For the capstone assignment this quarter, I chose to research the Erie County Poorhouse Cemetery. It seemed fitting to look into something close to home, and the site of the Erie County Poorhouse is actually within walking distance to my family home.
Today, social safety nets are taken as a given- unemployment, social security, and medicare are institutions millions of Americans rely on, but less than a century ago these services didn’t exist.
During the 19thcentury, the United States population exploded and the nation’s urban centers ballooned. Buffalo was no exception, and the 1825 opening of the Erie Canal ushered in an era of unprecedented industrial and economic growth (Goldman 1983:34). With the growth of industry and population came a similar growth in the number of disabled, unemployed, and impoverished. Old systems of localized care (usually run by families or parishes) were unable to keep up, and the new system of poorhouses promised to rehabilitate those in need.
In its 97 years of operation, the Erie County Poorhouse treated over 180,000 individuals(Ledgers 1861-1952). During that time thousands died and were buried in the Erie County Poorhouse Cemetery.
In 2008, an infrastructure update on the University at Buffalo’s South Campus revealed human remains from the Erie County Poorhouse Cemetery, and following a 2012 NY Supreme Court order, researchers were able to excavate and study the remains. What they found gives us insight into the lives of people who are not mentioned in history books- the blue-collared immigrants who worked hard to make a life in a new country- the backbreaking labor they undertook to earn a living, the things they ate to survive, and the struggles they faced on a daily basis.
Projects like these help us reflect on our current society and help us realize our progress and our shortcomings. It helps us connect to the past on an emotional level and it helps us care about the people around us.
1983 High Hopes: The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, NY. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.
2002 Buffalo Architecture and History: Hayes Hall.In University at Buffalo. Chuck LaChiusa with permission from the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, Buffalo, NY.
Ledgers, E. C. P. H.
1861-1952 Erie County Poorhouse Ledgers. Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, Buffalo, NY.
2017 372 nameless dead, exhumed in 2012, are headed back to the grave. The Buffalo News. Buffalo NY.