How can census mortality schedules help in researching my African-American slave ancestors?

From 1790 to 1840, the U.S. Federal Census enumerated families by tallying them by age and gender, identifying by name only the head of household. But that practice changed in 1850, when the census began enumerating all members of the household by name, as the Census Bureau (not always known by that name), took on ever greater responsibility of tracking the nation's vital statistics.

Of course, the enumerating of every person applied to "free inhabitants" only and did not include African American slaves, who continued to be counted by number under the name of slave holders. It was not until 1870, after the emancipation of slaves throughout the country and the end of the Civil War that all African Americans were named in the census.

Unlike the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules, which did not name slaves, some slaves were, indeed, listed by name, in the 1850 and 1860 U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedules. In the interest of tracking the mortality rates and the incidence of disease in the country, every census from 1850 through 1880 includes a separate mortality schedule, enumerating those who had died (along with the cause of death) in the previous year: that 12-month period dating from June 1 of the census year to May 31 of the previous year. This tracking of illness, mortality and disease, included slaves.

Although far from being a complete record of all deaths and not available for all counties and states, the schedules of many slave-holding states and the District of Columbia are available and can provide some of the earliest records for slave ancestors.

Unfortunately, in the 1850 and 1860 record, the names given for slaves was inconsistent, a lot depending on the whim of enumerators. In some areas slaves were by listed first name only, while in other areas a surname or slave holder name was also given. For example, in the 1860 census for Brooks County, Georgia (with some exception), slaves are listed by first name only, while in the 1850 census for Edgefield County, North Carolina, the name of the slave and slave holder are identified on the same line.

Even so, if you can connect your ancestor's first name and the place (and slave holder name, if available), you may have success in identify your slave ancestor. The information provided for slaves includes age, gender, and race (or color); estimated birth year; the month and cause of death, and the number of days ill. Marital status is not given for slaves.

Mortality schedules are indexed and searchable by name through the National Archives and certain of their online partners, and are a good place to check for the deaths of all ancestors, regardless of race, between 1850 and 1880, and in six states in 1885. In some cases, the mortality schedule may the only record of death available, which is particularly true for those who were slaves.

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