“All politics is local” was a favorite saying of former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. A quick look at the 1850 U.S. Federal Census mortality schedules for California leaves me thinking all history might be local, too.
Mortality schedules for California and Maine went live on Ancestry.com this week, and as I browsed through them, I was intrigued by how vivid—and how different—these one-year snapshots of communities in the same state could be. Take Calaveras County, for example.
The schedule for Calaveras District, Calaveras County, California, 1850, records the deaths of 59 men and 1 woman.
Residents came from more than 15 different states and at least 9 foreign countries, and 55 of the 60 have their occupation listed as miners.
The remarks note: “This district is remarkably healthy, most of the deaths having occurred by accident or by marked carelessness or exposure to water in working—and the use of bad provisions and much intoxicating beverages.” The cause of death for the first dozen names bears this out—and paints a pretty rugged picture of life on the frontier mines: Dysentery, Shot Accidental, Dysentery, Burnt by Indians, Murdered, Dysentery, Delirium Tremens (2), Stabbed (4). Shot, Accident, and Murder weave in and out with Dysentery and Fever through the rest of the schedule.
And if you weren’t a miner, apparently you had a 1 in 30 chance of being a gambler—or dying as one—like Juan Acosta, a 21-year-old from Mexico,”Shot.” Talk about the Wild West.
But that’s just Calaveras County. Marin County recorded only three deaths: all lumbermen, and all three dead from diarrhea.
In Sacramento City, a cholera outbreak threatened to empty the newborn boomtown. In Los Angeles County, almost 45 percent of the names on the schedules are female.
Names and dates aside, in the case of California, the mortality schedules speak to both patterns of and reasons for settlement, and in telling us how our ancestors died, they also offer us a brief look at how they lived.