Blogs: Local interest

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.

A page from the Ledger Index, showing December 1913 deaths.  Click for a bigger version.

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.

Detail of a January 1882 Ledger Index page showing racial classification.  Click for a bigger version.

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 detail 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).   

Detail of a January 1882 Ledger Index page showing causes of death.  Click for a bigger version.

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 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! 

Map of historical annexations to the City of Portland (pdf, from Portland Bureau of Planning & Sustainability)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 via Ask the Librarian, and we’ll do our best to answer your questions or help you plan your research. 

In the meantime, happy researching!


Do you want to know more about finding other local obituaries?  Take a look at my post Where is that Oregon obituary? 

Or if you'd like to step it back a bit and learn more about family history research with obituaries, my colleague Kate S. walks you through some of the basics in her post on Obituaries 101.


The winners of the Oregon Book Awards were recently announced! From a number of excellent finalists, Portland’s own Emily Kendal Frey was awarded the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry. I’ve been reading the award winning book, Sorrow Arrow, and it’s a real treat - a wild emotional ride between poignant sadness and some rather hilarious moments, and memorable lines such as “You sit in your body, quietly making blood.” The book transpires in brief lyric lines, sometimes disjunctive and sometimes tenacious, in a series of untitled poems that build upon one another in a wonderful wall of feeling.

Are you interested in reading books by Emily Kendal Frey and other Oregon poets? Here’s a booklist for you.

National Poetry Month is not yet over! April 30th is Poem in Your Pocket Day, when you are encouraged to carry a poem around. In your pocket. At Central Library we will have a selection of poems for you to choose from, including some new work by local poets! Look for our display in the 1st floor lobby. 


Five years old by September? Sign up for school by June 1!
If your child will be five years old by September 1, he or she is ready to start school. Register at your school by June 1 to give your child a good start, connect to summer activities and get access to free resources. School offices close for the summer, so don’t wait! When you register by June 1, you have time to get to know your school and your teacher, and your teacher has time to prepare the classroom for your child. To identify your school or get help with other childhood issues call 211 or email Interpretation is available.
How can the library help you and your child get ready for kindergarten? Bring them to storytime!  By the time your child is 5 years old, you may have heard many messages — on TV, in magazines, from other parents — about the importance of learning letters and numbers.
But kindergarten teachers care much more about having children who are ready and excited to learn. Kindergarten readiness includes things such as playing well with others, following simple instructions and talking about feelings and thoughts. There are lots of fun ways to develop these skills, and the library is here to help you!
At storytime we read stories and sing songs. We talk about the things we’ve read. We work on following directions with shakers and scarves and simple group games. Storytimes are a great opportunity for your child to learn to socialize with other children and adults. In storytime children also learn to ask questions and function well in a group; develop language and problem-solving skills; and perhaps most importantly, discover that books and learning are fun!
What else can you do?  Read, talk, sing, write and play!  



You face a lot of challenges when you are transitioning back into the community. The library can help you find resources to help you deal with those challenges and get back on your feet. Londer Learning Center teacher shares a poster; link to Londer Learning Center.

You are not alone.

MercyCorps Northwest’s Reentry Transition Center provides a variety of services, including helping with immediate needs like clothing, meals, and access to phones and Internet. The center also helps ex-offenders work towards long term goals of education, employment and driver’s license reinstatement.

Londer Learning Center is the only adult education program in Oregon working exclusively with adults in transition from jail, prison and treatment programs. They offer GED classes, job search assistance, and apprenticeship preparation for construction trades and connections to apprentice training programs like Constructing Hope. SE Works also has several programs for community members leaving jail or prison who are looking to re-enter the workforce or improve their job skills.

Pathfinders of Oregon program Parenting Inside Out has been specifically designed to provide support for parents who are on parole and probation.

For other social services, contact by dialing 211 or texting your zip code to 898211 to start a live conversation.

Your library card gives you access to so much.

Take advantage of free computer classes, assistance for job seekers, personal finance information, and resources for parents, not to mention books, ebooks, movies, and audio on any subject you can imagine. And you can always contact a helpful librarian with any question -- even if you don't have a library card, we're glad to help you!

Close-up image of microfilm in a microfilm reader.Microfilm & microfilm readers

Microfilm is photographic film used to record miniaturized images on sheets or reels. Often these are images of pages from newspapers and magazines. The reels of film use less space than the original items (for example, 50 years of Sports Illustrated on film takes up the same space as 1 year of the paper magazine, and the boxes of microfilm can fit in one small drawer). To read the microscopic images on film, you use a microfilm reader which enlarges them for you.

Central Library has recently added two brand-new digital microfilm readers. These readers offer many new options for editing and saving images from microfilm, including the ability to crop, enhance images and add notes. The two new readers are located in the Periodicals room at Central Library, and older microfilm readers are available in the Literature & History room. 

Digital microfilm machines at Central Library.So, what kinds of magazines and newspapers does the library have on microfilm?

All sorts! Here is a selection of historic gems that we have available at Central Library for your micro-perusing:

  • The Black Panther, 1968 to 1980
  • Harper’s, 1963-2013
  • Macworld, 1984 to 2005
  • Reader’s Digest, 1922 to 2013
  • TV Guide, 1953 to 1994
  • and many, many more!

In addition to national publications like the ones listed above, Central Library also has a large collection of local newspapers on microfilm, including the Oregon Journal, The Oregonian, The Portland Telegram and the Willamette Week. For more information about searching in local newspapers, take a look at the blog post “Research with historical Portland newspapers, beyond the Oregonian.”

