U.S. Census Mortality Schedules
Those of us researching in New England are very lucky in that surviving vital records in many areas can date back as early as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most other areas of the country are not as lucky, and vital records registration doesn’t begin until the nineteenth or early-twentieth centuries. There are a number of alternatives to assist you in this area, and one comes from the Census Bureau.
In the 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880 censuses (as well as special censuses taken in some areas in 1885), the non-population schedules include death information. The mortality schedules from these years listed individuals who died in the year preceding the census. Because the official census day for those years fell on June 1, the schedules list deaths that occurred from June 1 of the previous year through May 31 of the census year (e.g., 1 June 1849 to 31 May 1850, 1 June 1859 to 31 May 1860, etc.).
The mortality schedules asked:
- Name of deceased
- Color (white, black, or mulatto)
- Whether a Widow/Widower
- Place of Birth (state/territory or country for foreign-born)
- Month of death
- Profession or trade
- Cause of death/disease
- Number of days of illness
- Parent’s birthplaces (1870, 1880, 1885)
- How long a resident of the area (1880, 1885)
- Citizenship (1880, 1885)
- Place disease was contracted (1880, 1885)
Unfortunately, the mortality schedules are not part of the official census records at the National Archives. Sometime before the National Archives was founded in 1934, the government offered these records to each of the respective states. Many were accepted, but others were not. Those that did not go to the states were donated to the library of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Many of the mortality schedules were later microfilmed and are available online. Unfortunately, some exist only in the original format and have not yet been microfilmed or digitized. Others were lost to the ravages of time, or their current whereabouts are unknown.
These records are extremely valuable, especially in those parts of the country where vital records were not yet established. If you know that you have an ancestor who died during the appropriate timeframe, the mortality schedules may provide additional clues for you. And if you are not certain, these records may help you find a heretofore unknown death date.