It’s often a pain to file your individual taxes with the government (unless you’re getting a refund). But the fact that various levels of government in the United States have kept records of our taxes turns to pleasure for genealogists: Tax records let you anchor your ancestors in a particular place and discover in detail their economic situations over time. Tax lists are especially welcome as a replacement for records in “burned counties” and areas that have suffered census losses. And even when census records are complete, you often can use tax records to fill the decade between enumerations, especially for rural ancestors who may not appear in annual city directories.
While the current version of the federal income tax (as well as the state income levies introduced mostly during the second half of the 20th century) is off-limits due to privacy, you’ll see that’s generally not the case with such taxes historically. Even the first federal income tax, used to pay for the Civil War in the 1860s, is publicly available. Here’s how you can make tax records pay off for your genealogy research.
Types of tax records
One of the most widespread taxes in Colonial times was a flat assessment for each adult male in a household. This was variously called a poll, tithable or head tax. The age at which one was considered a taxable adult varied with the jurisdiction, and older men often could “age out” of the tax, usually between 50 and 60. Exceptions were made in some areas for veterans, ministers and those deemed “paupers” (that is, too poor to pay the tax).
The other typical tax in the early days was on the value of land, because real estate (“real property”) was the source of most wealth. This tax, importantly, was sometimes levied not on the actual owner of the real property but upon the person who was using it. For example, a farmer renting a piece of land would be responsible for paying the tax because he, as the tenant, was reaping the profits from the use of that land.
Certain classes of personal property also were valued and subject to taxes. The types of property differed by area but included farm animals and carriages, as well as enslaved persons. On some tax returns, landless men whose personal property was of high enough value to owe tax are identified on separate lists of “inmates,” which in this connotation means tenants or renters and doesn’t signify trouble with the law.
In parts of Colonial America, levies called quitrents were a remnant of feudal times when individuals owed taxes or service to their lords. The Mid-Atlantic and Southern colonies often had this sort of annual tax on landowners that went to the proprietor or the English crown, depending on the area; it ended with American independence. Town founders also might place quitrents upon town lots as a sort of early form of homeowners association fee to fund common projects. As these areas incorporated as governments, those quitrents morphed into taxes.
As the nation acquired a degree of financial sophistication in the mid-19th century, some states expanded the reach of their personal property taxes to include the value of investments such as stocks, bonds and money lent out at interest. In some cases, these levies would exempt, for example, values in corporations or banks headquartered within the taxpayer’s home state.
Colonial-era tax lists often are entirely handwritten. They’re usually arranged in a columnar format, but sometimes the headings for those columns are obscure. Usually you can check the first page of the list for headings describing what’s listed in the columns. You’ll see forms with preprinted headings starting generally in the 19th century.
As far as generating tax reports with genealogically useful information, the federal government was pretty much a nonplayer until the 20th century. In its early days, the United States generated the lion’s share of its revenues with tariffs on imported goods. A constitutional debate about what constituted a “direct tax” resulted in the federal income tax being declared unlawful by the US Supreme Court in 1895. (Note to any would-be tax protesters out there: The enactment of the 16th Amendment in 1913 has superseded this decision.) Only for a few discreet periods of time were taxes with individual data levied and collected; some, which we’ll tell you about later, have created interesting economic snapshots for the short spans they were in effect. An excellent book for more historical background, as well as research examples on various taxes, is The Genealogist’s Guide to Researching Tax Records (see the toolkit box below).
Record Example: 1754 list for Bern Township, Berks County, Pa.
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1. The beginning of this 1754 list for Bern Township, Berks County, Pa., shows name of the township and the name of the tax collector.
2. This list values the individual’s land (in Pennsylvania pounds) and shows the tax (with columns for pounds, shillings and pence).
3. One occupation (miller) is noted, while the others in this rural township are likely farmers.
4. A rare woman, Widow Leib, is listed, likely because she was the beneficiary of a life estate from her late husband.
5. The name crossed out, Jacob Conrad, is a clue that he has moved or died.
6. The list isn’t alphabetized, so individuals next to each other are also likely to be next-door neighbors.
Citation for this record: Mary Ellen G. Heckman, indexer, Berks County Taxables, 1754 (Reading, Pa.: Berks County Genealogical Society, 1900), p. 24. Family History Library call no. 974.816 R4h. Includes photocopy of original records and typescript index.