Microfilm readers are also located at the Gresham, North Portland, and Sellwood libraries. These locations have smaller collections of microfilm materials which are specific to their communities: The Gresham Outlook, The Sellwood Bee and (at North Portland Library) many local African-American periodicals like The Skanner, The Portland Observer and The Newspaper.

Newspaper article about the Grateful DeadA couple of notes before you begin your micro-searching:

  1. When you use microfilm, it is like browsing through a big stack of newspapers or magazines arranged by date. If you don’t know the exact date for the article that you are seeking, you might need to use an index (usually this index is a book or an online resource) to look it up.
  2. Some magazines and newspapers are only available on microfilm at the library, but many are also available through the library’s online databases. These databases can sometimes be a better choice for your searching.

Remember, you can always Ask a Librarian and we will be happy to help you find the information or articles that you need!

Logo for the Intellectual Freedom Issues in Oregon database

Curious about censorship or banned books in Oregon?  Need to know what's been published in the local news?  The Intellectual Freedom Issues in Oregon: A News Database, may have what you need.  The database is the Oregon Intellectual Freedom Clearinghouse's news clipping files, and is updated twice a year. The database includes news articles and editorials about intellectual freedom issues printed in Oregon newspapers over the past 65 years. The database can be searched by article title, newspaper name, date, city/location, name of challenged book or material, and organizations or individuals involved. After you have found what you want to read, contact the coordinator of the Oregon Intellectual Freedom Clearinghouse, Katie Anderson, 503-378-2528 to request a complete text of the articles or editorials.  And if you have any trouble, don't forget to Ask a Librarian!

Big & Awesome Bridges of Portland and Vancouver book jacketBridges are one of the bonuses of living in Portland. Did you know there are 22 bridges over the Columbia and Willamette rivers in the Portland and Vancouver area? I love all of the different styles and types of bridges we have. Getting out of my car and seeing them from the river bank or a boat on the river adds to my enjoyment of them. The more I learn about our bridges the more interesting they become. It is easy to learn more about our bridges with Sharon Wood Wortman's great new book, Big & Awesome Bridges of Portland & Vancouver.

What makes this book special is that it is written for kids. It has lots of art and graphics as well as facts, bridge poems and interviews with bridge designers and workers. It includes the new Tilikum Crossing and Selwood bridges. Adults needn’t worry about this being a kids' book, there is plenty of information about the bridges. You also will learn about bridge building and design. There are even plans to build model bridges out of popsicle sticks that you can load test.

Sharon Wood Wortman also wrote The Portland Bridge Book. The first and second editions are illustrated with neat line drawings and the third edition, which came out in 2006, has photographs of the bridges. These books are also worth looking at, but they’re not as much fun as Big & Awesome Bridges. You can find out more about Portland’s bridges online at  Big & Awesome Bridges of Portland and Vancouver and at PDX Bridge Festival.

support groupsAs some smart person once observed, looking for work is work, darn hard work.  And the pay stinks.  It's a process full of frustration and disappointment, which makes keeping the focus and motivation necessary for a good outcome difficult.  But you don't have to go it alone.  The Portland/Multnomah County area is full of people in the same boat as you, willing and able to offer their comradery, support and advice to help you through these trying times.  I recently sat in on one such group, the Job Finders Support Group, which meets at the Capitol Hill branch, noon to 3pm every Friday.  I was greeted warmly by a bunch of very together people who were happy to share their experiences with job applications, networking events, social media, the latest job search-related apps, company research, interview strategies - in short, they were on top of all different aspects of the job search game and very encouraging and supportive of each other.  It is facilitated by local author Cleon Cox and he lists many other local support groups and other job seeking resources on his website.  Another source of support in the east county area is the Job Seekers Support Group which meets at Gresham Library at 1:30pm on Tuesdays. Finally, an option in your job search arsonal is the job fair, where employers vie for the attention of prospective employees like you - the State of Oregon website lists job fairs and events in the area

Need help finding more job resources? Let us help!

Black History Month: More Than Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. This marks the end of our month long journey of learning and exploration. We hope you enjoyed and learned facts about Black History Month that you didn't previously know. Thank you for joining us!

Aasha Benton

February 28, 2015

Painting by Aasha Benton

Aasha's story goes a bit like this. She graduates from college in 2012 and moves back to her hometown right here in Portland, Oregon. She discovers a love for art. So, she begins to paint. Taking inspiration from various periods in Black history and soul music, she creates incredible, yet simple, works. Her paintings are fun, colorful, serious and obtainable. Best of all? You can check them out here!

Further Exploration:

Available at Multnomah County Library:



Dynamic Design Duo


February 27, 2015

Culturally Creative lunch boxes and water bottles

Photo Credit:

Source:  Kayin Talton and Cleo Davis

Kayin Talton and Cleo Davis are a husband and wife designing force. If you can think of it, they can create it! Recently named curators of the Williams Art Project, their talent and ingenuity will soon be displayed for all to see and enjoy.  When they aren’t creating for the Williams Art Project, you can find them at 3940-3944 N Williams Ave. for all of your designing needs. Or, you can find them online where they specialize in being “culturally creative.” In their own words, “As part of the Honoring the African American History of N Williams Art Project, we are combining stories, memories, and locations to create what is essentially a walk through mid-century life in Portland’s largest Black community. Follow us on twitter @blkwilliamspdx for updates on the project, and share your stories using #blackwilliamspdx.”  Be sure to join in!


Subscribe to