The 1850s witnessed one of the earliest American history. During the decade the proportion of individuals receiving public assistance -- increased from 5.8 in 1850 to 10.2 in 1860, an increase of 76 percent. Previous attempts to explain the increase in antebellum pauperism have been hampered by the available published data, which are too aggregated to be of much use. This paper explores the determinants of antebellum pauperism using previously unexploited archival data drawn from the manuscript censuses of social statistics. These records provided detailed evidence on the incidence of pauperism at the county level. We find that about half of the increase in pauperism can be attributed to falling real wages during the decade. Contributing factors were increased immigration and urbanization.