DEWITVILLE — It was a February night in 1862, known to be President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, when the newborn baby was found wrapped in a blanket. The child had been left in the driveway of the poor Chautauqua County farmhouse in Dewittville.
“So they took him, and it was Lincoln’s birthday, so they named the kid Lincoln,” said Michelle Henry, the county historian.
Records kept at the time provide additional information.
Listed as a foundling – a baby abandoned by its parents and cared for by others – the child was officially named Seward Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln was just over a year into his presidency in late March 1862. Seward is almost certainly referring to William H. Seward, who served as Governor of New York, US Senator and 24th US Secretary of State under Lincoln , and was “extremely popular in New York State”, said Henry. In fact, Seward had ties to Chautauqua County, having lived in Westfield as an agent for the Holland Land Co.
Sadly, the child died on April 28, 1862, at 28 weeks old and was buried in a cemetery on the grounds of the Poor Farm, also known in its lifetime as the Poor House, County Farm and the alms house.
“I think that kind of illustrates the situation,” Henry noted that the baby had been left at the property. “It kind of reminds us that people have always found themselves in difficult situations. For some reason, someone thought this child might be more likely to be left behind on the poor farm than where he was born.
Indeed, Poor Farm County in Dewittville—first established on 90 acres of land purchased for $900 in 1831—was like many built at that time. It was a place where the poor, the aged, and the handicapped were housed, clothed, and fed at public expense.
At least two sets of human remains were found on the once sprawling property late last month. The find, which is not considered suspicious and is likely part of an unmarked burial site, has helped shed new light on the impoverished former farmhouse and its place in history.
IDENTIFY A NEED
In the county’s early years, towns cared for their own paupers – the poor and needy. Those who could not support themselves were auctioned off, with the destitute going to the lowest bidder who would then provide clothing, shelter and food while receiving work in return.
The public auction method was a form of indentured servitude and is now widely criticized for amounting to temporary slavery.
There were also other problems with the practice.
“There were an increasing number of situations where they just felt like the poor weren’t getting the care they deserved,” Henry, the county historian, said in a recent interview, “So the state determined that it would make more sense for counties to create poor farms and for care to be standardized so that anyone indigent from any city would be sent to the county poor farm. There they would be put to work – it was a working farm – and then it would be a county operation so that we would know they were housed and adequately clothed and fed.
In 1824, New York State passed the County Poorhouse Act requiring counties to establish a poorhouse to better manage the poor, sick, and elderly.
“In 1830 we knew we had to find property in Chautauqua County to establish a poor farm,” said Henry. “So there were county board members who set up a committee to find decent land. They went out and visited a bunch of different farms.
County officials eventually settled on 90 acres on Meadows Road. “They said it was good farmland” said Henry.
For the first two years, the county leased the land until enough money could be budgeted to build a facility large enough to house 100 paupers.
“For anyone who could not support themselves for whatever reason – a husband injured in an accident, an elderly person, a disabled person, a mentally retarded person”, Henry said, “treat those who could not do it themselves. »
The Chautauqua County Poor Farm opened in the early 1830s as a two-story frame building. The superintendent of the establishment and his family had to live there and everyone had to work.
“The wife cooked, the husband watched the field” said Henry. “It was working perfectly.”
Being a farm after all, food was produced, some of which was used to feed the inmates of the Chautauqua County Jail. The poor farm also had a school for the children of the poor and its staff.
Needing an upgrade to the original frame building that took about 35 years to complete, a large multi-storey brick building was erected between 1867 and 1870 and became the centerpiece of the poor farmhouse. It was known for its central tower.
“At the time, it was considered the most beautiful building in the county”, said Henry. “I think it kind of shows that it was seen as an important function of county government, and the county put money into making sure the poor farmhouse was adequate for the people who needed to be there. “
ARRIVING BY TRAIN
The completion of the New York and Erie Rail Road in 1851 brought new immigrants fleeing famine in Europe to Chautauqua County. The line ran from the Hudson River north of New York to Lake Erie in Dunkirk.
“Someone in New York was giving immigrants coming off the boat in New York, they were giving them a ticket to the end of the train line,” Henry said, “and so these people were arriving in Dunkirk three days after getting off the boat with no money, no associates here, and they were told in New York, ‘Oh, when you get to your final destination, you’re going to be taken care of so don’t t ‘don’t do it.’ “
Many immigrants arriving in Dunkirk would stay on the poor farm. In doing so, says Henry, placed a “Enormous financial pressure” on the county without a funding mechanism in place.
Attempts to document all of the immigrants who passed through the poor farm proved both time-consuming and unsuccessful as the county was not reimbursed for its expenses.
However, these documents provided a “a treasure trove of information” on the influx of immigrants to the county and their role in the county’s history.
A CEMETERY IS ESTABLISHED
Henry is quite certain that a cemetery was established in Poor Farm County early in its existence. In 1833, the establishment’s first year of operation, three people died there.
“Not everyone was buried there” said Henry, noting that family or friends of the needy “always had the right to come in for leftovers.”
However, some superintendents were better at keeping records than others, and not all deaths on the poor farm were tracked equally.
“I guess they knew death was going to be part of this function and they needed a place to receive people who died there,” said Henry. “So the cemetery was created, I will say, quite early.”
The official Poor Farm cemetery is located south of the old red brick building. A monument that has now disappeared in the middle of the cemetery was dedicated in 1864 to the 600 prisoners who were buried there at the time.
Around the same time, stone markers were first used to mark the location of graves.
It is not known today how many people are buried in the cemetery, although Henry estimates the number could be around 1,500 judging from the 600 recorded in 1864 and because burials ceased around 1928.
The remains found on May 24 this year have been put on trial “old enough” by the Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office. “The history of this property as well as some of the artefacts on the premises suggest that these remains may have been part of an unmarked cemetery,” he added. the sheriff’s office said. No further action is expected following their discovery.
In the 1870s, New York established facilities throughout the state to meet the specific needs of its residents. They included a school for the blind and a school for the deaf. Institutions to treat mental illnesses have also sprung up.
In 1961 the county moved its operations to a new facility in Dunkirk which became home to Chautauqua County. The county then sold the impoverished agricultural complex and its lands to private interests. It changed hands again, and eventually the once-iconic red-brick building fell into disrepair.
All buildings were eventually cleared; a farm now occupies the land.