Record Example: Real and Personal Property Tax List
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1. The top of the page identifies the place as “District 1” of Campbell County, Tenn.
2. The first three columns after the taxpayer’s name list acres, value and tax on land.
3. Other columns listed “school land” (set aside for future schools but leased out for farming), lots, slaves, “Car.” (carriages), white polls and total state tax.
4. When extracting information watch for bleed through from marks on the other side of the page.
5. This 1839 tax list is alphabetized, so no clues for neighbors can be gleaned.
Citation for this record: “Tennessee, Early Tax List Records, 1783-1895,” digital images, Ancestry.com (http://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=2883 : accessed 15 January 2015); citing Early Tax Lists of Tennessee, microfilm, Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville, Tennessee.
Finding tax lists
While the specifics vary from state to state (and even from one county or local unit to another within states), some rules of thumb when it comes to taxes will help you ferret out the most information from the various levels.
Local (cities, boroughs, towns and townships): Most New England states keep their tax records by the town unit. In other states with townships, the lists may be labeled with those municipal names but most likely were kept on the county level. Of the purely local tax lists, records retention (as well as microfilming of documents) is likely to be the lowest of any governmental level.
County: Almost all these records—be they head taxes, real or personal property levies—was originally in the custody of a county courthouse office. Some are still there, in their dusty ledger books, while others have been transferred to a countywide archive, a state repository or a county historical or genealogical society.
State: Before the 20th century, most states collected taxes similar in form to those on the county level and utilized the county structures for collection of statewide taxes. In many cases, one tax collector gathered the head and property taxes and split them between the levels of government. See Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources for a summary of tax records for each US state.
Although federal taxes on individuals were on-again, off-again before the income tax began in 1913, the times they were collected generated interesting records. The first such tax was the 1798 US Direct Tax, nicknamed the Window Tax because the valuation of homes was based in part on the number of windows. This tax created a listing of properties (acreages, construction material of homes and barns, structure sizes, etc.) that is unmatched for detail in this time period. Pennsylvania has the most complete listings (searchable on the subscription website Ancestry.com
) but fragments have survived from some other states. An online article from the National Archives and Record Administration’s (NARA’s) Prologue magazine
lists the location of these fragments.
A similar direct tax was levied in the 1810s to fund the War of 1812, but states had the option to pay their share of the tax without assessing individuals (or creating records about them). The Civil War led to another direct tax in 1861 (which was also levied on the rebellious Confederate states; records were created after those states came under Union control) as well as the nation’s first income tax in 1862.
Probably the most fertile sources of historical tax lists are at state archives. In many cases, these archives also have become the custodians of whatever county or local tax lists have been retained. It’s essential, however, to also check with lower governmental levels because in some areas they may be the only source of extant tax lists.
Be aware that in some cases the local or county jurisdictions were responsible for collecting state taxes, which means that you can look for “origination” copies of tax lists on the lower level and “destination” lists on the state level.
has at least 84 US databases dealing with taxes (a subset of its Tax, Criminal, Land & Wills category), many from partnerships with state archives around the country and with NARA, the custodian of federal records. Among these are NARA’s income tax records from the Civil War era, also available through the free website FamilySearch.org
In addition, some digitized original tax records for Massachusetts, Ohio and Texas are available through FamilySearch.org. FamilySearch also has some microfilmed records, but its traditional microfilming policies have placed tax records at a lower priority (compared to vital records and, secondarily, land and probate records). To find these, search the FamilySearch online catalog by county or town and look for a taxation heading. You can click to rent these records for viewing at a branch FamilySearch Center
Many of the tax records FamilySearch has sought to microfilm are those needed to substitute for missing or destroyed federal census records, according to David Dilts, a senior research specialist at the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City, part of FamilySearch. The FHL’s book collection (both at the library and digitized online
) contains thousands of abstracted and indexed tax lists from across the country. In fact, some books labeled censuses may actually be tax lists used to create census substitutes. Many of these are the products of local compilers and may also be available in the historical and genealogical libraries of counties where you’re researching.
