Using tax records in genealogy

Strategies for Using Tax Records In Genealogy

Editor’s Note: recently reprinted Emily Anne Croom’s excellent manual, The Sleuth Book for Genealogists: Strategies for More Successful Family History Research. The Sleuth Book is brimming with wonderful checklists, case studies, and novel approaches for using any number of genealogical source records. Ms. Croom’s book is so full of useful information, we’re quite fortunate to be able to excerpt it here on our blog. The following post discusses strategies for using tax records in genealogy, sources where you can find the information, as well as why the information is, in the cases of some states, priceless in your search:

“He was excited. Excited and happy, like a dog which has followed a cold trail for a long time, and suddenly finds it a hot one.”–Nurse Detective Hilda Adams about Inspector Patton 68

Research in tax records has produced this reaction of excitement for many genealogists and has resulted in many “hot trails.” A number of states and towns have preserved tax records that date to their early years; others have not been so diligent. Nevertheless, the genealogist needs to use them whenever they exist. They are particularly valuable for research in Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia, and early West Virginia when it was part of Virginia. The surviving records are usually found in county courthouses or in state archives. Many have been microfilmed and are available from the Family History Library.

Tax records are kin to land records because residents paid taxes on land they owned, as well as on slaves, horses, cattle, oxen, personal property, and luxury items such as clocks and carriages. In some cases, specific items were taxed in a given year, such as certain items of furniture, mirrors, and window curtains in Virginia in 1815. Sometimes, as in Virginia, the land tax records and personal property tax records are separate. People who owned no land could still have paid poll taxes (head taxes) on themselves, slaves, or sons of taxable age. Widows were not normally taxed except on their land and slaves, although men of taxable age in their households were taxed.

Following the existing tax rolls for a given ancestor over a period of years can give the researcher quite a bit of information. Yet, each state had its own laws, forms, and lists of taxable property. Free men could begin being taxed when they became 16 or 18 or 21 years old, depending on the state and the time period. Slaves were often classified in the tax rolls in age groups, such as those under 12, 12 to 16, over 16, or 16 to 55. These categories also varied from place to place and year to year. Usually, the tax laws designated an age after which a person was exempt from certain taxes.

Information Sometimes Found in Tax Records:

What kind of information, in general, may be shown in these records? Below are some of the standard column headings, but these vary from state to state, even from year to year:

  1. Name of the person charged with the tax, usually the head of household
  2. Names of free men of color being taxed
  3. Number, and sometimes names, of taxable free white males in the household
  4. Number of acres of land owned, sometimes with location information–adjoining neighbors, watercourse, distance from the courthouse, or district number
  5. Name of original grantee of land
  6. Number of slaves in the household each year, sometimes with their names
  7. Rent received on rented property
  8. Number of horses, oxen, or cattle owned
  9. Value of land, slaves, or other taxable property
  10. Amount of tax paid

What other information might the genealogist glean from studying some tax rolls?

  1. Relationships, either expressed, deduced, or suggested
  2. Suggestions of birth order among sons in a family, depending on when they first were named or became a head of household
  3. Suggestions of death year or moving, when someone no longer was listed, when an estate was listed, when someone was named as guardian of the children or administrator of an estate, or when someone is taxed for the property formerly belonging to another person
  4. Occupations, expressed or implied by paying license fee
  5. Suggestions of family groups of slaves, when, over the years, the same slaves were named in a household; sometimes, slaves’ ages
  6. Changes in a person’s net worth or lifestyle, expressed in changes in the number of slaves, livestock, and luxury items
  7. Preliminary identification of neighbors by studying adjoining landowners and watercourses, or when the tax collector dated each entry and it ap¬pears that he visited the households in person.

Image Credit: This image, The Unknown Tax Payer, belongs to Christopher Allen via Flickr.



New York Genealogy

Podcast Features New York Genealogy

We found this radio show, The Forget-Me-Not Hour: Your Ancestors Want Their Stories to Be Told, on the New York History Blog. If you’re unfamiliar with the blog, we suggest you check it out. They have news and historical information pertaining to the state, and it houses resources that may be useful if your family history at any point passes through the Empire State. On Friday afternoons, the New York History Blog compiles the best stories about New York history from around the web, and puts them in an easy to read format. You can find all of their weekly web round-ups here.

The Forget-Me-Not-Hour began in November 2010 on WHVW 950 AM radio in Poughkeepsie, New York. Hosted by professional genealogist and contributing editor of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record Jane E. Wilcox, The show features two one-hour shows each month. The first covers New York-area genealogy and history, and the other is more general. The New York genealogy show airs on the first Wednesday of the month at 10:00 a.m. at The variety show airs on the third Wednesday of the month at 10:00 a.m. Both shows can be accessed on-demand after the show airs.

The April 1st episode of The Forget-Me-Not Hour featured the presenters of the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society-sponsored New York Track at the National Genealogical Society’s 2015 family history conference in St. Charles, Missouri.

The New York Track includes Karen Mauer Jones with two topics: New York Land: Patroonships, Manors, Patents, Rent Wars & Land and Records Created by New York’s Towns and Cities: Uncommonly Rich Resources; Terry Koch-Bostic with City Directories: Antiquarian People Finders; and radio show host Jane Wilcox with two topics: The New York Gateway: Immigration and Migration and New York City and State Vital Records and Their Substitutes. Terry Koch-Bostic will also give the NYG&B Luncheon talk Intuition and Genealogy Success: A Sixth Sense, Chance, Coincidence, or Serendipity?

You can listen to the April 1st episode of The Forget-Me-Not Hour on demand here.

Original Source: Podcast Features New York Genealogy, by Jane E. Wilcox, April 1, 2015.

Image Credit: Smokehouse 1907 postcard showing Ten Mile Point, Lake Skaneateles, New York. By Smokehouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


Ayr genealogy

The People of the Scottish Burghs: Ayr Genealogy

The Scottish city of Ayr, within the historic county of Ayrshire in Southwest Scotland, has a rich history. It is one of the most agriculturally fertile regions in Scotland, and has enjoyed prominence for its crop bounty as well as a later history as an industrial hub. Ayr is now a popular seaside resort town, bringing tourists just the short distance from Glasgow to walk its beachfront and charming esplanade. Before it became a post-industrial tourist spot, the port of Ayr served as a major hub for Scott and Scotch-Irish emigration to the West Indies and the Americas, as well as in the settlement of Ulster. If you need to track your Scottish or Scotch-Irish relative back to the seventeenth century, you may find a challenge in the records related to Ayr genealogy. We’ll discuss a bit about Ayr, as well as one particular resource, by the acclaimed author Dr. David Dobson, that can help.

FamilySearch has a concise lay of the land for Ayr:

Ayrshire, an extensive county on the western coast of Scotland, is bounded on the north by Renfrewshire, on the east by the counties of Lanark and Dumfries, on the south by the stewartry of Kirkcudbright and the county of Wigton, and on the west by the Firth of Clyde and the Irish Channel. It is about sixty miles in length and nearly thirty in extreme breadth. It comprised an area of about 1600 square miles or 1,024,000 acres. It includes forty-six parishes and is divided into the districts of Carrick, Kyle, and Cunninghame. It contains the royal burghs of Ayr (the county town) and Irvine. There are thirteen towns and numerous large and populous villages.

Ayr was founded in 1205 based on a charter granted by King William the Lion. Initially it was a small village around a royal castle, but by the 17th century it had grown to become an important market town and a leading port on the west coast of Scotland. Ayr, as a burgh, was semi-autonomous, with its burgesses controlling much of the social and economic life of the community. The burgesses were all male and came from the elite of the urban society. Burgesses were either craftsmen or merchants; they elected a council that was headed by a provost.

From the medieval period onward, Ayr had shipping links with England, Ireland, France, and Spain, and from the mid-17th century onward, it had links with the West Indies and North America. During the 17th century, when substantial numbers of Scots crossed over to Ireland to settle, much of this traffic went via the port of Ayr, thus tying the port to the Ulster settlements as well. At the same time, trading links were established with the West Indies and the Thirteen Colonies, which facilitated emigration there.

The Scottish Census did not begin until well into the 19th Century, presenting challenges to the researcher relying on those records for information. However, given it’s importance to Ulster, and through two centuries of emigration to the Americas, it’s crucial to find another way to track your relative through Ayr.

In The People of the Scottish Burghs: The People of Ayr, 1600-1799, Dr. David Dobson’s latest book in his series on inhabitants of the Scottish burghs during the 17th and 18th centuries, he references between 1,500 and 2,000 inhabitants in the city or Ayr during the period. Many of the men listed in this book were burgesses of Ayr. Most of the entries herein provide a man’s name, occupation, a date, and the source. In many instances we are also given the name of at least one or more relatives, date of birth and/or death, names of witnesses, education, or more.

While he doesn’t claim it’s an exhaustive list of all residents, The People of the Scottish Burghs: The People of Ayr, 1600-1799 provides a critical piece of information not found elsewhere. Thanks to Dr. Dobson’s hard work, the distillation of hard-to-find data found in disparate records is presented in one accessible place for your research.

Image Credit: Pinkerton’s extraordinary 1818 map of the southern part of Scotland. Covers from England in the south to Angus Shire in the north. Includes parts of Adjacent England and Ireland. Covers the entire region in considerable detail with political divisions and color coding at the regional level. Identifies cities, towns, castles, important battle sites, castles, swamps, mountains and river ways. Title plate and mile scale in the lower left quadrant. Drawn by L. Herbert and engraved by Samuel Neele under the direction of John Pinkerton. This map comes from the scarce American edition of Pinkerton’s Modern Atlas, published by Thomas Dobson & Co. of Philadelphia in 1818. By John Pinkerton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


Massachusetts Genealogy, "Endicott cutting the cross out of the English flag", illustration depicting an event that occurred in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634.

Genealogy at a Glance: Massachusetts Genealogy

Like Virginia, many who trace their family history in the United States will at one time or another find Massachusetts genealogy tied into their research.

