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Who Let the Dog Out: The Dog Tax

Although city dwellers consider the collection of fees for a dog license a modern day nuisance, the practice of collecting taxes from dog owners actually has roots in the 19th century, and the records may provide further insight into your family history.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Gena Philibert-Ortega
Word Count: 969 (approx.)
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Not too long ago, my doorbell rang and there stood a city employee who wanted to know if I owned a dog. The city, in need of some revenue, had decided to crack down on negligent dog owners who had failed to purchase a dog license. Although city dwellers consider this a modern day nuisance, the practice of collecting taxes from dog owners actually has roots in the 19th century.

According to Donna Murray Allen in her article "The Dog Tax" found in the April 2004 issue of The Family Chronicle, individuals who suffered the loss of livestock because of roving dogs could demand reimbursement from the local government. In turn, the local government could collect from all dog owners a tax to supply revenue for these reimbursements.

These dog tax rolls are public information and may be found on property tax lists or other miscellaneous tax lists. By conducting a keyword search through the Family History Library Catalogue for the phrase "dog tax," you will be rewarded with seven hits that include resources for both the United States and England. Following are holdings that include dog tax lists:

  • Land Tax Exonerations, Redemptions and Miscellaneous Papers for the Easington Ward, 1787-1865.
  • Rate Books and Parish Chest Records, 1599-1861 for St. Martin-in-the-fields Parish.
  • Lowell Township, Michigan Ledger for 1877, 1880 and 1889.
  • Hale County, Alabama Dog Tax Abstracts, 1917.
  • Pennsylvania Folklife.
  • Edgecomb, Maine Town and Vital Records 1774-1932.
  • Garden Grove Township, Iowa Board of Health Records, 1880-1893.
When searching for dog tax records, the Internet is also a great resource. A Google search on the words, dog tax genealogy, and the phrase "dog tax," provides links to such gems as the index of names for the 1867 dog tax for Paola Township, Miami County, Kansas; the Wells County Indiana 1912 Dog Tax names list; the Hope Valley, North West Derbyshire, late 1820 list of dog owners; and the Shrewsbury, New Jersey 1887 Dog Tax.

The dog tax of our ancestors' day may have been even more important than the dog licensing fees of our time. These fees were a necessity in paying the owners of cattle and sheep who were maimed and killed by dogs. According to information about the Shrewsbury, New Jersey dog tax, taken from their meeting minutes:

The dog tax in Shrewsbury Township this year will be lighter than it was in 1886, owing to the smaller number of domestic animals which have been killed by dogs. In olden times the owners of dogs were compelled to pay only for the sheep which had been killed. A few years ago a law was passed compelling the township to pay for all domestic animals which were killed by dogs, and the term 'domestic animals' has been held to include poultry as well as sheep and calves. If the old law were in force Shrewsbury Township would have very little dog tax to pay this year, for only one-fourth of the 'sheep bills' passed were for sheep, the others being poultry and a calf.
You can find references to the dog tax in many different places. One unusual reference is found in the Chicago, Illinois 1886 murder trial of August Spies and his cohorts. This trial involved the murder of Matthias J Deagan. One of the prosecution witnesses was a George Christ, a previous Marshall, who detailed his knowledge of the character of one of the defense witnesses, Harry L. Gilmer. Gilmer had been the dog tax collector under Marshall Christ. Through the transcript of the testimony, available online through the Chicago Historical Society Haymarket Affair Digital collection, we get an idea about how 19th century dog tax collectors went about their business. When asked of the particular duties of the dog tax collector, Mr. Christ answers, "We had a blank receipt stub, and every man that paid his tax was given his receipt for the amount of his tax…" He is then asked about the fee for the dog tax and he replies that it was $2.00.

What is interesting to note is the price of the dog license, at least in 1886 Chicago, seems pretty steep by today's standards. That $2.00 that was collected in Chicago would be over $40.00 in today's money. In contrast, the Shrewsbury, New Jersey dog tax was only 40 cents. That would be a little above $8.00 today, a fee that seems a little more reasonable. (To calculate what yesterday's money would equal in today's prices, go to http://eh.net/hmit/ppowerusd/.

Just in case you may think that collecting a dog tax is a relatively minor thing, consider the Dog Tax War of 1898. Although sparked by the issuance of a dog tax in New Zealand on the people, the underlining cause of the war was really about the marginalization of the Maori people. The dog tax was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. The Maoris went from owning all of the land of New Zealand in 1840 to owning less than 10% in 1898. By 1898 they were only 10% of their original population numbers in 1840. (In the 2001 census the Maori's were 15% of the New Zealand population).

Luckily a potential volatile situation was later diffused four days later by Member of Parliament who happened to be a Maori descendent. The leaders of this rebel force of Maoris had to pay fines and it appears they still had to pay their dog taxes. (For a longer discussion of the Dog Tax War, see http://www.reference.com/browse/wiki/Dog_Tax_War).

What I enjoy in learning about little known resources such as the dog tax lists is its being a resource that provides just one more glimpse into the lives of our ancestors. Knowing that your ancestor owned a dog that they paid a tax on, probably won't be the highlight of your day. But, it will be just one more thing to help make your ancestor's world come to life.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

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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