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Interpreting the Evidence

Life and Death in the 1860s

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    Civil War and Reconstruction (1850 - 1877)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:


  • Primary Source Types:

    Census Record

  • Regions:

    Capital District
    New York State

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load 1860 Federal Census, Mortality Schedule, Lansingburgh, Rensselaer County in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Topic: Local census data and death records, Life during mid-1800s, Medical advancement

Skills: Calculating averages, Interpreting meanings of words within a historical context, Make inferences from a primary source

This document shows names, ages, and causes of death for people who died in Lansingburgh in 1860, information about what life was like during the mid-1800s, life before medical advancements like penicillin, and improved living conditions like waste management.

 Historical Context: This schedule of deaths was recorded in Lansingburgh, Rensselaer County, New York. Mortality schedules 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 State. This record is courtesy of the New York State Library, Albany, New York.

Essential Question: How does this document show differences between 19th-century life and modern life?

Document Analysis:

1.       Each student will receive a copy of the worksheet and the Lansingburgh Mortality Schedule.

2.       Students will be divided into partner or 4 person groups to examine the document and respond to these guiding questions:

a.       What were the main causes of death in the 19th century the USA?

b.       Why were doctors unable to diagnose or treat people properly?

c.       What would have caused such a high infant mortality rate?

d.       How does modern medicine compare to 19th-century medicine?

3.       Teacher will hand out DBQ questions (attached) for students to complete individually, except #13.

4.       Teacher will review DBQ questions with the class to discuss answers and debate multiple correct responses.

5.       Students will write a reflection paragraph (question #13) about the primary source document to compare mortality rates and diseases of 1860 to 21st century New York.

Optional Extension Activity

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

1.      Have students create a bar graph that shows the frequency of the various diseases on the mortality schedule.


-Census of mortality primary source document, page magnifier, almanac, dictionary, Death Records DBQ questions, copy of a current death certificate or record, access to computers.



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