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Our Ancestors Paid Taxes

Benjamin Franklin in 1798 said, "In this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes." However, genealogists check out death records for ancestors and fail to look at tax records.


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Resource: Tracing Lines
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A new year brings all kinds of possibilities, resolutions to make and break and challenges in genealogical research. We have a full year to solve all the genealogical problems ... at least begin to solve them. It is also that time of year we work on income tax. Benjamin Franklin in 1798 said, "In this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes." However, genealogists check out death records for ancestors and fail to look at tax records.

Our ancestors paid taxes at various times in their lives and for various reasons. Tax lists can be found in courthouses, town records and archival records. Because older tax lists are valuable for clues, many of them have been transcribed and published either in genealogical or historical society newsletters or in book form. Many have been microfilmed by the Family History Library (LDS) in Salt Lake City and are available on loan at Family History Centers.

Checking for published tax lists can be as easy as looking through the Periodical Source Index (PERSI) which is an extensive indexing project of the Allen County Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The index is available to subscribers of,, or at HeritageQuestOnline. Many libraries have access to HeritageQuestOnline for their patrons to use within the library and at home providing they have a library card. For more information on where to locate these libraries, check Once a publication is determined, copies can be ordered from the Allen County Library. Many libraries also have copies of newsletters, journals and genealogy publications that are indexed in PERSI.

Microfilmed and published tax lists can also be located in the Family History Library (LDS) Catalog online. This is at FamilySearch International. Be sure to check by both state, county and town and then under the subject of "tax." Tax lists for individual years have often been published as substitutes for missing census records.

Taxes collceted in the 1700s-1800s produced lists that contained the name of the head of the family, acerage, number of cows, horses, sheep and in some cases other items such as windows. To better understand how your ancestor paid taxes, or did not pay them, you need to understand the methods of assessing taxes.

The tax assessor was usually somebody familiar with the neighborhood or area. Quite often he put the names in some type of alphabetical order. At various times he would go to the taxpayer and at times the taxpayers were required to report to a central location to the assessor. Do not assume that a tax list you find in random order means that the person next to your ancestor was a neighbors. If he was required to report to the central location, such as the courthouse, the person before his name probably arrived before he did.

The states had various methods of recording taxes. In Virginia they had separate lists for personal property and real probably which was land. Some states combined them. The final assessments were usually posted for review and the taxpayers could appeal them. You may be able to find appeals within the county court minutes. In New England the taxes were taken and recorded on a town basis.

Researchers will find the terms poll tax and tithable list. The term tithe meant an adult white male and slaves. Eventually this was changed to poll which meant "head." These lists were actually kept as a record of who was or might be of age for military service or for work on roads. Normally men were of age to be listed for poll tax at sixteen to twenty one years of age. Once they became too old to work, they were not longer listed. You may also find explanations of exemptions within county court minutes.

If your ancestor did not own land, he will not be listed on a land or real estate tax. You will then need to look for personal property lists or tithable lists. The only exemptions would be the extreme elderly particularly if living within another household, or clergy and officials. Widows and single women are listed if they had taxable property.

Tax lists provide clues to locations and migrations. You should also keep in mind county boundary changes. Your ancestor may have never moved, but the county boundary lines were changed so one year he may be in the parent county and then eventually in a newly formed county. Tax lists provide information on the land that was subject to taxation. From this you can check land records for additional information. The names of slaves were not always listed, but it is wise to check for them anyway.

When a person is no longer shown on a tax list and you cannot locate him or her elsewhere, begin looking at estate records. You may also find their name on a tax list followed by "est." The use of Jr. and Sr. following names does not necessarily mean that they were father and son. These terms were loosely used to identify a younger man of the same name from an older man. To identify people sometimes they were given nicknames on the tax list, such as "Big Thomas." Areas they lived may be jotted next to a name so they could be differentiated.

Do not assume that you will never find anything on an ancestor in tax lists. The assessor may have noted that they had moved to another state or another county. These are valuable clues that make the quest all the more worthwhile.

Source Information: Tracing Lines, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2008.

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

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