Digging for Deaths Part 2: Census Mortality Schedules
As discussed in the first installment of this series, Census mortality schedules can be used without official vital records to document the deaths of individuals who passed within a year of the official census date. However, a deeper understanding of the structure of each year’s schedule and an eye for detail may lead to additional discoveries.
Asking the Important Questions: Differences Between Census Years
The numbers and types of questions asked differed across census years. For example, in the earliest mortality schedules created for 1850 and 1860, there were columns for the following information items:
- Decedent’s name
- Free or enslaved
- Marital status
- Place of birth
- Month of death
- Cause of death
- Number of days ill
In 1870, after the Civil War, the question of freedom status was removed. Two additional columns were added: one linking the individual to the family number in the population schedule and another asking whether the descendent’s parents were born outside the United States.
By 1880, the Census Bureau requested significantly more information, including the places of birth of the individual and each of their parents; how long the decedent had resided in the county of death; where they contracted the fatal disease, if outside the county; and the name of the attending physician. The form also included a section for specifying the residence of the decedent’s family if they lived outside of the enumeration district in which that individual died and the decedent’s place of death if outside of the enumeration district from which the resident family reported it.
The value of these additions for genealogists cannot be overstated. For example, an entry for 18-year-old iron molder George Abbott, whose parents and four siblings lived in Salt Lake City, Utah, reveals the family’s English place of origin: Hunslet, Yorkshire.
George Abbott’s place of death.
In 1880, the enumerator followed up with physicians to confirm the causes of death reported by families. This practice sometimes resulted in corrections or the addition of details about the death.
For example, Ellen Pratt, a 35-year-old married woman and likely mother of at least six children, died in Lewiston, Androscoggin County, Maine, in June 1879. A family member reported her cause of death as inflammation of the bowels, identifying the attending physician as Dr. Oaks. The enumerator noted she had “been attended by all the Doctors in town or several at least, and Dr. Sturges visited her within her last twenty-four hours of life.” In his consultation, that doctor, B. F. Sturges, revealed a secret: Ellen’s fatal inflammation was caused by a self-induced abortion. In this case, the addition of the doctor’s comments vastly changes the narrative.
The pages containing doctors’ notes appear on the reverse side of the main form. These are not available on Ancestry, but FamilySearch has imaged them. (To learn more about accessing each collection, see the previous installment in this series: https://www.legacytree.com/blog/digging-for-deaths-understanding-the-census-mortality-schedule.)
The Remarks Section of Census Mortality Schedules
Each year’s mortality schedule form included a section entitled “Remarks.” Enumerators were asked to provide additional details, when necessary, regarding the cause of death in this section, particularly in the case of accidental and tragic deaths.
An entry created in American Fork, Utah, in 1880 describes the incredible circumstances of one family’s tragic loss of twin daughters, including a detailed physical description of the mother.
Original spellings were retained in the transcription below:
“My Wife having been studying Obstetrics and Medicine I took her in A Buggy 4 Miles to interveiw this Lady ‘Mrs Beck’ is 25 years of Age Fair complexion rather florid. Height 5ft 4 Inches, weight 150 lb, When carrying her children, ‘very Dropsical,’ will swell all over clear around the Shoulders, and a feeling of suffocation at the Heart, On the 13th of Octr, 1879 at 11 PM she was Delivered by a common Midwife of a child, and was told there was no more, Mrs Beck presisted there was, Dr Pike from Provo was sent for on the Eight day after confinement, and testified that she was correct, and as she had not carried the 1st child quite 7 months, if they could prevent Fl[???]ing from setting in she might carrey the other to maturity, But on the 22nd of Octr 1879 at 2 AM another Child was Born, there being no one present but A Woman the Mother of 2 Children, Mrs Beck had to take the child herself, It was [???? ????] Birth, covered with a membranous covering, and a call over its face, both were Female children…”
Unfortunately, portions of the entry, especially along the lower edge of the page, are illegible. Mrs. Beck, the former Isadora Jameson, was the wife of Peter Jacobsen Beck.
Detailed entries such as these were not limited to the deaths of Mrs. Beck’s children. Other examples include:
- Jacob Bessler, 63, died in Cache County, Utah, and was buried in the street overnight. The townspeople insisted his body be moved to the local cemetery. Despite these strange circumstances, no effort was made to determine the cause of Jacob’s death.
