Researching Ancestors in the Direct Tax of 1798

By Allison Dolan

Q. What is the direct tax of 1798, and are these records available online?

A. To fund a military buildup for a possible war with France, Congress enacted a $2 million direct tax in July 1798.

Each of the country’s 16 states had to come up with its share of the $2 million. A state’s quota was based on population, with slaves counting as three-fifths of a person. State officials created their own forms and valued property, enumerated slaves and collected the taxes.

  • Houses valued at more than $100 were taxed on the value. Since many of these homes had expensive glass windows, this is also called the “glass tax.” Some homeowners went so far as to brick over windows to reduce their homes’ value.
  • Slaveowners were taxed 50 cents for each able-bodied slave age 12 to 50
  • All other real property, which included houses valued at $100 or less, was taxed at a fixed percentage of the value.

The controversial tax was repealed in 1799. Resulting records include valuations, enumerations and tax collection lists.

Because the law allowed responsibility for the tax to be transferred to other governmental departments, with no directive to forward records to Washington, many of these records have been lost. Existing records are scattered among various repositories, with Pennsylvania having a strong collection at the National Archives facility in College Park, Md.

Known 1798 direct tax lists and their physical locations are listed on the National Archives Web site.

Learn more about the Connecticut records, discovered in 2004, here.

Unfortunately, the records’ varied locations means you won’t find a comprehensive online database for all types of direct tax records from all states., the Web site of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, has online databases for Massachusetts and Maine direct taxes in its subscription collection (membership starts at $75 annually). Not all towns are included—an 1800s Boston Customs House janitor was feeding the records into a fire when a clerk stopped him.

A Google search on 1798 direct tax or 1798 glass tax might net you an index to records for your ancestor’s area. That’s how we found this index for a list from Berkeley Parish, Spotsylvania County, Pa., a blogger’s list of those taxed in Bethel, Mass., and this index to a list from Tyoga Township, Lycoming County, Pa.

Genealogical publishers such as Heritage Books might have indexes in book form.

If you know of an online direct tax index or tip for finding records, click Comments (below) and post the link.