Tax records: a virtual goldmine of genealogical information

In my previous article, I highlighted some suggestions for navigating information about ancestors in the pre -1850 census period.  One of the most fruitful sources of information for more distant ancestral research is tax records.  Tax records, in many cases, pre-date census records and serve as replacements for missing census information.  In addition to helping you determine the birth, marriage and death years of your early ancestors, tax records can provide insight into your family’s occupation, property holdings and property values.  Moreover, unlike the census which occurred every ten years, taxes were assessed and recorded on an annual basis.  Tax records were reliably collected and are a relatively thorough and complete source of information.

Types of tax records.  There are several categories of tax records that provide different data and have various applications.  A poll or head tax was levied on each taxable individual.  Because this tax was applied to every person, it is especially useful in locating ancestors who did not own real or personal property.  A property tax was levied on all personal and real property.  Personal property included any property that is not land, usually cattle or vehicles.  A tax record on real property essentially served as a substitute for a land record.  Another type of tax was a direct tax, which was collected by the government from individuals to fund government expenditures, namely wars. These direct tax lists are very accessible and have been indexed for the years 1798, 1814-1816 and 1862-1866 for any particular county. In addition, states had their own laws for levying taxes and requirements for who was subject to those taxes.

What do tax records reveal about our ancestors? Tax records are extremely useful in determining parentage, familial relationships and ages.  For example, suppose there is a male who has been tracked for years through tax records and then suddenly another male with the same surname appears on the tax list.  This likely indicates that he is the son of the head of household who has now reached taxable age.  Additionally, on an assessment for real property, this name would indicate that the son has reached the age of 21, which was the legal age for owning land.  Knowing the son’s age will allow you to trace back in time to determine his birth date.  In addition, tax records were organized by location so they will provide information about the location of ancestors and their migration patterns.  Identifying the location will assist you in discovering not only where your direct ancestor was living but where other surrounding family members were living.  Additionally, these tax records often furnished extensive details about the personal possessions of an individual.  This information may provide clues as to your ancestor’s occupation and socioeconomic status.  Lastly, although an individual will generally be omitted from tax records upon death, his death will be confirmed by taxes levied on his estate while awaiting probate.

Where to find tax records.  The Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah maintains microfilm versions of many tax records that can be viewed from national local centers.  In addition, tax records can be found at local county courthouses, historical societies, and state and National Archives.

Louisa Kalish

Louisa Kalish is a lawyer and a freelance writer for online legal and general interest publications. She became interested in genealogy during a brief stint in pro bono family law. While not engaged in her writing and legal pursuits, she is an active volunteer in several charitable organizations and heads the parenting organization at her children's school. She resides in New Jersey with her husband and three children.

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