Taxes in Land Research

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Land Records

This article is part of a series.
Overview of Land Records
State-Land States
Survey Systems and Terms
Creating a Plat
Public-Domain States
Homestead Act of 1862
Military Bound Land
Taxes in Land Research
English Law in American Land Research
List of Useful Resources About Land Records

This article originally appeared in "Land Records" by Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, FUGA in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy


Things taxed have included carriages and watches, windows and whiskey, land and slaves. Taxes on documents and tea helped start a war. Arkansas Territory's sudden tax on bounty lands in the 1820s was enacted and due before the news had time to reach out-of-state owners, permitting the quick seizure and sale of 'delinquent' lands. As this variety suggests, name lists of such taxes must be used with a cautious understanding of who should be on the list and who should not.

Colonial and antebellum counties and towns usually taxed free adult males a set, uniform amount called the poll (head, capitation) tax, which became due when a young man reached age twenty-one (sixteen or eighteen in some areas) and ceased to be due when a man reached some age, such as fifty or sixty. Searching a series of such annual tax lists can locate sons coming of age. Sometimes the law made a father liable for a head tax for sons sixteen to twenty so that sons first moved through the yearly tax lists as unnamed tallies under their father's name. The great failing of the system is that it seldom works for women, who were usually not subject to such a poll tax but who might own and be taxed for land. North Carolina illustrates the variability of the poll tax ages. In colonial years, it set the white male poll at ages sixteen and upward, changed it to twenty-one and upward from the revolution, exempted men over fifty from 1801, made it twenty-one to forty-four beginning in 1835, and from 1868 laid the poll tax on males between twenty-one and fifty.74 The wary researcher must be aware of these shifting limits.

However, for all their limitations, poll tax lists can be combined with property tax lists as a substitute census. To identify clearly who owed what, clerks sometimes added useful descriptors. For example, the 1799 list for Warren County, Kentucky, has John Taylor Slick, John Taylor Cooksland, John Taylor gambler, John Taylor one eye, and John Taylor hatter.75 The first two mean 'on Salt Lick Creek' and 'on land owned by Cook.' A long series of such county tax lists can be crucial to identifying men with common names and showing when men entered and left the county, though lists often omit a man for a year or two when he is obviously still living on the same land. This means researchers should read at least eight years before and after a man first appears and disappears.

Names are often listed in initial order, meaning all surnames beginning with A are grouped together'but not alphabetically (see figure 10-9). Apparently, clerks received tax lists from various justices of the peace, constables, or militia captains and copied from each list first all the A surnames, then all the B surnames, and so forth. While some of the neighborhood proximities are lost, initial name order lists are easy to search for one surname. Researchers should always check the end of the county list, where the clerk would often add the names of the late, delinquent, and insolvent.

Other typical omissions are children, slaves and indentured servants (except as unnamed but taxed property), landless men over the poll tax age, paupers, ministers, justices of the peace, militia officers, tax assessors, and men granted exemption for whatever reason. An Indiana statute of 1826 exempted 'all persons who had served in the land or naval service of the United States, during the Revolutionary War, from the payment of a poll tax, and a tax upon personal property' if the veteran gave an affidavit to a justice of the peace.76 There are also, inevitably, those who were overlooked.

Original lists as received by the clerk survive for 1771 Bute County, North Carolina, and have been compared to the final county-wide copy.77 On the left are nine adjoining entries of a local list compared with the poll entries on the right of the final county list (in initial order of the original):

Local List County List With Polls
Joshua Taylor not listed
John Linch Jr. John Lynch Jr. 1
John Faulcon, Henry Brown John Falcon 2
John Baxter, John Weedon, Sharp Balthrop (& 1 sl.) John Baxter 4
Rossen Allen, Drury Allen Rossen Allan 2
Geo. Elliott Sr., Wm Stevenson (& 7 sl.) George Elliott 9
James Elliott, Thos. Rosser James Elliott 2
Richd. Towns Richard Town 1
David Towns, sons David & John David Towns 3

Obviously, the final county list has significantly fewer names. It is surprising that so many of the hidden surnames differ from that of the head of the household.

Several reconstituted state 'censuses' have been compiled from county tax lists, such as the substitute for 1790 Kentucky and 1840 Texas 'censuses.' They can be great time-savers in localizing a man's state residence, but calling these reconstitutions 'censuses' runs counter to the need of researchers to understand the nature of their sources. The 1790 federal census attempted to record everyone under some head of household. The 1790 Kentucky tax lists did not. Thus, the 1790 reconstituted Kentucky census cannot completely replace the lost 1790 Kentucky census schedules. This does not diminish the usefulness of the tax records.78

One great advantage of the county tax lists is that many states also received and stored copies. Thus, when the records of Buckingham County, Virginia, were destroyed by fire, its main surviving records became the yearly tax lists in Richmond.


