Category Archives: Tax Records

8 Ways Tax Records Can Help Your Genealogy Research

Tax records are a genealogy resource that are rich in information, but underused by most people. Why? Probably because they are rarely indexed to appear in search engines and researchers don’t take the time to manually dig down into catalogs.

This should sound familiar if you’ve been reading my posts since two days ago, I commented on what can be found in unindexed court records! There is definitely a theme running through my recent posts.

What kind of information is found in the tax rolls?

What you will learn about your ancestor will depend on what the local authorities deemed taxable at a given time and place.

1. At the very minimum, there will be a list of persons, usually men, taxed in the community. Most of the time, tax lists are assembled alphabetically, but only by the first letter of the surname. Therefore, tax lists won’t help assembling a FAN (Friends, Associates, Neighbors) club, but will show you, at a glance, all the households with a common surname.

2. A tax list might have an entry that looks like this: Smith, John est. That is a clear tip off that John Smith has died and his estate paid a tax. In the absence of vital records and/or gravestones, a researcher can narrow the year of death based on when the estate made its first appearance on the rolls. If there were minor children and the estate remained open over several years, it will make multiple appearances on the rolls.

3. Settlers generally became taxable the year after their arrival in a particular location. If someone first appears in the area, say in 1814, he likely arrived sometime during 1813. If your family moved from one county to another or one state to another, tax records can be used to document arrivals and departures.

4. Women occasionally appear on the tax rolls. Why? Undoubtedly because their husbands died and females became the head of household and had to pay any taxes due. Again, a death date can be estimated by the year based on when a widow pays taxes instead of her husband. (Be careful, though, as the death year of a female paying taxes can’t necessarily be estimated based on when she no longer is taxed. That’s because widows often moved into the household of an adult child.)

5. So far, I’ve talked about taxes where only a single tax was due, often for real estate. However, local taxes often included males over 16. Are you researching a family with children? If so, and there are no birth records, you may estimate a birth year for sons in the family if males appear on the tax roll their fathers’ households. That’s a signal that they are now 16 years old. Note that some counties included the number of tithables in a household, e.g. John Smith with 3 tithables, followed a couple of years later by John Smith with 3 polls, meaning two sons reached the age to be included on the tax list.

6. Tax rolls may included not only the number of acres owned by someone, but also the area of the county where the land was located. This provides a second aid in determining land that passed ownership or possibly even if there were two or more unrelated families with the same surname living in the county.

7. Local governments soon decided that tax categories needed to be expanded to raise more money. Therefore,  how many acres of land owned, the basic component of a tax list, soon saw the addition to how many sheep, cattle, cows, horses, pigs and other animals were owned. I’ve even seen a tax list that taxed wheels (as in wagon wheels) because in the early days, you were quite well off if you owned a wagon in addition to horses.

8. Southern tax lists in times of war – both the American Revolution and the Civil War – included lists of enslaved persons, both male and female. Sometimes, ages of each person were also included.

Are you ready to start reading those tax rolls? The best online resource is FamilySearch. Do a county and state search in the catalog and then scroll down the list to TAXATION to see what is available for your place of interest.


52 Documents in 52 Weeks #38: Slaves Named on 1783 Cumberland County, Virginia Tax Roll

Recently, while working through my Mary Williams Love puzzle, she being the daughter of Samuel Williams, I decided to take another look at records for Samuel, who died in 1823. He is not my husband’s direct line. In fact, his presumed father, Thomas, was the brother of my husband’s Mathias Williams, so the cousin link is quite a bit removed in the past.

I also have made contributions to Schalene Dagutis’s The Slave Name Roll Project, which she created in February 2015. While researching my husband’s lines in the American South, I frequently come across records of enslaved people and I blog about these discoveries.

Samuel Williams was a wealthy man for his time, although much of his wealth unfortunately was based on being a slave owner. Samuel’s 1823 will made mention of old and infirm slaves and Samuel’s desire that his slaves who had families not be sold out of the neighborhood, but he did not name a single slave.

I decided to take another look at the Personal Property Tax list for Cumberland County, Virginia, where Samuel Williams lived. Those tax rolls survive all the way back to 1782!

For most of the years at which I looked, the tax list only included numbers, e.g., # of white tithables over 21, # of slaves over 21, # of slaves aged 16-21, # of horses, # of cattle and acreage owned.

However, the 1783 list was much more detailed. I found a list of all tithable males, but a separate list which actually named each of the slave owners and the names of their slaves. Here is Samuel Williams’ listing:

Samuel Williams, himself, Neptune, Peter, Peg, Aggy, Sarah,
Hannah, 6 – Moll, Bella, Nancy, Jacob, Jos? or Jas?, 5

Samuel passed away 40 years later, but he referenced his old, infirm slaves. It is possible that some of the people on this list were living in 1823.

Here is a sample of part of one of the W pages:

Men with Surnames Beginning with W on the 1783
Cumberland County, Virginia Personal Property Tax Roll

If you believe that an enslaved ancestor of yours might have lived in Cumberland County, Virginia, you should check the tax rolls to see if, by chance, he/she is named on those rolls. Most of the pages I looked at were quite readable and they are on microfilm in the Family History Library. (Years 1782-1816 = Film #2,024,521, 1817-1836 = Film #2,024,522, 1837-1844 = Film #2,024,523).


New GeneaGem Discovered! Kentucky Tax Records

Tax records are an under-used resource available to genealogists.  Often, such records are just not available. They may have been destroyed in a county courthouse fire or just haven’t been microfilmed or digitized.

However, if you have Kentucky ancestors, take the time to check You might be pleasantly surprised to see what is available. Husband Dave has a lot of ancestors who passed through Kentucky at one time or another. Some were there quite early, right at the turn of the 19th century.

Two families came from Virginia, which has no 1810 census. Looking for any and all resources that might help create an accurate timeline for their migrations, I discovered extant tax records for Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, which was the destination of the Miller and Whitmer families.

Here is what I found for Martin Miller:

No Martin Miller on the Muhlenberg County tax list

Miller, Martin, one white male & 2 horses

Miller, Martin, one white male & 2 horses

Miller, Martin, one white male & 3 horses

Miller, Martin, one white male

A few years are missing, such as 1814 in this sequence, but for the most part, it is possible to track the arrival and departure or death of an ancestor along with their economic circumstances.

The downside is that FamilySearch hasn’t yet digitized the Kentucky tax records, so one either needs to visit Salt Lake City or order the films at your local Family History Center.

I have used these films to track Martin Miller’s family and establish that he was not related to any of the earlier Millers in Muhlenberg County.

I also used them to determine that the entire Whitmer family apparently removed to Tennessee for a few years, but they dribbled back to Muhlenberg County, little by little. I know this because they appeared on tax lists as they became of age, disappeared together and then reappeared on the lists a couple at a time.

These records are especially valuable if you are searching for family in a burned county.

To find the records, go to Under the “Search” tab, choose “Catalog.” Next, enter “Kentucky,whatever county” and look for “Taxation.” Some counties have books of transcribed tax records that have been donated to the library. I just use those to confirm that  the names I am looking for are there. Then I pull the microfilms and begin reading.

Happy Hunting!