Oregon Deaths Before State-wide Registration.

Connie Lenzen, Certified Genealogist ®

The best record of death is one created near the time of death. A death certificate fits that description, but the first Oregon death certificates were created in 1903. For deaths before that time, other sources of information must be used

Records created close in time to the event.

Newspaper notice of death

A small death announcement in the local newspaper often gave the death-date. The largest collection of microfilmed Oregon newspapers is at the University of Oregon in Eugene. The University will loan films, and a catalog of their holdings is online at http://library.uoregon.edu/govdocs/micro/titles.html. Of secondary, but still significant, size is that of the Oregon Historical Society in Portland.

The first Oregon newspaper was the Oregon Spectator. The first issue was published in 1846 in Oregon City. An index to the Oregon Spectator for the years 1846 to 1854 has been published in two volumes. Copies of the index are available at many libraries.

A card index to the Oregon Statesman, 1850 through 1866, was prepared by the W.P. A. Newspaper Index Project and later transferred to book form by the Marion County Historical Society. Copies of the index are available at the Oregon State Library in Salem and the Oregon Historical Society Library in Portland.

Local newspapers often published a short death notice. These are mostly unindexed, but during the 1870s, the Portland Oregonian newspaper summarized their death notices in the 1 January edition of the newspaper. To see the list of 1879 deaths from the 1 January 1880 issue of the Oregonian, click here.

Religious newspaper obituary

Several newspapers affiliated with religious denominations were published in early Oregon. The Pacific Christian Advocate, with its first issue coming out in 1855, is the oldest. An obituary from that year illustrates the type of document you can expect to find.

Pacific Christian Advocate (Salem, Oregon Territory)

Saturday morning, 29 September 1855, page 3, column 5


Benson, son of Moses and Elizabeth Starr, departed this life, Sept. 16th, aged 27 years and 7 months.

 In 1839, the subject of this sketch removed with his parents from Ohio to Iowa, where he resided until 1850, when he emigrated to California. Here he remained two years when he turned his steps toward Oregon, where his widowed mother, who had lost her husband in crossing the plains, together with a large circle of other relatives, then resided. When settled again, in the midst of his friends, his membership in the Church, which had been somewhat interrupted during his stay in California, was cheerfully and promptly renewed, and he entered once more, with zeal and devotion into the work of his master. He was appointed class leader, in which position he remained until the close of his Christian warfare.

His death was one of calm and peaceful triumph. With much composure, he requested his mother, who watched, with unceasing devotion, at his dying pillow, to inform him of the approval of his last eternity. When told that death was upon him, he turned his eyes towards the place of his future and everlasting – and, with deep and thrilling emphasis, exclaimed, “Glory to God, glory to God, glory to God.” And as these triumphant expressions trembled upon his pale and quivering lips, his soul winged in flight to the bliss of its eternal home. He has left behind him a fond and affectionate companion and an infant son, upon whom this bereavement falls with withering and desolating power. Let me hereby speak from them the earnest sympathy of their numerous friends, and the fervent prayer of the people of God, that they may enjoy his continual blessing here and the joy that awaits the pure in heart in another world.

An index to the Pacific Christian Advocate for the years 1864 to 1890 was created as a Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) project.

The index does not give the date that the death notice was published in the Pacific Christian Advocate, but they were usually published within three months of death. Microfilm copies of the Pacific Christian Advocate are located at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland, the Oregon State Library in Salem, and the University of Oregon's Knight Library in Eugene.

A sample of what is found in the index:

Hileman, Hon J. C. Vancouver, Jan 26, 1876. Surv by wife who was dau. of Rev. John Dillon, and 2 chn. Born Huntington Co. Pa in 1829. To Ohio 1847, 1855 to Omaha, Neb. Lt Col in War. Married Belinda G. Dillon Dec 28, 1870. Ld Portland until 1870.

For researchers who do not have access to printed copies of the Pacific Christian Advocate index, a work-around is available. The index is part of the DAR Genealogical Records Committee index, online at the DAR website, www.dar.org . Click on "Genealogy" and then "GRC National Index."