Understanding tax lists
First and foremost, tax lists tie your ancestor to a particular place, either where he actually lived or sometimes where he owned or used property. The data in some lists also show the person’s occupation, descriptions of real estate being taxed, descriptions of certain forms of personal property (including farm animals), the number of taxable males in the household, the number of schoolchildren and the number of enslaved people.
Even the simplest of lists can be useful because they often differentiate between men of the same name by adding extra information the tax collector or assessor would use to make sure he could tell which man owed what tax.
Examples of this added data might be the first names of the fathers of two same-named men, the men’s occupations (even when not required by the form) or some geographic locator such as “by the Bow Creek.”
When seeking out tax lists, consider your ancestor’s time and place like a cross-hairs to look at the most appropriate lists and to interpret their data correctly. If you haven’t tied an ancestor’s land to the modern map, don’t assume if he’s on a tax list for a particular county in 1850, that his land still lies in that county. Instead, records might be in a county created from the parent county later, after the date of the tax list. Likewise, as cities grew, they annexed land from neighboring townships or unincorporated areas of counties, so an area that’s a city today might well have been county when your ancestor lived there.
In public land states, real estate taxes were usually organized by township and range, with the section coordinates given right in the tax register, making it easier to identify the land on the modern landscape. In state-land states, on the other hand, landowners’ holdings are usually identified only by a number of acres, which a fair amount of the time only roughly corresponds with reality. Those acreages, however, usually stay consistent unless a change in use or owner happened, so they’re good markers for shifts in ancestors’ status.
As Judy G. Russell points out on her Legal Genealogist blog
, effectively researching any record set is contingent upon exploring background information about how those listings came to be created. Tax records are no different. Researching the laws behind the tax lists sometimes can be as easy as reading imprinted information citing the law at the beginning of the tax records for the year. Or it may require searching state statutes for further information. The book Genealogy and the Law
is a good starting point.
The age when men’s names appeared on some type of tax list was determined by law—16, 18 and 21 were popular ages—and usually meant they had to pay the head tax even if these “single freemen” (as they were called in some jurisdictions) didn’t own land or significant personal property. It’s not unusual for these men to begin to be listed two or three years later than their ages would justify—attracting the tax collector’s eye was no more popular in bygone days than today. Using these portions of the lists can help you trace family units that lack children’s birth records by studying when the males are first taxed.
These young men often graduated to owing a tax on personal property when they married and gained control of the dowry amount from their fathers-in-law. Women, however, are not often found on historical tax lists because of their unequal status under the law. About the only exceptions you’ll find happened when widows were granted use or income from land after their husbands died.
More on tax lists is useful than just the raw data directly concerning your ancestors. When you find tax lists in a non-alphabetized order for a particular town, township or county, it’s likely that the people listed above and below your ancestor were his neighbors, because collectors and assessors generally rode a circuit through the community to do their work. And because the agents of the government generally began by writing out the names from their previous year’s list as the starting point for the current year, names shown as crossed off the list likely mean those individuals died or moved since the last assessment (indeed, sometimes the agents will actually spell out a person’s whereabouts in so many words).
Finally, various levels of government have collected any number of other taxes that aren’t found in a list format. For instance, states have enacted inheritance or estate taxes that will list names of heirs (most often relatives of the deceased). Because these are state-level records, you sometimes can use them as substitutes for the probate records of “burned counties.” In this situation, origination records will likely have perished, but destination copies of the inheritance or estate tax data may still exist.
Records of business licenses, liquor and cigarette taxes are likely to have limited personal information (except for the individual licensee). In a few states (Pennsylvania and Georgia, for example), notes about school-aged children are found. In Pennsylvania, the names of families who could not pay fees for public education (before the advent of the free basic schools) were listed at the end of the tax registers. Georgia’s ledgers listed the numbers of schoolchildren in each household.
