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

Tax lists, correctly interpreted, can identify the age of male tax payers. Most of the early tax lists recorded how many adult white male tithes (usually over the legal age of 16) lived in each household.


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Tax lists, correctly interpreted, can identify the age of male tax payers. Most of the early tax lists recorded how many adult white male tithes (usually over the legal age of 16) lived in each household. In Bedford County, Virginia, only one man with the surname "Doss" dwelled within the county boundaries immediately preceding the War of 1812. His name was Azariah Doss. Azariah fought in the Revolutionary War and is known to have married during that period. As his sons reached their sixteenth birthdays, they began appearing as unnamed statistics in his household on the tax lists. In subsequent years, these male tithes disappear, and other Doss men named James A. Doss and John A. Doss premier, taxed in separate households with their own meager possessions. Based upon other sources, researchers speculated that these individuals were Azariah's sons. Even though the tax list does not specifically identify them as children, the conclusion was reached that they had just achieved adulthood, become independent, and began their own homes. They account for the surge and disappearance of male tithes in Azariah Doss's household, appearing as separate tax payers simultaneously as Azariah lost tithes. By tracking the identity of each tithe, years of birth can be deduced. This strategy must be approached with caution, as the statistics are occasionally describing unrelated laborers in a person's dwelling, apprentices, or other male relatives. Some of the years identify who the additional men in the dwelling were by name.

As part of their interrogation in various tax years, assessors inquired concerning children's ages and educations, household by household. In Kentucky in 1822, they obtained from each tax payer statistics concerning the total number of children between the ages of 4 and 14. They did this again in 1829. The list in 1829 reveals interesting statistics for literacy rates as it asks how many of those children actually received educational training the prior year. In the 1840s, assessors asked tax payers how many children they had in their homes between the ages of 7 and 17. This information provides additional statistical illumination and credence to contemporary federal censuses.

An individual's migration patterns can be tracked by comparing information from tax lists from varying counties and states. Thomas Highley, a young blacksmith in his twenties, who labored near his home on the Blackwater River in Franklin County, Virginia, appears in that county's tax lists from 1811 through 1813. When a person disappears from a tax list, we must assume one of three things (1) that person died, (2) that person became exempt, or (3) that person moved. We were able to determine the third option, as he reemerges in Bath County, Kentucky, where he may be found from 1815 through 1817. It seems he evaded his taxes in 1814 and again in 1818. Thomas Highley made his final move to Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, where he may be found on the annual tax lists from 1819 through 1840. He died there, probably at his home along Cypress Creek, in 1840/1841.

This strategy for tracking a person's migrations is very useful to research and can provide evidence that people with the same name in two locations are the same person. The process of finding the individual in unindexed tax lists organized by counties can be time consuming. One useful tip is to use people-locators, such as federal censuses and statewide marriage indexes, to pinpoint which county tax lists should be searched.

Other articles in this series:

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

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

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.

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