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Interpreting the Evidence

John Brown Death Census

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    Civil War and Reconstruction (1850 - 1877)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Middle School
    High School

  • Topics:

    Civil War

  • Primary Source Types:

    Census Record

  • Regions:

    North Country
    New York State

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load 1860 Federal Census, Mortality Schedule, North Elba, Essex County (John Brown) in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Topic: Causes of the Civil War

Skills: Critical Thinking, Comparing and Contrasting, Making Inferences

Document Content: Death record for John Brown- the man responsible for the raid of the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Deaths of other members of his family in the same year. Information collected by the Census at that time.

Compelling Question: What does this document reveal about American society during this time?

Historical Context: Mortality schedules, or lists of the people and their cause of death for the twelve months preceding the census, appear at the end of each town’s population schedule in the United States Census for the years 1850-1880.  The New York State Census from 1845-1875 also contains mortality schedules for the communities of New York.  Taken from the same census as the Lansingburgh Census of Mortality, this record demonstrates that local records can reflect national events and historical persons.  This schedule from North Elba, Essex County, New York, documents the death of John Brown and members of his family.  North Elba township, located in the Adirondacks, includes the village of Lake Placid today.  Brown purchased the land in the late 1840s from Gerrit Smith, an abolitionist, and philanthropist.  Smith had a plan to sell Adirondack land to poor African American men so they could relocate.  Brown purchased land from Smith planning to help the resettlement.  However, Brown’s attention turned to the civil unrest developing as western territories sought statehood.  John Brown’s farm and burial plot are maintained as a historic site. As noted in the record, Brown was executed by hanging.  This occurred after his conviction for treason associated with his infamous raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859.  This record is from the New York State Library.  Additional records about John Brown and his family are located in the records of the Essex County Clerk and the Historian’s office in Elizabethtown, NY.

Document Analysis:

(Use the Written Document Analysis sheet provided and focus on dividing Schedule C into two parts.  Part 1 consists of the Schedule form itself, with no writing added.  Part 2 consists of the handwritten entries on the form, especially the listing of those who died. For demonstration purposes, Part 3 will be the written portion at the bottom right.)

Structure:  (Modeling the Strategy)  Analyzing a Written Document

1.  Study the document for 3-5 minutes.

2.  Introduce the “Written Document Analysis” graphic organizer to students.

3.  Model the strategy by focusing on the written portion at the bottom, which reads

Essex County, NY John Ross

Being duly sworn  ????  that Schedule No. 3 comprising 1½  sheets is made according to my oath & the instructions to the best of my knowledge & belief.

(Signed) John Ross


 Submitted & sworn to before me this 29th day of August 1860

(Signed) Sam{ue}l Sh??????, Justice Peace


For example,

I read…

I think…

It means…

  • John Ross completed the form
  • Was given instructions on how to do it
  • Was sworn in to the position
  • Had to give it to the Justice of the Peace
  • That this was an important position to have.
  • Took time to collect the information from the whole county.
  • That the information collected was considered important and serious.


Evidence:  (Independent Practice) Analyzing a Written Document

1.  Students use the same process to complete and analyze the rest of the document.

2.  Discuss responses for the opening questions (1-4), Parts I and II, and for Overall Observations of Document.

1.  Title/Type:  Schedule 3-Persons who Died…  (Census document)

2.  Speaker/Author:  William Starks, Enumerator (immediate)/U.S. Government (census)

3.  Intended Audience:  U. S. Government (primary)/Local Governments (secondary)

4.  Date/Historic Context:  1860/part of 1860 U.S. Census

Overall Observations of Document:

  • Printed official government document form
  • Handwritten information entered in by official enumerator
  • Written in cursive in a very regular and precise manner
  • Well maintained


3.  Focus student attention on the I wonder…, Where can I find the answer?, and I learned… part of the graphic organizer.   Have students share the I wonder(s) with the class and Where can I find the answer?


I wonder…

Where can I find the answer?

I learned…

Why did they include # of days ill?

What the average life expectancy was?

Were there doctors in the community?

Did people go to the doctor?

What month/season did most people die?

What is ‘dropsy’?

Why were no ‘remarks’ provided?

For questions based on the information in the document, have students determined the average age at death, or the number of days ill, etc?

Other information might be available on the U.S. Census website.

Re. availability of doctors, a directory, or a local newspaper might provide the information.

That the government kept many official records.

That certain disease that killed people in 1860 is now treated with antibiotics.

That diseases had different names in the 1860s.



4.  Summarize the document. Discuss: Why was the man named “John Brown” put to death by hanging? John Brown’s raid was in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Why was his death in New York State? What impact did John Brown’s death have on the beginning of the Civil War?

This is an official U.S. Government census document, which records the persons who died during the year ending June 1st, 1860 in the town of North Elba, New York State.  It includes an entry for John Brown.


5.  Relate this document back to the essential question. How does this document demonstrate what was important in America? Answer this in terms of the Census and the hanging death of John Brown.

Check for Understanding:

Exit PassWrite a conclusion about the information provided in this document.

Essential Question:  Write a brief paragraph (3-4 sentences) answering the essential question.


Student responses may include a reference to the Crisis of the 1850s as leading to the Civil War.  John Brown’s actions sparked those crisis moments.  Although this enumeration of his death does not deal directly with those crises, Brown’s abolitionist stance firmly reflected his beliefs of the guarantees of the Declaration of Independence and the role of the national government in ending the institution of slavery. 


Optional Extension Activities

The following activities could be completed in order to extend students’ thinking and encourage them to make connections:

1.      Research what John Brown was found guilty of. The punishment in his time was hanging. What crimes are punishable by death in the U.S. today? Why are some people against the death penalty? Why do some people support the death penalty? Which side do you support and why?

2.      Look into the modern U.S. Census. What types of data are collected? How are the data collected? How has the Census changed over time?