- T. C. Everts, an assistant marshal, disappeared on an expedition to the head of the Yellowstone River. Although others in the camp searched for days, they could not locate him. His bereaved daughter was en route from Ohio when the marshal reported the loss.
Directions for the year 1860 enumeration requested information about the locality to be included in the remarks section, such as:
- Descriptions of prevailing diseases and their supposed causes among the region’s people and livestock.
- “the character of the water, the nature of the soil and rocks, the kind of timber, the natural growth of the region, the natural fertilizers, as lime, marl, or shells, and any other facts of interest relating to mines, seasons, springs, or any particular or unusual natural phenomena.”
- Any other event connected with the history of the area.
Similar details also appeared sporadically in other census years.
In 1850, A. P. Greer, assistant marshal in Baker County, Georgia, attached to the mortality schedule two full, handwritten pages regarding local geography and culture, noting that wealthy planters residing elsewhere owned many of the most extensive, most valuable plantations and only visited periodically, avoiding the area in the summer. Greer explained that most cotton raised in Baker County traveled downriver by pole boat, with no railroad.
However, he described plans to develop one from the county’s largest city, Albany, to Oglethorpe, a move he believed would draw settlers to the area. In the remarks section of the mortality schedule, he also mentioned the original books containing the census had burned, and a second enumeration was undertaken. Unfortunately, it was less successful, with many individuals refusing to provide information a second time. A researcher unable to find a missing household might find this detail invaluable in explaining its absence from the population schedule.
Records of Enslaved People In Census Mortality Schedules
Pre-1870 census records rarely include the names of the enslaved. Mortality schedules are one exception to this rule and thus become a source of information for identifying individuals and reconstructing families.
For example, in Trinity County, Texas, in 1860, seven black and mulatto people sharing the surname “Estus” were reported as having died of typhoid fever over the previous year: Lucy, 6; Sylva, 6; July, 37; Alfred, 44; Ben, 16; and Malinda, 23. Three were born in Georgia, two in Alabama, and one in Virginia.
Their placement in the schedule, between three Evans individuals and a Kirkly child, reveals merchant Thomas S. Estes of Sumpter likely enslaved them. Thomas and his family had migrated from Dallas County, Alabama, within the previous decade, almost certainly after Lucy and Sylva’s births in about 1854.
Additional research into the Estes family’s records in Alabama and Texas could reveal more about the lives of those, like July and Alfred, from whose labor they benefited.
Epidemic Diseases Recorded In Census Mortality Schedules
Noting patterns within communities can also lead to the discovery of epidemic diseases impacting the family of interest.
The 1850 census mortality schedule documents Sacramento, California’s 1850 cholera epidemic . The record includes seventeen pages of deaths, most occurring in just a few weeks in September and October. Enumerator William N. Johnson noted, “ no reliable record was kept of the deaths till cholera became an epidemic, and soon then twas impossible to arrive at any just result. I visited some houses in which persons had died just the day before, and their names could not be ascertained. I think at least one half ought to be added to the above enumeration which is taken from the public record, making, say, nine hundred.” The deaths included seventeen of the city’s nearly forty doctors.
My own family, residing in Hancock County, Ohio, lost a daughter, Mary Smith, to scarlet fever in 1859. That year, mortality schedules reported nearly 4,000 people—primarily children under the age of 10—who had died of scarlet fever or putrid sore throat, a common term used to describe the disease, in Ohio. This number represented nearly sixteen percent of the state’s recorded deaths. Rates in individual counties varied, ranging from less than two percent in Delaware County to about forty-eight percent in Hocking County.
Notes inserted by enumerators suggest that even those families who had not lost a member to scarlet fever felt its impact. James M. Maitland of Champaign County observed that at “almost every house [he] visited, some of the family had it.” In Marietta, Washington County, “at least two-thirds of all the children suffered from it in a more or less severe form.” The population schedule of Fairfield County incorporated at least eight or ten children, recorded as living, who died before the submission of the mortality schedule.
Details of individual entries in census mortality schedules and patterns in the community can reveal the lost stories of our ancestors. What discoveries have you made while using the census mortality schedules?
If you’d like more help using mortality census schedules with your specific family history questions, you can schedule a consultation here with one of our professional genealogists.