Intimations of Mortality… Using the U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedules

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

The U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedules are another of the non-population enumerations that are often not used by genealogists. Like the agricultural enumerations discussed in an earlier article, mortality data can prove very useful in your research.

Mortality schedules are extant for 1850, 1860, 1870 and 1880. Unfortunately, the 1890 schedules were destroyed by fire. The 1900 schedules were destroyed by an act of Congress following the compilation of statistical reports.

Enumerators were asked to record information about individuals who died in the year previous to the census. The 1850 schedule, for example, includes information about individuals who died between 1 June 1849 and 31 May 1850. In 1850 and 1860, entries included the name of the deceased, their age at death, sex, color, status (free or slave), marital status (married or widowed), place of birth (state, territory or county), the month of death, occupation, disease or cause of death, and the number of days the individual was ill. In 1870, a new question asked if the father and/or mother were of foreign birth, but no longer included how many days the individual was ill. The 1880 census added categories for the place of birth of the deceased’s mother and father, how long the deceased had been a resident of the county, where the disease was contracted if not at the place of death, and the name of the attending physician. In both 1870 and 1880, a family number is included which ties the entry back to a specific entry in the population enumeration (and vice versa). It is important to remember that the information is available only for the year immediately preceding the census, and even then, the information was probably under-reported. One estimate, frequently repeated, is that 20 to 40 percent of deaths were not included.

Why are these schedules important to your research?

  • You may be interested in an individual that you know died in the year before the census, but for whom you do not have a month of death or  cause of death.
  • You may be researching an individual for whom you do not have a death date, but who you have located in the 1850 census, but not in the 1860 enumeration. A quick check of the 1860 mortality schedule might locate him or her if death occurred in the twelve months prior to the 1860 census.
  • The mortality schedules may predate official death records in the state in which you are researching. North Carolina, for example, did not require death records until 1913. In this case, if you are able to locate an individual in a mortality schedule, that may be the only record that documents a death date and any supporting information.
  • The burial records you are after may not exist or existing headstones may not be legible.
  • Information may be available, particularly in the 1850 and 1860 census, for individuals not listed in the 1840 census because they were not heads of households.
  • Interest in researching a family’s health history has risen in recent years. Information in mortality schedules may provide documentation of a genetic disease, document death due to specific epidemics in the community at the time, or include causes of death that suggest derive from specific occupations.
  • Cause of death information may suggest other avenues of research in additional records. A murder might well be documented in newspaper articles, as might accidents, or other unusual events. When I was indexing many of the Massachusetts death records for the familysearch.org indexing project and was struck by the number of often fatal railroad track accidents (no pun intended) and the deaths that resulted from gas lighting in homes. Such events, if discovered through a mortality schedule entry, might have been documented further in newspapers, police blotters, or coroner’s reports.

Unlike the agricultural censuses, the mortality schedules are readily available from several sources.

  • Ancestry.com released its first online mortality schedules in April 2005 and continues to add to its collection. Ancestry has posted (in some cases, may be about to post) Arkansas (1850-1880), Colorado (1870-1880), District of Columbia (1850-1880), Georgia (1850-1880), Illinois (1850-1880), Iowa (1850-1880), Kansas (1860-1880), Kentucky (1850-1870), Louisiana (1850-1880), Massachusetts (1850-1880), Michigan (1850-1880), Minnesota (1860-1880), Montana (1870-1880), Nebraska (1860-1880), New Hampshire (1850-1870), New Jersey (1850-1880), North Carolina (1850-1880), North Dakota (1860, 1880), Ohio (1850-1860, 1880, selected counties), South Carolina (1850-1880), Tennessee (1850-1860, 1880), Texas (1850-1880), Utah (1870), Vermont (1870-1880), Virginia (1850-1870), and Washington (1860-1880), West Virginia (1850-1860, as part of Virginia), and Wisconsin (1850-1870). If you do not have a personal subscription that includes the U. S. census collection, you will want to use Ancestry online database at your local library.

I decided to look for Mary Isabella Barkley, who I knew died in 1859 in Nash County, North Carolina. My search for her was hampered by the fact that she had been indexed as Van Isabella Barkley. (I submitted a correction to the transcribed name and you now can find her by searching for Mary Isabella, although the initial records page still shows “Van.” Remember to be creative in your searches and send in corrections if you are sure about the error.) The 1860 mortality schedule for Nash County, North Carolina, reported that Mary had died of pneumonia in November 1859, aged about 17 (therefore born about 1843).

As I browsed for other Barkley entries, I noted that if I searched the database entitled “U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedules, 1850-1880” for all individuals with the surname of Barkley, the search yielded 956 results, only about 146 of which were Barkley or variant spelling (Barclay, etc.). It is in that database that Mary Isabella was indexed as Van Isabella. If, however, I conducted the same search in the database entitled “U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedules Index,” my search resulted in 404 entries, only about 93 of which were Barkley or a variant spelling. In this database Mary was indexed correctly as Mary Isabella. In both cases, the remaining entries were names with the same Soundex code, but unrelated to my Barkley (or variant) search. Given this disparity (146 versus 93 entries), you will want to search both databases.

  • The National Archives has microfilm schedules for twenty-two states and territories (but not necessarily for all years) including Arizona, Colorado, District of Columbia, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington (state).
  • Familysearch.org. The FamilySearch Record Site’s Pilot Site provides a free Internet index and images for the 1850 mortality schedules.

Mortality schedules are another of those often seldom-used resources that you will find very helpful in documenting the vital records of your family as well as providing anecdotal information about their lives and experiences.

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