The Genealogist’s Guide to Researching Tax Records

hbd4298We’ve all heard the Benjamin Franklin’s sardonic quote, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” We feel the pain in our pocketbooks every time we pay taxes. However, as genealogists we are fortunate to have tax records as a tool to researching the past. Tax records contain mountains of data, are often highly accurate, and cover a large variety of taxes, or tax types. The Genealogist’s Guide to Researching Tax Records is the family historian’s educator to the world of tax document.

As the authors, Carol Cook Darrow and Susan Winchester, say, “the census taker came every ten years and often missed people, The tax collector came every year and seldom missed anyone.” North American tax records date back to the earliest colonial period, back to the 1620s. Records can help establish location, real estate, personal possessions, economic status, occupations and businesses, and sometimes even relationships between individuals, helping link you to your ancestor. This guide was written to help the researcher find the various tax records and understand the information they provide.

The first two chapters provide the necessary background and skills needed to successfully search tax records. The remaining chapters cover the different types of tax records, including:

  • Poll taxes
  • Real Estate taxes
  • Personal Property taxes
  • Federal Taxes
  • Inheritance taxes
  • School taxes
  • Liquor taxes and more…

No two taxes are collected in the same way. Government at all levels can imposes taxes. This book examines the history of tax records in the United States, including early colonial taxes, along with common tax forms and collection procedures. Learn how to evaluate tax records and compare records of different years to track your ancestors and possibly gain additional information about their families.

In addition, tax records are especially helpful for the period prior the first U.S. Federal decennial census in 1790 and for the period between 1880 and 1900, with its missing 1890 census.


Table of Contents

List of Figures

List of Tables


Chapter 1. Getting Started in Tax Records

  • Benefits of Tax Record Research
  • Research Can Be Tedious – Until You Succeed
  • Tax Process
  • Locating Tax Records
  • Research Tax Records at Courthouse or Archive
  • Tax Records as Substitutes for Census Records
  • Verify County Formation Date
  • Following the Records Year By Year
  • Isolated Records
  • Indexes: Never the Final Answer
  • A Word About Slaves
  • Finding the Right Record in the Wrong Place
  • Ready to Begin?

Chapter 2. Research Techniques

  • Types of Taxes
  • Tax Records May be Combined
  • How to Approach a Tax Record
  • Identify Information Being Collected
  • Sources for Interpreting Tax Information
  • Consider Spelling Variations
  • Become Familiar with Notations and Abbreviations
  • Research Example: Separate Men with the Same Name in the Same County
  • Doing the Math
  • Research Example: Estimate Wealth of an Ancestor
  • Records That Report Only Assessed Value
  • Paying Taxes in the Coin of the Realm
  • Calculating with Pounds, Shillings, and Peace
  • Research Example: Estimate Wealth of an Ancestor
  • Forming a Hypothesis
  • Summary of Research Techniques

Chapter 3. Poll Taxes

  • Taxes “By the Poll” Were Earliest American Taxes
  • Massachusetts Poll Tax, 1646
  • Virginia Tithables
  • The Tithables Process
  • Poll Books and Voting Rights
  • Research Example: Separate Men with the Same Name int eh Same County
  • Tracking Changes Through Tax Lists Over Time
  • Research Example: Identify Men as They Become Adults
  • Finding the Landless Ancestor
  • Research example: Research A Landless Ancestor
  • Poll Tax Records Can Replace the Census

Chapter 4. Land Taxes

  • Colonial Land Distribution
  • Land Taxes After the Revolution
  • Land Exemptions Used to Encourage Settlement
  • Tax Records Can Identify the Land and Location
  • Research Example: Separate Men with the Same Name in the Same County
  • Research Example: Use Tax Information to Lead to Other Valuable Records
  • Delinquent Land Tax Sales
  • Tracking Delinquent Land Tax Sales Records
  • Land Tax Records Can Point to a Migration Trail
  • Land Holdings May Imply Arrival Date
  • Tax Ledgers Arranged by Legal Land Description
  • Additional Information Collected in Tax Records
  • Information Common to Land Tax Records

Chapter 5. Personal Property Taxes

  • Paying for Government
  • Estates Are Taxable
  • Research Example: Establish a Year of Death as Estate Becomes Taxable
  • Land and Personal Property Tax Lists Combined
  • Research Example: Estimate Wealth of tan Ancestor
  • Property Tax Lists Expanded Over Time
  • State Income Tax Replaces Some Personal Property Taxes
  • Homestead Exemptions Enacted
  • Personal Property Tax – “Everyman” Tax

Chapter 6. Federal Taxes

  • Direct Tax of 1798
  • Tariffs and Import Duties
  • Direct Taxes of 1813, 1815, and 1816
  • Direct Tax of 1861
  • Federal Income Taxes (1962-1872)
  • Confederate Taxes
  • Tariffs Decline in Significance
  • Income Tax Reconsidered
  • Tax Protests
  • Tax Assessors and Collectors

Chapter 7. Inheritance and Estate Taxes

  • Federal Estate and Inheritance Taxes
  • State Estate and Inheritance Taxes
  • Research Example: Identify the Heirs of an Estate
  • Estate and Inheritance Taxes Can Prove Relationships

Chapter 8. Miscellaneous Tax Records

  • Militia Service
  • Road Orders
  • Ecclesiastical Taxes
  • Faculty Taxes
  • Business Licenses
  • Liquor Taxes
  • School Taxes
  • Federal Head Tax on Aliens
  • Old Age Assistance Tax

Chapter 9. Summary

  • Summary of Research Techniques

Appendix A Textural Records of the Direct Tax Commission in the Southern States

Appendix B Microfilmed Records of the Internal Revenue Assessment Lists, 1862-1874

Appendix C State Inheritance Tax Laws Through 1913

Appendix D State Old Age Assistance Laws, as of 1934


Research Bibliography

Bibliography of Selected Tax Records



Order a copy of The Genealogist’s Guide to Researching Tax Records from Family History Publishing; Item #: HBD4298, Price: $19.60.

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