Research in tax records affords genealogists the opportunity to trace ancestors from adulthood into old age, and even through to the life of a surviving spouse. You can find a young man as “single freemen” paying just a head tax (giving you an an estimate of his birth year) and then see him become an “inmate” paying a levy on personal property (allowing speculation that he has married).
Later, you might find the same ancestor becoming a landowner (even if his deed went unrecorded) and perhaps noted as leaving one area for another. As the ancestor reached the age in which he no longer owed a head tax and allowed another man to farm his land, he may drop off the tax list entirely—until perhaps his widow’s entry onto a list signals that he has died. In the generation’s final act, she will be a “cross-off” from the list when she passes on.
- Coverage: Tax records date to colonial times. Since the American Revolution, residents have been taxed on local, county, state and (sporadically until the 20th century) federal levels. Most 20th-century income taxes are covered by privacy restrictions; property levies are generally public information.
- Jurisdiction where kept: Record locations generally follow the layer of government levying the tax: towns or municipalities for city taxes, courthouse or county archives for county taxes, state archives (which may include microfilms of local records) for state taxes and the National Archives for federal taxes.
- Primary source details: names of individual taxpayers; description of land or personal property being taxed
- Secondary source details: neighbors’ names and property; shifts in ownership of property; estimated birth dates of single men; death of ancestor; whether an ancestor moved
- Search terms: name of the government unit issuing the tax (such as Pennsylvania state) plus “tax lists” or “tax records” or taxation
- How to find in the FamilySearch catalog: Run a Places search for the names of the state, county and/or town of interest, then look for the Taxation category. If you search for just the state, you may miss some potentially helpful entries.
- Alternate and substitute records: city and county directories; federal and state censuses; probate records; land records
Publications and Resources
- The Beginner’s Guide to Using Tax Lists by Cornelius Carroll (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
- Courthouse Research for Family Historians by Christine Rose (CR Publications)
- Federal Taxation in America by W. Elliot Brownlee (Woodrow Wilson Center Press)
- The Genealogist’s Guide to Researching Tax Records by Carol Cooke Darrow and Susan Winchester (Heritage Books)
- Genealogy and the Law: A Guide to Legal Sources for the Family Historian by Kay Haviland Freilich and William B. Freilich (National Genealogical Society)
- Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 by William Thorndale and William Dollarhide (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
- The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, 3rd edition, edited by Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking (Ancestry Publishing)
- Tax Records: A Common Source with an Uncommon Value by Arlene H. Eakle (Genealogical Institute)
Organizations and Archives
Quiz: Put it into Practice
1. In the records of what government levels might you find tax records for your ancestor?
2. Which of the following is the tax LEAST likely to reveal genealogically useful information about your ancestor
a. poll taxes
b. personal property taxes
c. income taxes
d. cigarette taxes
3. The general trend in taxation by local, county and state units was from:
a. income to tariffs
b. wealth to income
c. tariffs to real property
d. real property to personal property
Exercise A: Go to FamilySearch’s database of US Internal Revenue Assessment Lists (1862-1874), and look for Colorado, Arapahoe County from 1862 to 1863. Find image 14.
1. What are the names of the top two listed individuals?
2. Where did they reside?
3. What were their occupations and how much tax did they owe for licenses?
4. Write a citation for this record.
Exercise B: Pick an ancestor whose tax records you want to find using an online database of your choice. Use the worksheet and extraction form in the back of this workbook to record your results.
1. Local, county, state and federal 2. d (unless your ancestor sold cigarettes!) 3. b Exercise A 1. White F. Griswold and Moses Hallett 2. Both in Denver 3. Dentist and lawyer; each owed $10 4. United States Internal Revenue Assessment Lists, 1862-1874, images online, FamilySearch.org (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1942-32469-14703-28?cc=2075263&wc=SD5P-JHZ:387486101,387608501,387486103 : accessed 10 January 2015).
- Many tax lists are created by assessors, leading to spelling variations in your ancestors’ names from year to year. Think phonetically.
- Like other secondary sources, published tax lists may “edit out” some details in the original lists, and they are subject to copying errors. Once you find your relative in a compilation, use the details to look for the original tax record.
From the May/June 2015 Family Tree Magazine