The census forms the foundation of much of our genealogy research. But there is a section of it that is often overlooked. Here is how to use mortality schedules to find even more about your ancestors.
One of the coolest finds that I've had in my research is a death record (recorded by the government) for my 3rd-great-grandfather William Skinner, who died in May 1850 in Perry County, Ohio. What's cool about it (aside from all of the details it gave me) is that it's a full 18 years before Ohio started keeping civil death records. So how did I find this death record?
The 1850 mortality schedule.
What is a Mortality Schedule?
Some federal censuses took some schedules in addition to the population schedule, which is the part of the census that we typically use. In the censuses of 1850 through 1880, along with some state censuses that were taken in 1885, there is a special schedule all about deaths. These Mortality Schedules were supposed to record the deaths that occurred in that area in the 12 months prior to the official census date (1 June). For example, the 1850 mortality schedule record the deaths in that area between 1 June 1849 through 31 May 1850.
The mortality schedules was a way of compiling public health data. Many states weren't yet keeping civil death records (I'm looking at you, Pennsylvania), so the mortality schedule provided at least rudimentary statistics. They ended after 1885, as most states by then had some level of vital records by then.
What Do Mortality Schedules Tell Us?
The 1850 and 1860 mortality schedules are pretty similar. They include the person's name, the month that they died, where they were born, their age, occupation, cause of death, and the length of the illness.
One thing to keep in mind with any of these mortality schedules is that they include deaths in the previous calendar year. If you see in the 1850 mortality schedule that someone died in November, they actually died in November 1849.
On the 1850 and 1860 mortality schedules, be sure to read to the end of the township and the end of the county, as there should be information about the general health of the population as well as information about the geology of the area.
Beginning in the 1870 mortality schedule, we get the family number (from the population schedule) of the family that reported the death. This can help better identify the person so you can make sure it's the person you're looking for and not just someone with the same name. We also have checkmarks if the the person's father and/or mother were foreign born.
In 1880, we get the birthplace of the deceased's father and mother, along with the name of the attending physician. We also have sections to note if the person died in another area or if they died in that area, but normally lived somewhere else.
Where Can We Find Mortality Schedules?
The mortality schedules themselves were offered back to the states. For the states that took them back, you'll find them often in state archives or state historical societies. For the states that didn't take them back, some are in the DAR Library in Washington, DC.
Some have been digitized and are available on Ancestry or FamilySearch. Here are some of the collections you'll find them in:
- U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedules, 1850-1885 (Be sure to use the browse feature on the right-hand side of the page to see exactly what states and what years are included)
- U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedules Index, 1850-1880 (Index only; no images. Includes some states not included in the above collection.)
- New York, U.S. Census Mortality Schedules, 1850-1880
If your state hasn't been digitized, check with the state archives or state historical society to see if they have them. Also check with state and local/county genealogy societies to see if they have published any, either as books or as articles.