Taxation Can Be A Good Thing

By Carolyn L. Barkley

I am beginning this week’s article with a major confession. Despite all the genealogical lectures I have attended in which speakers have discussed the research value of tax records, I am a late-comer to their use. I am now a believer having had several opportunities to use tax records recently. I will never ignore them again! In an era characterized by anti-taxation fever, we should remember that if there had been no taxation, we would have lost the opportunity to discover valuable information about our ancestors. Government bureaucracy, almost always frustrating and arcane, is beneficial to genealogists because it generates records – even without taking our research needs into account. Bureaucracy and taxation go hand-in-hand creating a wealth of tax records for us to find and analyze.

Taxes are levied at all levels of government, federal, state, county, and locality and take many forms including tithables/poll tax, land taxes, personal property taxes, licenses (e.g., ordinaries and taverns) and include lists of delinquent or insolvent tax payers. Tax lists often predate census enumerations and cast a wider net. Poll taxes are particularly useful in that all adult males were included, whether they owned land or not. In states where early census lists have been lost, these tithables lists have been used as census substitutes. In Virginia the 1790 census was recreated using the 1787 tax lists.

Here are several tips for using tax records in your genealogical research and, an example illustrating the type of information available for analysis.

  • Identify your research problem. This strategy is very basic, but essential. Make sure that you can answer the following questions: “What is the one thing I want to learn?” or “Who is the one person I want to learn about?” and “What time period and geographical location am I interested in?”
  • Know what records are available. Once you have identified the specific individual, time period and location, determine what tax records are available. The Family History Library online catalog provides a good starting point, particularly if the state or county is located at a distance. My “place search” for Princess Anne County, Virginia, resulted in a referral to “Virginia, Virginia Beach (Independent City),” as the old county of Princess Anne merged with the City of Virginia Beach in 1963. I was then able to locate the subject sub-heading for Taxation and identified that three rolls of microfilm contain the Princess Anne County tax records from 1782 to 1850. You might also check the state archives or state library for the state in which you are interested. When I checked the Library of Virginia, for example, I found an online index to Virginia Personal Property Tax Records, 1782 to 1919, on Microfilm, and to Virginia Land Tax Records, 1782 to 1900, on Microfilm, among other helpful indices and guides concerning tax record holdings. Research guides about state and county records may also be available and will help you understand what is – and is not – available. Examples include titles such as George K. Schweitzer’s Maryland Genealogical Research (Schweitzer, 1998), Helen Leary’s North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History (1996), Kay Haviland Freilich’s Research in Pennsylvania (NGS, 2007), and Carol McGinnis’ Virginia Genealogy: Sources & Resources (2008). and Cyndi’s List provide links to online tax lists. The identification of tax records at all levels of government is important as the enumerator for one entity may have identified individuals who were missed (or were exempted for taxation) by another enumerator for a different tax purpose.
  • Know the legal background of tax records. It is important to understand the statutes that governed who were included or exempted from specific tax lists. Was a son in the family considered an adult, and therefore taxable, at sixteen years of age, at twenty-one years of age, or at some other year? Was there an advanced age at which a man was no longer taxable? Were women taxed if they owned property in their own right? What items were taxed? In some years, taxable items might have included slaves and livestock, while in others items such as mirrors or carriages or artwork may have been included. Although reading the law can be tedious at best, your time spent in understanding why and how these records were created is essential to your ability to analyze them and apply that knowledge to your research.
  • Locate your individual in the tax records. Consult a year during which your research predicts that your individual should appear in the tax records. Once located, follow the records backward in time to the first instance that he or she was assessed and then forward in time to the last. Read all the tax records in the intervening years column by column. Is the list alphabetical? If so, you will find all individuals by the same surname grouped together, but you will not be able to identify neighbors. If there is more than one entry for a person by the same name, you will need to trace them all in order to determine if there are multiple individuals being taxed or a single individual owning multiple properties. This problem is much more easily solved if the list was recorded in visitation order rather than alphabetical. Look for notations in the record including “estate” or “deceased;” indications that acreage has been sold or inherited; or comments about an individual’s migration out of the area. Property may remain on the tax rolls after the individual’s death, implying the time elapsed before final settlement of the estate. If personal property has been taxed, what can you tell about the person’s socio-economic status based on what he owns? Does it change over time? What was occurring in that area or that time period that might help explain that change? Can you estimate the age of the individual by applying the legal definitions concerning when a male was considered an adult and when he might have been too old to be taxed?
  • Apply what you have learned to previous knowledge. Does the tax list corroborate what you may have already learned from other documents such as wills and deeds? Does it provide documentation for transactions in time periods where the court records are missing or lost? Does it raise new questions or problems? While tax records are valuable for locating your individual in a specific place at a specific time, more importantly they can help you resolve research problems concerning identity, age, economic status, land ownership, inheritance, and much more. Your analysis of the findings is the key.

An example from Princess Anne County, Virginia, helps illustrate the value of tax records and their relationship with other county records (based on Land Tax Books, 1786-1850 available on microfilm at the Library of Virginia, Richmond). On 28 December 1784, William Pebworth bought twenty-six acres of land from Tully and Elizabeth Land. He was taxed on this land in 1786, but a comment in the entry indicated that the land had been sold. The following year, William paid personal property tax on one black tithables over sixteen years of age, two black tithables under sixteen, six horses/mares/colts/mules, and twenty-seven cattle. He himself was noted as “untithable.” Knowledge of the tax laws at the time would assist in establishing his relative age, perhaps fifty or more. In 1805, William J. [Johnson] Pebworth, the elder William’s son, was taxed for the first time on 140 acres, later described as being located in the Holland section adjacent to John Woodhouse. William also owned 111¼ acres in the Wolf Snare area, adjacent to C. M. Woodhouse, and twenty-five acres in the Wash Woods section. In 1817, the 140-acre tract tax listing included the qualifier “estate fee” for the first time. A probate search located  William Johnson Pebworth’s Will, written in 1814 and probated on 7 February 1815. He left his son, John L. Pebworth, land bought from Charles M. Woodhouse, presumably the 111¼ acre tract in Wolf Snare on which John continued to pay tax (90½ acres) until 1828, when he purchased an additional ten acres from John S. Marley, described as the former land of Charles M. Woodhouse. John L. Pebworth’s tax entries continued until 1843 when his tax entry includes the designation “estate” with no taxes listed for subsequent years. William Johnson Pebworth also left half of his homestead to his son, Reuben, who paid taxes on approximately 125 acres in the Holland area until 1824. In 1825 the property was listed as “Reuben Pebworth estate” and probate records document his Will in 1824. His property continued on the tax rolls and in 1828, Reuben’s brother, John L. Pebworth, acting as his executor, sold fifty acres to Ezekiel Ewell with an additional 23¾ acres charged to Adam Murden in the right of his wife as her dower (marriage bonds and minister returns indicated that Adam married Reuben’s widow). The remaining 47¾ acres continued on the tax rolls until 1843 when twenty-four acres were sold to James Pebworth, perhaps Reuben’s brother, or perhaps a son or nephew by that name. The remaining property in Reuben’s estate remained on the tax rolls through 1850. William Johnson Pebworth’s estate continued to pay tax on the twenty-five acre tract in Wash Woods through 1850.

Much more information about the Pebworth family is available through analysis and a substantial chronology for the Pebworth family can be developed by combining tax records with marriage, deed and probate records. Clearly tax records are a very important element in our research to fully document the life of a family in a specific time and place.

For further information, you will want to read Cornelius Carroll’s Beginner’s Guide to Using Tax Lists (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1996, reprinted 2008). While this title is currently out-of-print, it is available in libraries nationwide – perhaps in one near you. You may also visit, and by clicking the “notify me” button receive an e-mail when the title is once more available.

Benjamin Franklin told us “Certainty? In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes. It is also certain, that while we don’t like paying taxes, tax records are treasurers for our research.

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