Now What?: Children Who Didn’t Survive Adulthood

By David A. Fryxell Premium

Q. How can I find information on children who didn’t survive to adulthood?

A. The answer depends on when the children lived. For families between 1850 and 1940, the US census provides a snapshot of children’s names and ages. If you find a young child named in one census but not on the next taken 10 years later, that’s often a clue the child died. Look for those who died in the year prior to the 1850, 1860, 1870 and 1880 censuses on those enumerations’ mortality schedules. 
For example, the 1870 census shows Henry Wilkins, age 6, in the East St. Louis, Ill., household of William and Julia Wilkins, along with their other children, Elisabeth (12) and Richard (10). But in the 1880 census, we find only William, Julia, Elisabeth and Richard. Henry would’ve been 16, so it’s not inconceivable he was working somewhere. But the fact that his older brother was at home suggests otherwise.

If Henry had died earlier in the intervening decade, it might be more difficult to prove what became of him. In fact, however, he died in the 12 months preceding the 1880 census (the year ending May 31, 1880), and thus is listed in the 1880 mortality schedule for East St. Louis: Henry Wilkins, Male, White, born in Illinois, age 15, died July 1879 of “Congestive Chills.”

The 1900 and 1910 censuses, which asked women how many children they’d borne and how many were living, can clue you into the existence of children who were born and died between censuses. Vital records can help solve such mysteries, but many states were late to begin recording births and deaths. (Henry Wilkins, for example, isn’t in the Illinois statewide death index.) Where no vital records exist, try searching for cemetery records. Even if you don’t know the children’s names, you might find them buried near their parents.

Church records also can fill in the gaps. Even infants who died very young were usually baptized, and their burials would also be recorded. Family Bibles typically recorded all children born to a family, too.

From the December 2013 Family Tree Magazine