Are you familiar with tax records as a form of genealogical research? People have been being taxed since the first colonists landed on the shores of this country. Up until the early 20th century, those taxes were mainly on property, meaning only land owners got taxed. Of course, there were smaller taxes here and there that applied to everyone, but they were usually limited in duration, such as to raise funds to put on a war. Property taxes are the only consistent federal tax that has been in place since the country was founded.
Because property taxes have been around for so long, they are a valuable source of genealogical information. In fact, in places where courthouses burned or no vital records were kept until the early 20th century, tax records are often some of the only sources of information on your ancestors. It may sound boring to go through tax records, and you may wonder what exactly you can find in them. The truth is, tax records are more interesting than you think, and they can tell you things about your ancestors you never knew. In some cases, they can even prove relationships.
Where to Find Tax Records
Old tax records are frequently kept at the state government level. This is why they are often the only protected record set in counties where courthouses burned down (taking all other important records with them). You can locate tax records at state government archives, located in the state capitol building. If the state has an official department of archives and history, the records may have been moved there. Some online genealogical research sites, such as Ancestry.com, also keep copies of state tax records going back to the early 19th century, and sometimes beyond. The records are typically organized by county, and then by year within that county.
What Information Will You Find in Tax Records?
One of the great things about tax records is that you will often find women listed in them. This is because these are property tax records. Though married women were not allowed to own property on their own until the late 19th century in most places, single women and widows were permitted to own it in their own names. This makes tax records a wonderful source of information on the lives of your often elusive female ancestors. You can find their maiden and married names, depending on their status when they owned the land.
You can also find out the following information on both your male and female land-owning ancestors through tax records:
- How many acres of land they owned
- How many acres of this land were farmed, how many were wooded, and how many had some other status (such as marshland, swamp, or unimproved land)
- The coordinates of the land they owned (useful for finding the land in today’s world, if you want to visit it)
- Whether they owned land in other counties, and if so, which counties (providing good avenues for further research)
- In southern states before the Civil War, the number of slaves the landowner owned
- The amount of tax that was paid on the land that tax year
- Names of the executor or executors of the estate of a deceased landowner
This information tells you a lot about the lives of your landowning ancestors. Usually, only people with some degree of wealth were able to own land. It took even more wealth to own slaves. Many southern farmers may have owned land, but were not able to afford slaves, which were considered a luxury in those days (contrary to popular belief, most white southerners did not own slaves before the Civil War).
The records also tell you how much effort was put into farming on the land. Farmers could definitely accumulate a large amount of wealth through their efforts, and buy more land with this money. Often, the more land a person owned, the more money they could make with it. If there was not a lot of farming going on, but your ancestor still appears to be wealthy on the tax records, it probably means he or she was primarily engaged in some other type of business, and only farmed minimally to take care of their family’s needs with things that weren’t readily available in stores.
One interesting feature of tax records is the mention of executors of an estate of a deceased landowner. If a landowner died in the year of or preceding a tax year (which were not always done on regular intervals) the names of the executors will be listed under the deceased’s name on the tax record. The name or names listed are often those of family members.
I was able to confirm three different relationships through a tax record from 1853. I always suspected two people of the same last name in a Virginia county were brothers, and an older man with the same last name was their father. The tax record in 1853 lists this older man as deceased, and the two men I suspected to be brothers (and his sons) were listed as his executors and also as his sons. This confirmed all three different relationships for me. I’ve found no other records that confirmed this, so it was a real find for me.
Tax records can offer a wealth of information on your ancestors. Once you get into looking at them and examining the information in each column, you will discover them to be far more interesting than you ever imagined. They are, in fact, fascinating windows into the lives of your ancestors, offering information you won’t find anywhere else. If you haven’t started looking at your ancestors’ tax records, now is the time to begin.
Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)