The government used tax lists to ensure that it received appropriate taxes for all real and personal property, but for genealogists they serve a far greater purpose. Tax lists may identify father-to-son relationships, men's birth years, track ancestral migrations, act as annual censuses, and guide researchers through the Anglicization of German surnames.
Taxes had been taken by the British government since the early days of Colonial American history. Governments have always been interested in financial matters. Immediately following the birth of our new nation, tax assessors for the United States began adhering to improved record keeping practices in Virginia and Kentucky to keep track of who paid their taxes each year. The following are actual examples that demonstrate the utility of what should be considered highly-prized sources for Southern family history research.
In Stafford County, Virginia, the early probate records have been lost, as they have for many counties in Virginia. William Humphrey, who must have been born in the early decades of the 18th century, died there testate in 1799/1800. Although his will has not survived, the tax assessor noted in the alterations at the end of the 1801 tax list that the 500 acres previously designated as the "Estate of William Humphrey," had been devised by will "to his sons George, Daniel, Rawleigh, and Charles Humphrey 125 acres each," identifying the individuals now responsible for the tax.
Tax lists can sort out families with common surnames. As demonstrated in part of Robert N. Grant's monumental project on the Wright surname in Southern Virginia, Wright Family Personal Property Tax Lists, Franklin County, Virginia (1786-1850), tax assessors often assigned what the British called "by-names" to individuals with the same names living in close proximity to one another. The by-name may have derived from patronymics or geographic residence, such as closeness to a body of water.
For example, in the Personal Property Tax List for Franklin County, Virginia in the early 1800s, the assessor encountered multiple men named Joseph Wright. He referred to one as "Joseph Wright Jr." to distinguish him from the others. In subsequent years, he recorded the same tax payer as "Joseph Wright, J son," "Joseph Wright Jr., John's son," and "Joseph Wright Fork," before finally deciding to stick with plain old "Joseph Wright." Tax assessors throughout Virginia and Kentucky commonly employed similar techniques.
I hope this article has aroused curiosity about using Southern States tax lists. They will not always produce such amazing results; however you should check EVERY YEAR for EVERY ANCESTOR where available. Stay tuned for "Part II: Ancestral Migrations and Annual Censuses," and "Part III: Tracking German Surname Anglicizations."
Other articles in this series: