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Skillbuilding: Tax Lists: A Goldmine of Information


From OnBoard - Newsletter of the BCG
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Barbara Vines Little, "Tax Lists: A Goldmine of Information ," OnBoard 12 (September 2006): 17-18.

Virginia is missing its 1790 and 1800 census records and about half of the records for 1810. Tax lists are the closest thing to a census available for this time period. Fortunately a number of tax records have been published as substitutes; e.g., a 1787 personal property tax list that named every white male aged twenty-one or older, was published as The 1787 Census of Virginia.1 While tax lists do not count everyone, censuses typically do. Tax lists are usually compiled each year and thus provide an annual snapshot of individuals in the community.

In preparation for a talk for the 2000 NGS conference in Providence, I compared a personal property tax list taken in the spring of 1782 for a single district in Orange County, Virginia, with a state census list taken in the fall of that year by the same person for the same district.2 The tax list recorded, among other things, the number of white male tithables over age twenty-one and the number of slaves is entered under the name of each individual responsible for the tax. The census recorded the numbers of whites and slaves under each head of household’s name. A comparison of the two lists provides some interesting results.

The tax list tells us that Mrs. Mary Bell had no white males of taxable age in her household and twenty-eight slaves. The census tells us that her household included nine whites, besides herself, and thirty-two slaves. A second entry in the tax list, for Henry Bell, suggests an explanation for the additional slaves in her census household. From other records, we know that Henry Bell was her son, who lived in Kentucky; the four slaves apparently belonged to him but remained on the family property. Other examples of disparities between the two lists

  • Thomas Gilbert, who appeared in the tax list with Garland Burnley (possibly as his overseer) was not listed in the census, since he was living in Burnley’s household.
  • Mrs. Margt. Brown was taxed but apparently lived in someone else’s household, since she did not appear in the census.
  • Henry Barnett was paying tax for Ambrose (probably his son), who was not listed in the census.

The census enumerated people; tax records recorded taxable property. Thus different data were collected, and different people may have been listed.

A researcher must know the law. Were people taxed at the age of sixteen, eighteen or twenty-one? Were they removed from the rolls at age fifty-five, sixty-five or at death? Who was exempt? Were Indians, free blacks, or women taxed? Did the owner or the renter pay the tax on land or on slaves? It can be tedious work to track the laws year by year in legislative records, but it must be done in order to properly analyze the tax lists. When John Jones was charged with two tithables in 1749 Virginia, the second tithable could have been a slave since the law required only the total number of tithables be recorded. Beginning in 1782 slaves were listed separately; then the second tithable would have been another white male, possibly a son of taxable age who had not left home. If one traced John through the tax lists until he was charged with only one taxable male and noted the first appearance of a William Jones, one might suggest that William was a son of John.

Determining age from tax records can be more difficult. People did not (and still do not) like to pay taxes—a son who was small for his age probably did not appear on the tax rolls as soon as the law required. (In fact, few young males appeared as soon as they reached taxable age.) Once placed on the rolls, an individual stayed until age (in some states), death, or lack of assets removed him.

Tax lists can help identify people. William Lee, called “Mountain Leader” was listed in the tax records of Orange County, Virginia,3 as were several other William Lees. The problem: who was this William Lee’s father? The chart below shows the various William Lees taxed in that county between 1800 and 1820. Careful analysis of the overlap of records shows that his father is not William, Sr. or William of Governor’s Ford (duplicates the years 1809, 1810, and 1811); nor is he the son of William (duplicates the years 1813–1817, 1819, and 1820). However, the years in which he is listed in the tax records do not overlap the years in which William, son of John, is listed. In fact, they form a perfect match: William, Mountain Leader, is most likely the son of John Lee.
Orange County, Virginia, Personal Property Tax Lists for William Lee
No suffix
Sr.
Gov [ford]
Son of Wm
Son of John
Mt. Leader
 
1800-4*
 
 
1800
 
1801
1801-2
 
1801
 
 
1802
1802-4
 
1802
 
 
1803-5
 
 
1803
1803
 
1804-5
 
 
 
1804
 
1805
1805-5
 
 
1805
 
1806-4
 
 
1806
1806
 
 
1807-4
 
1807
1807
 
 
1809-4
1809
 
 
1809
 
1810-3
1810
 
 
1810
 
 
1811
 
 
1811
1812
 
 
 
 
1812
 
 
 
1813-1817
 
1813-1817
 
 
 
1818
1818
 
 
 
 
1819
 
1819
 
 
 
1820
 
1820

* Indicates the number of tithables when more than one.

The disappearance of an individual from a tax list and his/her appearance on one in a different locality may add supporting data to a proposed migration path, especially when the value of personal property remains about the same. Major differences in assets may suggest that the individuals are not the same person.

Tax lists can add flesh to an ancestor’s bones. We can learn not only how much land a New England ancestor owned, but also how much it would yield since tax rates there were based on the land’s ability to produce a given product. A 1771 Massachusetts tax valuation list includes: tons of English, upland, or salt marsh hay produced per year; number of barrels of cider produced; and the number of cattle the pasture would keep. Livestock and other items were carefully accounted for as well and one can find out how many goats, sheep, oxen, and cattle were owned. Even the amount of money lent at interest was taxed.4 In contrast, in 1782 Virginia, land was taxed on its value per acre and the only livestock taxed were neat cattle (ox, bullock, cow, or heifer) and horses. Later tax lists included items considered luxuries: oil paintings, silver, bureaus, pianos, clocks, etc. One can often place an individual in a particular social stratum by comparing his/her taxable property with others. And wouldn’t you like to know if your ancestor owned a piano or an oil painting?

The appearance of honorifics such as Capt. and relative age indicators, such as Jr., Sr., or Younger, can add to our knowledge of individuals and help identify them, their place in the community, wealth, and social status. When using land taxes,we can often determine the year of death and sometimes the name of the widow or the names of children, including married daughters, when land is transferred by inheritance.

May tax lists be used as census substitutes? Yes, they may. But we do both the resource and ourselves a disservice if we limit our use of tax lists to determining whether an individual was in a given place at a given time. Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, noted recently, “When we properly analyze the data, tax rolls can help us resolve problems of age, marriage, parentage, moves, and all sorts of things!”5

Notes
1. Netti Schreiner-Yantis, The 1787 Census of Virginia (Springfield, Va.: Genealogical Books-in-Print, 1987).
2.Heads of Families at the First Census of the U.S. Taken in the Year 1790: Virginia. (1908; Reprint Baltimore: Genealogi-cal Publishing Company, Inc., 1992), 39. Barbara Vines Little, Orange County, Virginia, Tithables 1734–1782, (Orange, Va.: Dominion Market Research Corporation, 1988), 128.
3. Personal property tax lists, Orange County, Auditor of Public Accounts records, Library of Virginia.
4. Bettye Hobbs Pruitt, The Massachusetts Tax Valuation List of 1771 (Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall & Co., 1987).
5. “Bank tax roll,” Elizabeth Shown Mills, APG-L mail list, RootsWeb.com, 28 June 2006.

Barbara Vines Little , CGSM

This article was originally published in OnBoard, BCG's educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.



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