Bring Out Your Dead: A Look at Mortality Schedules

by Thomas MacEntee | Oct 31, 2013

In genealogy, when we think of United States census research, we think of people who were counted as being alive at a specific location during a specific time period. However, for certain census years, did you know that dead people were also tracked and counted? Even better, other valuable research information such as birth place, occupation, cause of death and the attending physician or coroner could also be listed.

Many states did not keep civil death records in the mid- to late-1800s. Mortality schedules, part of some federal censuses, can help fill in the gap for some ancestors who died during that time.

Non-Population Schedules of the U.S. Federal Census

The "regular" part of the census - the one that genealogists tend to focus on - is known as the population schedules. Mortality schedules are one of several different "supplements" to the Federal census known as non-population schedules. These schedules focus on specific topics.

Between 1810 and 1900, the United States census included supplemental schedules covering agriculture, manufacturing, veterans, slaves and mortality. Not every census covered every topic, and earlier non-population schedules usually collected less information than those in later years.

The key is to know where to find the valuable information contained in these schedules, like the mortality schedules, and how to incorporate it into your genealogy research.

Mortality Schedules: What You'll Find

For each Federal census taken in 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, and 1885, you can access the related Mortality Schedule and its wealth of information. (The mortality schedules for the 1890 and 1900 censuses no longer exist.) These schedules list those who died in the twelve months before the official census day, which, for the years containing mortality schedules, was June 1st. This means you'll find those who died from 1 June 1849 through 31 May 1850 in the 1850 mortality schedule; 1 June 1859 through 31 May 1860 in the 1860 mortality schedule, etc.

Here is a listing of available information found in each set of mortality schedules:

1850 Mortality Schedules: Name of deceased, age at death, sex, color, status (free or enslaved), marital status, birthplace, month of death, occupation, cause of death or disease, and number of days ill.

1860 Mortality Schedules: Name of deceased, age at death, sex, color, status (free or enslaved), marital status, birthplace, month of death, occupation, cause of death or disease, and number of days ill.

1870 Mortality Schedules: Family number (as shown on the population schedule), name of deceased, age at death, sex, color, marital status, birthplace, father foreign born, mother foreign born, month of death, occupation, and cause of death or disease.

1880 Mortality Schedules: Family number (as shown on the population schedule), name of deceased, age at death, sex, color, marital status, birthplace, father foreign born, mother foreign born, month of death, occupation, and cause of death or disease.

1890 Mortality Schedules: Destroyed by fire along with most of the population schedules for the 1890 census.

1900 Mortality Schedules: Non-existent; ordered destroyed by act of Congress. The exception is Minnesota with the 1900 mortality schedule having been published by the Minnesota Historical Society.

1850-mortality.jpg

1850 Mortality Schedule, Monday Creek Township, Perry County, Ohio. Downloaded from Archives.com.

Check State Census Schedules, Too

Some states, such as New York, also recorded death information for those who died in the preceding year when conducting a state census. Often the mortality schedule will be located at the end of the regular population schedule; for example, it is Table VI for the 1865 New York state census.

An Added Bonus: The 1885 Census

Yes, Virginia there was a U.S. Federal census in 1885... sort of. And there were also mortality schedules among the non-population schedules for that census. If your research includes the states of Colorado, Florida or Nebraska, or the Dakota or New Mexico territories, you should check the mortality schedules for 1885. Ancestry.com has a searchable database titled U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedules, 1850-1885, which includes the 1885 census.

The 1885 mortality schedule counted those who died between 1 June 1884 and 31 May 1885. Information included the name of the deceased, descriptive information including age and gender, marital status, birthplace for both the deceased and the parents of the deceased, occupation, cause of death, length of residence in county, and the name of the attending physician.

One feature was the inclusion of individuals a) who died in the enumeration district but had no family members in said district and those b) who died outside the enumeration district with family member located in said district. An example of an 1885 mortality schedule from Nebraska can be found here.

Further Benefits of Mortality Schedules

Besides providing much needed death record data when such data was not yet maintained on the county or state level, here are some other benefits of mortality schedules:

Pre-1850 Census Research: Up until 1850, only the head of household was listed by name in the U.S. federal census. Mortality schedules can include valuable information to fill in the gaps of such missing information including name, age, birthplace and more.

Slave Research: For the 1850 and 1860 schedules, some enslaved ancestors listed in mortality schedules are enumerated by name along with their age and birthplace; such information is normally not found until the 1870 census.

Family Medical History: The cause of death for an individual, and a group of individuals from the same family, can offer insights into genetic diseases. Keep in mind that modern diseases were listed using terms commonly understood at the time, such as "consumption" instead of tuberculosis.

Further Clues: A cause of death can offer clues to how the decedent lived; a workplace accident can indicate an occupation; a homicide can push a researcher towards further research using newspapers or court records.

Warning: Mortality Schedules Are Not The Last Word

The mortality schedules of the U.S. federal census are not without their own unique issues. Some researchers suggest that deaths were under-reported by as much as 20-40% on these schedules. Also, in the 1880 schedules, for example, enumerators were asked to list where a disease was contracted if different than the place of death for the decedent. Also listed where those who died outside the enumeration district but were connected to a family household in the district. Understandably, records become confusing and some deceased individuals are recorded on two schedules. In addition, for slave research, enslaved ancestors who died may be omitted outright or recorded without surnames or with the surname of the slave owner.

As with any record, use multiple sources of information to verify or to discount what is located in these schedules.

Conclusion

Mortality schedules as supplements to the U.S. federal census are important to genealogy research due to the time period in which the information was collected. From 1850 to 1900, many states did not have uniform systems of recording deaths such as requiring death certificates or registration of deaths on the county or state level. Thus, the mortality schedules can fill this gap where no death records are thought to exist.

Resources

NOTE: The 1850 Mortality Schedule is available on Archives.com as part of the 1850 Census. 


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