what circumstances led Kenaz and his wife to transport their family to Buffalo or how they ended up in the Erie County Poorhouse.  It is clear, however, that the need to seek refuge there resulted in the family being separated for a period of time. Kenaz and Apphia were discharged from the poorhouse on May 20, 1829. Some of the younger children, Frederick (age 10), Harvey (age 6) and Philander (age 4) were discharged ten days later. However, the other children were discharged much earlier. Henry (age 12) left on January 16, while Mary Ann (age 16) and William (age 14) left on January 30. Maria (age 8) was discharged on February thirteenth. What became of the children immediately after they left the poorhouse is unknown.

There was no orphan asylum in Buffalo until 1836, but a system of indenture was in place. Legally a parent could enter their child into a contract of indenture if they wanted the child to be trained in a specific trade, or if they were unable to support the child. In the absence of the parents, a legal guardian or the superintendent of the poor could do the same. It was not unusual for orphaned or destitute children to be bound out to the lowest bidder for their care as laborers by the superintendent of the poor because it was cheaper to pay an outside caretaker than for children to continue to reside at the poorhouse. Also, while under contract, the children learned to read and write in addition to learning a skill that would enable them to seek employment as adults. According to the law, a contract of indenture lasted until the age of 18 for girls and 21 for boys. The contract could be terminated if there was evidence of cruelty on the part of the master, or poor job performance on the part of the apprentice.

There was no minimum age at which a child could be bound out into labor, and it seems likely that most of the Pixley children experienced this fate. However, the cases of the three youngest brothers, Frederick, Harvey and Philander are curious. They all left on the same day, 10 days after the discharge of their parents. Perhaps they were not bound out as laborers and stayed in the poorhouse until their parents had re-established themselves and could return for them?

There was no legal provision for the release of children from indenture contracts unless there was dissatisfaction on the part of the master or evidence that he was mistreating the child, however, there is some evidence suggesting that most of the Pixley family may have been reunited after they left the Erie County Poorhouse. The Federal Census of 1830 lists Kenaz Pixley in Cleveland, Ohio, at that time. Records indicate that his brothers Lathrup and Argulus Pixley also lived in Ohio, so perhaps that is why Kenaz and his family relocated there. A Cleveland City Directory from 1837-38 lists a shoemaker by the name of Kenez Pixley on Euclid Street. The spelling of his name is slightly different, but this record does suggest that he remained there for a number of years. Whether Apphia was still with him is unknown. Also, there were no more reliable pieces of evidence chronicling the fate of either Kenaz or his wife after the 1830 Federal Census.

Image by Robert J. Higgins
 While the members of the family are not listed by name in the 1830 Federal Census, the age and sex distribution of the members of the Kenaz Pixley household match that of his family, with the exception that one child was missing. There should have been two males marked in the 10-15 age category, but there was only one. It is reasonable to suspect that Henry Pixley did not reunite with his family after he was discharged from the Erie County Poorhouse on January 16, 1829 at the age of twelve. He was the first of the family to be discharged, although his whereabouts were unknown. The other brothers, William, Frederick, Harvey and Philander could all be traced into adulthood using census data and other municipal documents. However, there was no reliable evidence indicating Henry’s fate.

In the 1850 Federal Census, William Pixley, then 35 years old, and Margaret Pixley (perhaps his wife) were living in Indiana with the Allen family. Who the Allens were to William Pixley and Margaret is unknown. William died in 1897 and was buried in Steuben County, New York.

In the 1860 Federal census, Frederick Pixley and his wife were living with their five children in Indiana. Frederick was a Civil War veteran and died in 1878 at the age of 60.

Harvey married and fathered six children. For a time, he also lived in Indiana. Harvey was a veteran of the Civil War as well and died in 1900 at the age of 77.

The youngest brother, Philander, likely lived in Tioga County, New York. The 1860 Federal Census listed Philander (then 37), his wife, and their five children living there (believe it or not, there may have been another Philander Pixley living in Buffalo, but he was ten years older than the Philander in Tioga County).

The only brother who could not be reliably identified through municipal and or vital records was Henry Pixley. Perhaps he stayed with the mentor who took him on after he was discharged from the poorhouse and he assumed his mentor's name. Perhaps he died while in this person's care. It is also possible that the 1830 census is not accurate and all of the members of the Kenaz Pixley family were living in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1830.

The fate of the Pixley sisters, Maryann and Maria is also unknown. Due to the fact that women typically took the surname of their husband when they married, their overall lack of social status, and inability to serve formally in the military, it is very difficult to trace women in the historic record. 

Assuming that the members of the Kenaz Pixley household in 1830 were, in fact, his wife and children, it is remarkable that they were reunited after their time in the Erie County Poorhouse.  It is unlikely that most other families were as fortunate.  It also appears as if most of their sons were able to make decent lives for themselves as adults.  The Pixley's story becomes an important one in the overall understanding of the poorhouse as a temporary place of refuge.  The institution seems to have offered this particular family the help they needed and allowed most of it's members to go on to lead productive lives.  Whether they were the exception or the rule remains to be seen.



  1. Hi, Rosanne. I always admire your superb research skills! You always make history come alive with your precise detail!

    1. Thanks! It is a blessing to be able to tell these stories.

  2. Kenaz Pixley was a brother of my fourth-great grandfather, so stumbling across this was an interesting revelation. Thanks for your research.

    1. Wow! What a small world. I would love to know if you have any more information about the family.

  3. The other Philander Pixley, born abt 1813 in Genesee Co., NY, who is living in Buffalo at least as early as 1850 until his death between 1875-1880, was a contractor/builder/master carpenter, who was son of John Pixley II of Vermont (see page 22 of "Robert Pigsley of Dighton and His Family" by Elaine Corbin Artlip, 1979)