Almost all experienced genealogists have used the census records to find ancestors. However, how many of us have used the U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedules? In fact, I have to wonder how many of us even know what the U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedules are? And why would we find them to be valuable?
In 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, and 1900, the U.S. census enumerators were required to collect all the normal census information plus even more: information about all persons dying within the 12 months preceding the census taking. These lists are known as the “Mortality Schedules”.
Mortality data can prove very useful in your research. For instance, for several years I suspected that a man found in the Massachusetts census records was my great-great-grandfather. I hadn’t found proof, but the circumstantial evidence was almost overwhelming: he had the correct name, lived in the same area that my later, proven ancestors lived, had the correct number of children as mentioned in a family history book, and more. In fact, I really wanted to prove my descent from this Revolutionary War soldier who spent the winter at Valley Forge in the Continental Army under the command of George Washington. (Most Revolutionary soldiers served in the militia, not in the Continental Army.) I searched hard for the proof.
The Revolutionary War veteran was found in every U.S. census from 1790 through 1840, all the years that only listed the Head of Household. He was there every year, living in the same town, living with numerous children in the early 1800s and then, as the years went by, with fewer and fewer children. While he was listed from 1790 through 1840, he was missing in the 1850 and later census records. Unfortunately, the 1850 census was the first U.S. census to list all household members. For several years, I went looking elsewhere for information about him.
One day, early in my genealogy “career,” I discovered the Mortality Schedule for 1850. I looked and, sure enough, the man I had been looking for was listed as having passed away late in 1849. That explained why he was not listed in the 1850 and later census records. Even more interesting was the information provided: name, sex, age, color, widowed or not, place of birth, month of death, occupation, and cause of death.
The 1850 Mortality Schedule proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that this man was NOT my ancestor. The place of birth was not what I had expected. Armed with the date of death, I was then able to find an obituary elsewhere for this man that documented his Revolutionary War record and listed the family members who survived him. This was definitely not my man.
Was this a success story? I would say, “Yes.” Disproving information is as valuable as or sometimes even more valuable than proving it. If nothing else, disproving the theory freed my research efforts to look elsewhere. I was no longer “barking up the wrong tree.”
Mortality Schedules are not available for all states and years. The 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880 censuses contained questions regarding those who died in the twelve months prior to the enumeration. The answers were compiled in separate “Mortality Schedules” that typically are kept separate from the census returns. The Mortality Schedules list persons who died between 1 June and 31 May of the year prior to the census.
Enumerators were asked to record a lot of 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).
The 1850 and 1860 Mortality Schedules may be the only records available listing a slave ancestor. However, slave deaths apparently were underreported; many who are known to have died within the timeframe covered were never recorded in the Mortality Schedules.
The 1890 Mortality Schedules were recorded but were later destroyed in the same fire that destroyed the rest of the census records. In 1900, a Mortality Schedule was compiled, statistics were collected, and then original records were later deliberately destroyed by order of an act of Congress. Some years later, a copy of the 1900 Mortality Schedule for Minnesota was discovered at the Minnesota Historical Society and subsequently was published. This is the only known surviving 1900 mortality schedule for any state.
Here is a list of states that have some census mortality schedules available for various years from 1850-1885 — not all states are covered for all years. You’ll need to check the microfilm catalog to see which years are covered:
Arizona, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida (1885 State Census only/not all counties included), Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico (1885 Territorial Census only), New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont (1870 only), Virginia, and Washington.
Over the years, various local and state genealogy societies have published indexes to many of the mortality schedules, with some of these indexes available on CD-ROM. Similarly, county indexes and transcriptions may also be available, mostly published only on paper.
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 claims that 20 to 40 percent of deaths were not included. However, no one can verify that estimate. Of course, if your ancestor died in the nine years preceding each Mortality Schedule, he or she will never be listed.
One advantage of Mortality Records is that they normally list the cause of death. Of course, you will find the usual causes associated with old age, but many records will list the cause of death as murdered, struck by a train, gas explosion (houses were often illuminated by gas lights), and similar causes of premature deaths. In such cases, a trip to view local newspaper obituaries often provides additional clues about the death as well as lists of surviving relatives. The newspaper obituaries also often name the parents of the deceased, even if they passed away years earlier.
Mortality Schedules can be important to your research. As in my earlier example, the Mortality Schedules can provide detailed information about individuals who were deceased at the time of a normal census. For slave ancestors, Mortality Schedules may be the only record still available for many individuals.
Many states did not compile death records until the late 1800s or early 1900s. In those cases, Mortality Schedules may be the only record that documents a death date and provides any supporting information.
Mortality Schedules are valuable records for genealogists, records that are often overlooked.
The U.S., Federal Census Mortality Schedules Index (1850 only), is available online at no charge on FamilySearch.org at https://www.familysearch.org/search/collection/1420441?collectionNameFilter=false, and for 1850 through 1880 on MortalitySchedules.com at http://www.mortalityschedules.com/, on Mortality-Schedules.com (a different web site with a similar name) at http://www.mortality-schedules.com/, and on Ancestry.com (limited to Ancestry subscribers only) at: https://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=3530.
Have you checked the Mortality Schedules?