Learning From Census Mortality Schedules

by Julie Hill

Posted on October 27, 2011

You can learn a lot more from the census than names and addresses. We've highlighted some interesting occupations, and now we'd like to spotlight another way the census can help you learn more about your ancestors.

Censuses taken between 1850 and 1885 included "mortality schedules" to count the members of a town who died between June 1st of the year preceding the census and June 1st of the census year. These mortality schedules list the standard details--name, age, place of birth, occupation, et cetera--along with time and cause of death for each person. If one of your relatives happened to die in the year leading up to a census, you may be able to see whether he or she succumbed to an illness that was widespread in the town.

In this 1850 record for Stanley, North Carolina, many of the deceased are children who died of "putrid sore throat."

Sure enough, the remarks section at the bottom of this mortality schedule mentions this epidemic: "The year ending the 1st June 1850 the putrid sore throat was prevalent, and was very fatal among children. The water in this county is pure and plentiful."

In 1850, enumerators were instructed to comment on the qualities of the land and water, both those attributes that might relate to illness (such as a heavy presence of limestone in the water, which was thought by some to induce cholera), and general geological features. On the second page of this mortality schedule, the remarks continue: "The county is very hilly and broken, particularly in the northern and western portions. The prevailing rocks are primitive, the hills are generally covered with green stone, granite and quartz. The dirt is generally stuff mixed with clay."

Even if none of your ancestors happen to be found in one of these mortality schedules, these remarks can be a fascinating window into geography and living conditions of the time. If you're interested in learning more about the census, we encourage you to read this article. Sign up for a 7-day free trial to begin searching U.S. Federal Census records today. Who knows what new treasures you'll uncover!

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