The search in the GRC National Index for J. C. Hileman provided the following information:

Title: Oregon DAR GRC report ; s1 v221: genealogical data copied from the Pacific Christian advocate for the years 1864–1890 / contributed by Chemeketa Chapter
Location: OREG G.R.C. 1964 S1-V221

With this information, a research request can be made to the DAR and they will make copies for a moderate fee.

Church registers

Methodist, Presbyterian, and Catholic missionaries arrived in Oregon in the 1830s. Other denominations quickly followed. Records for most churches are kept by the local congregation. Therefore, the researcher needs to contact the individual churches to determine what records are available. Two books that assist in locating churches are:

  1. Directory of Churches & Religious Organizations, State of Oregon. Portland, Oregon: Oregon Historical Records Survey, WPA., 1940.
  2. Guide To Early Oregon Churches. Eugene, Oregon: Olga Samuelson Freeman, 1976.

Bible records

Before deaths were recorded by civil authorities, some families recorded deaths in the family Bible on special pages dedicated to family vital records. If the death being recorded is after the Bible's publication date, and if it appears the entries were written in different ink and with a slightly different penmanship, it is possible that the entry was made at the time of the event and is fairly reliable.

Genealogical and historical societies, the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and the National Genealogical Society (NGS) have collected transcriptions of family Bible records. Some have been published in genealogical periodicals. Some transcribed Bible records are available online; such as the NGS Bible Record collection (for members only). The Genealogical Forum of Oregon publishes Bible records in their Bulletin, and a collection of these records were published in fifteen volumes.

Records created months or years after death

Mortality schedules

The 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880 census schedules include a Mortality Schedule for deaths that occurred in the twelve months prior to the census day of 1 June. Indexes to these schedules are on Ancestry.com. As with all indexes, it is always best to locate the source because there is usually more information in the original. Oregon Mortality Schedules (on microfilm) can be found at the Genealogical Forum of Oregon and the Oregon Historical Society in Portland and the Oregon State Library and Oregon State Archives in Salem. For a transcription of the 1850 Oregon schedule, click here 1850 Oregon Mortality Schedule. For a transcription of the 1880 Multnomah County schedule, click here 1880 Multnomah County, Oregon Mortality Schedule.

Oregon Pioneer Register

Another DAR Genealogical Records Committee project was the Oregon Pioneer Register, a compilation of information taken from records of the Oregon Pioneer Association. A sample of an index listing from the DAR website is given:

Name State Series/Vol Page
Parrish, Josiah L OR s1 v150 7 and 12

Title: Oregon DAR GRC report ; s1 v150 : Oregon pioneer register / Champoeg Chapter
Location: OREG G.R.C. 1954 S–V150

The complete entry from the Register is as follows:

Parrish, Rev. Josiah L.

Born January 14, 1806, Onondaga County, New York. Arrived in Oregon on Lausanna, via Cape Horn, in June 1840, accompanied by first wife and three children. Voted for Provisional Government at Champoeg in 1843. Was Indian Agent 1854. Died May 31, 1895, buried in Mission Cemetery at Salem, Oregon. Married first September 26, 1833, Elizabeth Winn of New York; married second Miss Jane (Jennie) L. Lichtenthaler of Portland, Oregon, in 1870. Married third Mrs. M. A. Pierce.

Note: the Oregon Pioneer Register has been reprinted.

City directories

Some city directories published lists of people who died in Portland during the 1870s. For the list from the 1879 issue of Samuel's Portland City Directory, click here.

County histories

A number of county histories were produced in the late nineteenth-century, and they contain biographies with information that was supplied by the individuals who often told when their parents died. Patricia Brandt’s Oregon Biography Index (Corvallis: Oregon State University, 1976), is an index to 47 of these histories.


Tombstones of many pioneer cemeteries were transcribed and abstracted by Oregon chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution. These are included in the DAR GRC index, online at www.dar.org.

Copies of published DAR books are at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland, the Oregon State Library in Salem, and the DAR Library in Washington, D.C. They are also available on microfilm through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Many of these DAR extractions have been copied and placed on county GenWeb pages.

© 2000 2017

Connie Lenzen

Certified Genealogist is a registered mark of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, used under license by Board-certified genealogists after periodic evaluation, and the board name is registered in the US Patent & Trademark Office.

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