The Star-Herald

Special censuses yield family clues

I recently wrote a column about two of the non-population federal censuses, agricultural and manufacturing, and promised I would write about other special censuses of value to genealogists.  One of my personal favorites is the mortality census. Many genealogists haven’t heard of them but they can be of enormous help in finding the death date of an ancestor if that ancestor happened to die at a certain time.  

Anyone who has researched the nineteenth century in Maine knows it can be difficult to find death dates here in Maine.  Most towns didn’t record deaths until required to in 1892. Often cemetery records are scant or non-existent and gravestones can be lost over time or never placed when money was a factor.  Families moved on or died out and sometimes only a simple field stone marks a grave with no identification given.

But on the federal level between 1850 and 1885, census takers were required to list all persons who died in the year prior to the ending date of the current census.  That usually means there will be death information from June 1 of the year preceding the current census to May 31 of the year of the census; for example, June 1, 1869 to May 31, 1870.  This is because the usual due date for completion of the census fell on June 1.

Questions asked in the mortality census included the name of the deceased, sex, age, color, marital status, birthplace, day and month of death, occupation, cause of death, and if a person died from a disease it will be named and the length of the illness.  I don’t have to tell you this is exactly what a genealogist wants to find.

And, while mortality censuses cover only one year, if you’re fortunate enough to lose an ancestor in the right time period and they appear in one of these schedules, it’s a hallelujah moment.  I was able to experience one of those in my own research.

My third great-grandfather, Nathan Bragg, doesn’t have a marked gravesite or appear in any cemetery listing.  He and his wife, Lucy, appeared in the 1850 Dixmont census, living with their son. Nathan and Lucy disappear by the time of  the 1860 census. After searching for information I could only safely say they died between 1850-1860. Then I stumbled upon the mortality census for 1860 and it told me the details of the end of Nathan’s life.  I discovered that Nathan Bragg, a farmer, died of old age on May 1, 1860 in Dixmont. He was a widower so I know Lucy died before May 31, 1859, though I may never discover exactly when or the cause of her death.  Interestingly enough, Nathan’s “illness” is listed as old age with a duration of three weeks. This probably means he had something like pneumonia or just faded away. He was 83 years old.

You can locate mortality censuses with other federal censuses on sites such as or

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds a MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at

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