The quitrent was a land tax typical of colonies from New York south; New Englanders took pride in being free of this remnant of feudal dues. In English manorial society the land obligations due the manor, such as plowing and haying the lord's land, were commuted to an annual money payment. Upon payment, the obligations were 'quit' for the year. Land patents in New York and colonies to the south stipulated a yearly quitrent that went either to the Crown, as in Virginia south of the Rappahannock River, or to the proprietor, as in Virginia in the Northern Neck. The revolution generally saw the abolishing of quitrents.

Broken runs of annual quitrent books survive, along with the related rent rolls, though no colony has complete yearly series. Locating surviving quitrents is not simple, especially because many were the private property of proprietors and thus were lost during and after the revolution. Significant numbers of landowners successfully avoided the lists, and there was great resistance to paying quitrents in general, especially for lands held for speculation and not farmed. Producing even approximately complete lists was often administratively impossible. One massive effort was made in Virginia in 1704; it provides a good but incomplete survey of surnames south of the Rappahannock River, the area north of the river being in the Northern Neck and its quitrents due not to Virginia but to the proprietary. The standard, though dated, general study is Beverley W. Bond, Jr.'s The Quit-Rent System in the American Colonies.79

Federal Direct Taxes

There have been three federal direct tax series that produced name lists, all to raise money for armies. In 1798, the French war scare led to a direct tax on real property and slaves (1 Stat. 580 and 597), which produced extensive name lists, though how complete and far down the economic scale is not clear. One local historian praises the comprehensiveness of this tax on dwelling houses: 'In common with other towns, the Federal Direct Tax on Rehoboth [Massachusetts] lists the names of the owners and tenants of every dwelling house in the town, data which are found in no other record. . . . This 1798 dwelling house list, together with the census for 1800 . . . enables us to reconstruct a far more complete record for Rehoboth at the end of the eighteenth century than is possible in any other period of that century.'80

Unfortunately, the 1798 direct tax has survived only in fragments. (A janitor of the Boston Customs House used sections of the Massachusetts/Maine lists to fire his stoves.)81 No lists have been found for Kentucky, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Virginia/West Virginia. Most surviving lists have been microfilmed, though not in a single series. The locations of known manuscripts, many very incomplete, follow:

  • Connecticut: Connecticut Historical Society
  • Delaware: Historical Society of Delaware
  • Georgia (part of Burke County): Georgia State Archives
  • Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire: New England Historic Genealogical Society
  • Maryland and District of Columbia: Maryland Historical Society; Maryland State Archives
  • New York (vicinity of Clinton and Franklin counties): Vermont Historical Society
  • Pennsylvania: National Archives (717 volumes filmed as M372)
  • Rhode Island: Rhode Island Historical Society
    • Tennessee: Tennessee State Library

Vermont: Vermont Historical Society

To raise money for the War of 1812, the federal government again resorted to a direct tax from 1814 to 1816. Even fewer lists survive. The Connecticut Historical Society holds lists for 1814 to 1816 'for many towns,' and Hancock County, Maine, survives for 1815. The 1813 law directed that $3 million be collected and apportioned among the states by population. The state governments were allowed to pay the federal treasury the amount levied on their citizens (less fifteen percent for saving the cost of collection) and in 1814 seven states did so, with four states doing the same in 1815 and 1816.82 Perhaps this explains why few lists are extant'few were made.

The greatest number of federal direct tax lists, called assessment lists, are those from the Civil War to as late as 1917, when the government levied income taxes, property taxes, and license fees. These taxes were directed more to wealth rather than the broader earlier taxes and therefore capture a smaller proportion of the adult male population; however, they do provide specific information on propertied individuals. The records are in Record Group 58, Records of the Internal Revenue Service. The National Archives has microfilmed the assessment lists for most states, focusing primarily on lists of 1862 to 1866. These microfilms are listed in table 24 of Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives, which also identifies those manuscript assessment lists found only in the regional offices of the National Archives.83

As the Confederate states were conquered, the direct taxes were extended to them. Since many Southerners were unable to pay, the government sold much Southern land for taxes. In using the National Archives microfilms of Civil War direct taxes, note that each state has a different microfilm publication number'M754 for Alabama, M756 for California, M764 for Illinois, and so forth'and therefore a separate pamphlet explaining each state's lists. These pamphlets are available from the National Archives upon request. (New York and New Jersey were microfilmed together as M603.)


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