Here on this blog we have discussed several types of specific research related to Massachusetts genealogy, from Resources to Mayflower Research to Lighthouse and Life-Saving Service Records. Massachusetts genealogy even comes into play when researching your saintly ancestors, as we discussed in our post, Noble Ancestry Leads to the Saint in Your Family.

But what if you’re just getting started, or you aren’t sure yet how to tackle the Massachusetts ties you are sure you’ll encounter?

Author Denise Larson answers this question with Genealogy at a Glance: Massachusetts Genealogy Research. In this quick and handy research aid Ms. Larson begins with an excellent summary of Massachusetts history from its Puritan and Pilgrim beginnings through the mid-19th century. Next comes a discussion of local records, for, as with other New England states, Massachusetts’ records are organized by town, not by county. The author then identifies the major statewide, regional, and ethnic repositories with genealogical and historical collections. The guide concludes with a listing of the major websites for Massachusetts research as well as the principal published sources for early Massachusetts genealogy.

If you aren’t familiar with Ms. Larson’s work, she is the acclaimed author of Companions of Champlain, which provides a concise historical overview of the founding of Quebec and French-Canadian culture. We have featured her informative and incredibly reader-friendly work on our blog in recent posts including Genealogy Isn’t Just Finding Dead People, and Maine Genealogy Resources Part I and Part II.

Digging into your family history can be a labor of love. Ms. Larson’s contribution of Genealogy at a Glance: Massachusetts Genealogy Research makes tackling your Massachusetts genealogy considerably easier.

Image Credit: “Endicott cutting the cross out of the English flag”, illustration depicting an event that occurred in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634. By Howard Pyle [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

adoption, find adopted family

Find Adopted Family Information

Editor’s Note: Several weeks ago marked the new release of The Ultimate Search Book: U.S Adoption, Genealogy & Other Search Secrets, 2015 Edition. The information, meticulously crafted and compiled by search expert Lori Carangelo, is the first new edition of this book since 2011. 

We want to take this opportunity to illustrate Ms. Carangelo’s prowess as a finder of birth parents, missing persons, runaway children, and other contemporary individuals, by reprinting sample pages from the 2015 Edition. This list of tips will help you find adopted family information that may be a stumbling block in your genealogical research. The following comes from Chapter 2: “With or Without a Name.” 

Adoption Search Tips (which may also apply to stepparent adoptions):

  1. Read Chapter 1: Search
  2. Determine The State: in which your adoption was finalized because the court in that state, and possibly an agency, holds your adoption file(s).
  3. Determine Law: in that state on disclosure of adoption information and access to records, particularly access to your original birth certificate (See Chart but also ask in case the law changes).
  4. Locate Your Adoption File(s): Your best bet is to ask your adopters which agency and court facilitated your adoption if you don’t already know and if your adopters do not have records to provide If you cannot obtain this information from your adopters, the central office of Social Services at the state’s capital city, can tell you if it was a public Social Services agency and which branch. Ifno record, chances are it was a private agency or attorney which they would not have record of. Since the agency and Court that finalized the adoption is usually in the county where the adopter resided at the time of placement, it would not be too hard to find the Court and agency that has your adoption files by looking up the Court and all adoption agencies in that county, and if no luck then look up adoption attorneys in that county.
  5. Request Your Non-Identifying Information: from both the Court of jurisdiction and the agency that holds your adoption file, by asking ALL of the Questions listed in this chapter.
  6. Provide Your Waiver Of Confidentiality: and your request for identifying information to both the agency and court at the same time you request your Non-Identifying Information. Request the Petition To Adopt and Final Decree of Adoption from the Court.
  7. Browse The Court Dockets: for the dates you were relinquished for adoption and also when the adoption was finalized (generally automatically, without necessity for hearing, one year from date of Relinquishment of Parental Rights and placement in your adoptive home, but there will still be a docket notation). Court dockets are publicly viewable records in Probate, Circuit, and Family Courts or similar named courts; not sealed; and even though your biological parents are most likely not in court, their names may appear on the earlier docket while your adopter’s name appears on the latter Fortunately they can be cross-referenced by same Case Number, so that if you find the Final Decree case number by the date, you can check one year prior for the Relinquishment and Petition to Adopt using the same Case Number.
  8. Request the Petition and Final Decree of Adoption: Years ago, Court Clerks were instructed to “block” names on these documents with an indelible black ink marker before providing the document to the adult Unless the blackened information has also been photocopied after blackened, first try photocopying the BACK side of the document on a very dark setting to see if typewritten impressions appear. Or, the impressions left by older typewriters can be revealed by penciling the back of the document where the names would be and thereby revealing the names (just backwards). Try removing the black marker ink with a dab of hairspray or cologne (alcohol based) on a q-tip. Since this will wet and possibly smudge it’s tried last.
  9. Deceased Parent Or Adoptee: If denied records on the grounds that the person is deceased, cite the following: “Davin U.S. Department of Justice, 60F.3d1043 (3rd Circuit 1995): Persons who are deceased have no privacy interest in non-disclosure of their identities.”

Image Credit: Legal, by m anima, via