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What's in a Tax List? Part III: Tracking German Surname Anglicizations

Determining the actual foreign spelling of Anglicized surnames can be a daunting task. Annual tax lists can help unmask the original German spellings of American colonists.


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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Nathan Murphy
Word Count: 345 (approx.)
Labels: Surname Origin 
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Determining the actual foreign spelling of Anglicized surnames can be a daunting task. As foreigners stepped foot on American soil, many did not speak English. Clerks who recorded their names spelled unfamiliar sounds phonetically. In the following case study, we will see how annual tax lists can help unmask the original German spellings of American colonists.

Frederick Severs died in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky in 1804. He and his Rhoads in-laws were among the first settlers of Western Kentucky. Frederick served in the Revolutionary War and lived in Bedford County, Pennsylvania before coming to Kentucky. According to the research of Marie Leighty Engel, in her book Henry Rhoads Senr: Immigrant and His Earliest Descendants, Frederick appears in Bedford County, Pennsylvania tax lists from 1772 through 1796. The entries demonstrate dramatic surname spelling fluctuations:

1772 - Frederick Sheaf

1773 - Frederick Siver

1778 - Frederick Seaff

1779 - Frederick Seif

1781 - Frederick Seaf

1783 - Frederick Saeffer

1784 - Frederick Sever

1788 - Frederick Sighey

1789 - Frederick Sighey

1796 - Frederick Sever

We can confirm that these entries refer to the same individual because the taxable property remains nearly consistent each year. Without the help of tax lists, entries for Frederick "Severs" in other Bedford County, Pennsylvania records may have been missed. We now have a better idea of how Frederick's surname was actually pronounced and our chances of identifying his original German surname spelling have increased. Descendants provided additional light on this subject by recalling that the original name was something similar to "Shaeffer."

In order to locate tax lists for the areas of interest to your research, check court houses and state archives that hold jurisdiction over the ancestral abodes. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has copies of most extant US tax lists. To find the applicable records, conduct a place search on their catalog for the desired county of residence. Their collection is strong for Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky, among other areas. Microfilmed records will appear under the category "Taxation."

Remember, valuable information can be uncovered in tax lists. They should be searched EVERY year for EVERY ancestor. You never know what treasures they might contain.

Other articles in this series:

What's in a Tax List? Part I: Father-to-Son Relationships

What's in a Tax List? Part II: Annual Censuses and Ancestral Migrations

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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