Besides the U. S. Federal Census records which are done every ten years starting in 1790, the United States also had included during certain years a mortality schedule to record those American individuals who had died the previous year. These additions were done during the 1850 through the 1880 Federal census years. When the census taker asked if anyone had died in the household the previous year, it meant from May 31 of the year before up to when the official count was done June 1 of the census year. So for example on an 1870 schedule would be any person who died from May 31, 1869 to June 1, 1970 (1870 being an official census year).
Some of the information on the mortality schedule would be the decease’s person full name, age, sex, race, birth location, their parents’ birth location, their occupation, which month and where they died, what was the cause of the death and how long they were ill. Only in the 1880 mortality schedule was the question concerning a disease and where it was contracted plus how long the deceased had lived in the area. An interesting item in the 1850 and 1860 mortality schedules were names of slave owners whose slaves had passed away.
Most states and U. S. territories during those years of 1850 to 1880 had this special series of questions done during the census year. Unfortunately, over the years some of those documents have been lost or damaged. For example in Ohio, for 1850 just the counties beginning with H through W are obtainable, all of 1860 for Ohio is available, only the county of Seneca in Ohio for 1870 is existing and just counties Adams to Geaugan in Ohio is accessible for 1880.
Some 1,526,148 records have been made available, free of charge, of these mortality schedules through Ancestry.com Mortality Schedules. Not all are in digital format to date but more are being added monthly. The states with all four mortality schedules (1850 - 188) are: Alabama, Arkansas, California, District of Columbia, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Many others have three of four complete. So there are quite a few locations available.
Added to this list were special mortality state censuses which were done in 1885. To date Ancestry.com has added the 1885 mortality lists for Nebraska, Florida and Colorado.
An example of what can be found would be seeing the ancestor; Lydia Bixler of Pennsylvania. She died at the age of 42 of consumption. She was born about 1828 in Pennsylvania and died September 1869. She was a widow at the time of her death in Manchester, York Co., Pennsylvania. Another example is George Sherman, who died at age 36 in South, York Co., Pennsylvania in October 1849 of an accident. Since his occupation was that of a butcher, that ‘accident’ may have been related to his occupation.
Occasionally you will find out information you didn’t expect or that can be shocking. There was the listing of Samuel Groff, born in Pennsylvania, where his parents were also born. He was married and living in 1880 in Allgan County, Michigan having coming eleven years earlier. He worked as a farmer and at the age of 66 years in May 1879 he committed suicide. That very well may have been information that was never known by his descendants.
So there is a good deal to learn from these documents. A reminder, if an ancestor died say July 1876, they would not be listed on the mortality schedule for 1880 or even a state census. It is just a narrow 12-month period before the major Federal censuses were taken and in some mid-decade state censuses that the information is gathered.