Can’t find that Portland obituary? Try the Ledger Index instead

heading from an early page of the Ledger Index to City of Portland Deaths

Have you ever had trouble finding an obituary for a Portland ancestor who died around the turn of the last century?  You’re not alone!

In the 19th century and even in the early 20th, newspapers often put obituaries in with the regular news, making them hard to find.  This was also before it was common for Portland newspapers to include a "Daily city statistics" section listing the names of people who had died in the city recently.  So it’s no wonder that it can be a big challenge to find Portland obituaries from before about 1910.  

But I have good news for you: if your ancestor was a Portlander, and if they died within city limits 1881-1917, their death was probably recorded in the Ledger Index to City of Portland Deaths.

What is the Ledger Index?

The Ledger Index to City of Portland Deaths is a long list of people who died in the city of Portland 1881-1917.  It’s quite a bit more robust than most modern death indexes -- in addition to the name and death date of each person included, it includes details like the address or name of the place where the person died, their cause of death, and (in some years) the name of the cemetery where they were buried.  This additional information makes the Ledger Index a pretty decent substitute for obituaries.  

Here’s what the Ledger Index actually looks like.  The library has a microfilmed copy, which is why it’s white text on a black background.

Finding your ancestor

The Ledger Index is arranged by date of death -- because of this, it’s sometimes referred to as the “Chronologic Index.”  If you know the date your ancestor died, simply go to that date and hopefully you’ll find them!

If you don’t know your ancestor’s date of death, try looking for their name in the Oregon State Archives’ Oregon Historical Records Index.  This index includes most records from the Ledger Index to City of Portland Deaths.  If your ancestor is listed, their date of death should lead you to the correct page of the Ledger Index.

Racial classification in the Ledger Index

There are some challenges to using the Ledger Index.  The information in the Index is a primary source, created a full century ago, and it is a government record reflecting the mainstream standards and ideas of its time.  There is no context or commentary to interpret the index for you -- you will have to provide your own analysis.  

One thing these records show us is the unexamined racism of the past.  The Ledger Index states the race of each person listed, often using terms that are decidedly not used in polite speech today: “Chinese,” “Colored,” “Half-Breed,” “Mulatto,” “White,” and possibly others.  Some of these terms appear on the zoomed-in image from January 1882 at left.  In later years, single-letter abbreviations are used.  There is no key showing what the abbreviations meant, but I’ve guessed that “C” stands for “colored” (meaning Black or African-American); “W” for “white;” and “Y” for “yellow” (meaning Asian or Asian-American).   

Causes of death in the Ledger Index

This detail from a January 1882 Ledger Index page shows some familiar-sounding causes of death: “still born,” "consumption," “scarlet fever.”  But read if you read through a few pages worth of deaths, you'll also find unexpected causes like “softening of spinal marrow.”  If you find your ancestor’s death has officially been recorded due to something that doesn’t sound like it would kill a person, be prepared to draw gentle, careful conclusions.  And remember, you may need to do some research to discover what a cause-of-death term meant in the past. 

Portland deaths only

Another thing to beware of when using the Ledger Index to City of Portland Deaths is that it mostly only includes people who died within the city limits of Portland.  And the city was quite a bit smaller 100 years ago than it is now!  (A few people whose bodies were cared for by a Portalnd undertaker or whose bodies travelled through Portland are also included.)

Fortunately, the Portland Bureau of Planning & Sustainability has a very helpful map showing historical annexations to the city of Portland (pdf), which you can look at to get a sense for where city limits were during your ancestor’s lifetime.  

Of course, people are mobile.  The Ledger Index lists people who died in Portland, not people who lived there.  Your ancestor who lived in Linnton or East Portland or St. Johns could well have died within Portland city limits, particularly if they died in an accident or in a hospital.

Using the Ledger Index, and getting help with it

You can consult the Ledger Index to City of Portland Deaths at Central Library.  Ask at any reference desk, and the librarian on duty will help you get the volumes you need.  To read it, you’ll need to use one of Central Library’s microfilm machines -- read more about that in my colleague Ross B.’s post Microfilm at the library.

But you don’t have to visit the library to tap the riches of this great resource --  librarians are always happy to help.  Just get in touch with us by phone or email, and we’ll do our best to answer your questions or help you plan your research. 

In the meantime, happy researching!



"This MCL Blog you created is very cool. It can actually be a website in itself. A Reference Website sort of thing. Wealth of informative information." --- Eugene
We are trying to find where he is now. He passed away he is 20.
Thanks for your comment -- we'd be delighted to help you locate Portland or Multnomah County obituaries! Just give us a call at 503.988.5234 or email us from and we'll will see what we can find for you. -- Emily-Jane D.
I have taught to use of this index for many years. It is not an index of deaths in Portland! It is an index of dead bodies traveling through the city of Portland. An example is the grandmother of a friend of mine who died in Alaska and is buried in Boise, Idaho. She was brought to Portland from Alaska on her way. Her body rested in a Portland firm while her family visited in Portland. The day I taught that in a meeting of the Genealogical Forum Ellen went to the index and found her grandmother. A number of years later I was the original certificates that were created (they are in the State Archives) and found the certificate and filed with it was one from Alaska which my friend had been told did not exist. This article as written does not give the correct information. It was a city ordinance that any dead human body moving through the city had to have a City of Portland Certificate created. Stanley R. Clarke, Genealogical Researcher.
I was in contact with Tara Nash who was helping me early this summer in finding information on a Hallie A. Kellogg and now I was wondering if she could help me find the death record and obit of her husband Joseph R. Mlekush. I am still not sure how these people are related to me but maybe if I can find out more on Joseph R Mlekush then I may find out how he fits in my family tree. I have found out that Joseph R Mlekush was birth date is 22 May 1906, Death Date: 1970, Cemetery: Mountain View Cemetery Burial or Cremation Place: Livingston, Park County, Montana, United States of America. I also know that he was still a live when his wife Hallie passed away in Portland, Oregon in 1959. Any information you can give me on Mr. Mlekush would be greatly helpful. I would like to thank you again for the help and information that you gave me on Hallie Mlekush. I can be reached at the above email address and thanks in advance for your help
Thanks for your comment! We'd be delighted to help you with your obituary research -- or research on just about any other topic you're interested in. Just give us a call at 503.988.5234 or email us from and we'll will see what we can find for you. -- Emily-Jane D.