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.