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 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).
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!
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.