The Tax Man Cometh...Never Overlook Tax Records In Virginia Or Elsewhere

by Michael Pollock | Jun 5, 2012

Other than CPAs, the overwhelming majority of individuals dread April 15 and like days (such as 1 May, the deadline for filing state income taxes for most Virginians). Genealogists tend to be no different at least when it comes to working with tax records as they are seen as "unglamorous". While tax rolls for the 20th century might have originally included such information of interest to genealogists as date of birth &/or Social Security #, concerns about the same being used for identity theft has resulted in either such information being purged or genealogist being denied access to the records containing such tidbits. Still older records were unlikely to have ever contained any information other than livestock such as horses, cows, and slaves. However, after 1815 it was not unusual for personal property taxes to include such things and clocks and watches, along with the material from which they were made. One might well be able to confirm who had originally owned that pocket watch or grandfather clock that has been handed down in the family for generations!

Yes, tax records can be a more useful tool for research than genealogists may realize, and one should always be mindful to the possibility of the proverbial "exception to the rule", of which I will have more to say later.

The biggest problem with taxes and a major reason why so many dislike working with them is that they tend to be the most useful, as it is then possible to discern "patterns", only when there are long ranges of years available, something that is not true for the majority of states with which I am familiar.


Establishing An Approximate Year Of Birth

What sort of patterns? Well, historically, tax rolls typically did not list individuals until after 21, and also did not include women unless they were widows or had no adult male in their household/family. In Virginia, however, a male became subject to personal property taxes at age 16. Unless married, one could not be held personally liable for the payment of such taxes, and perhaps for that reason would probably not be identified by name. However, when tax rolls for a given locality include those between 16 and 21 and for multiple years, something that is true for few states that I am aware, though Virginia is one, it becomes possible to surmise relationships between taxpayers in the same household. One does so by noting how both the number of taxpayers and taxable property varies from year to year, especially when an individual appears for the first time. When another taxpayer of the same surname has one less taxpayer and the items of taxable property in that household decreases from the prior year by the same amount as the new taxpayer's property, the new taxpayer is imlicitly established as (one of) the missing additional taxpayer(s) from the previous year.

A common surname and apparent transfer of property for which no deed would likely be found suggests a father and son relationship, but other relations are possible. Most likely will be when the addtional taxpayers in the household were younger brothers because their father was dead. A nephew or even grandchild are other possibilities. Finally, the "younger" taxpayer may be a step-son--before the 20th century, few adoptions were ever registered with a court, thus no record will likely be found, and it was common for any children a wife may have had by a prior marriage to assume their step-father's surname.

For that reason, personal property taxes should be read for a generation, if not longer, because it then becomes possible to recognize when any one taxpayer has addtional taxypayers in his household before it is clear that he was himself old enough for his children to appear in the taxes.


Difficult Handrighting?

When working with Virginia tax rolls, both pre- and post-Revolution, one should be aware of a point raised in my article Howell to Reed Difficult Handrighting, to wit, that terminology changes, and before the Civil War, taxpayers were called "tithables", though the taxes were never called "tithes", perhaps recognizing that the payment was neither voluntary nor necessarily equal to a tenth of one's income.

The term results from the fact that in the colonial era the personal property taxes were both collected, and dispersed, by the Church of England on behalf of the government. The government took over both roles in 1782, though the Church of England, now Episcopal Church ceased to be the "Church of Virginia" only with the passage of the Disestablishment Act of 1785.

With government taking over those roles from the Church of England, "tithable" nevertheless continued in use, presumably since the tax was used to pay for "social welfare" programs, e.g., caring for the poor & sick, that had been both the prerogative and responsibility of the Church.

A further clarification is perhaps in order here. While only males could be white tithables, the term was also applied to all blacks, both free and slave, male and female, because their labor of was taxable.

One will sometimes see a breakdown of black tithables by age, to wit, those under 12, those between 12 and 16 and those 16 or older. The reason for this breakdown is that the labor of a black was not taxable until age 12. The distinction between those under and over 16 was made due to the 3/5th clause/compromise at the 1789 U.S. Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia that stipulated that "non-whites" were counted as 3/5 of a person for purposes of determining representation in the House of Representatives, with that 3/5ths being applied at the age of 16. To the best of my knowledge, these distinctions between black tithables were never part of the "tax code" so their application was never consistent or persistent.

Additionally, as the names of slaves were not included in tax rolls after 1787 (at least in terms of rolls I have seen), the breakdown in age will not be useful in determining either relationships or approximate ages between slaves. Of course, if one has such information from a will or deed, such then becomes possible if done in tandem with one of the census which gave a breakdown of slaves by age and gender. The 1830, 1840, 1850 and 1860 come immediately to mind.

While I have noted Virginia is one of the few states for which I know long runs of taxes are available, Kentucky is another. That is primarily due to Kentucky continuing a practice that was begun while it was still part of Virginia. The same would be true for West Virginia. The detail of Kentucky tax rolls does differ from Virginia and I will speak further about those differences later in this article.

A further digression is perhaps in order here. Having noted that th e range of years available for Virginia taxes is essentially "unbroken", a qualifier is necessary. First, this statement applies only to Virginia as a state, not a British colony, and the taxes begin either with 1782 or the formation of a county or city (the importance of this latter distinction is addressed in my article Where Do I Find...), whichever was later. Some colonial era tax records do survive, but not for the majority of counties existing at the time, and where the records do survive, the range of years is not as long. Second, there are no tax rolls for 1808 as the legislature did not appropriate the necessary funds to collect the taxes!


Establishing An Approximate Date Of Death

On multiple instances I have established an individual's approximate date of death through the taxes even when I was unable to find a will or estate settlement. The death was certain when a remark such as "deceased", "estate of" or "heirs of" followed the name. Though not as certain, a death was implied when an individual disappeared from the taxes, particularly if a woman who had not previously appeared is found, as she was likely his widow. More than once, I then confirmed the death in court orders by a variety of means. One is the dismissal of a lawsuit in which the individual was either a plaintiff or defendant precisely because of the death. Another is the appointment of an administrator even when I found no actual administration. The likely explanation of such latter instances is the estate was either too small to justify a fuller recording of the same or there was no dispute among the heirs &/or credits as to how the assets should be dispersed.

That said, there may be instances where an individual did not appear in a tax roll and the reasons for the same was something other than he had died, to wit, he has moved from the locality or he was simply missed. Accordingly, I typically prefer to read a minimum of 3 years beyond when I find an individual is missing just to be certain he did not reappear a year or two later.


Establishing Relationships

I previously stated that taxes were unlikely to contain information such as the date of an individual's birth, and the same is also true of the identities of his parents, for a tithable could be something other than a son of the head of household as said head could be exempt from the tax by virtue of age, infirmity or even occupation, minister being one such occupation. Such exemption tended to be for only as long as the reason it was granted continued

When an individual is identified as deceased, another tithable of the same surname subsequently taxed on much the same property is implicitly identified as a son, or at least an heir. Pay particular attention to when a second tithable is acknowledged in less than 16 years or a separate tithable appears in less than 21. They will be an indication that the relationship may have been something other than son (mindful of the exception, noted earlier, of when a man marries before he turned 21).

While it has never been common for personal property taxes to do so, I have found them more likely to stipulate relationships between individuals of the same surname than many other classes of records. I believe that is because they are the one class of records in which a given individual was most likely to appear. If he did not own land, he probably would not appear in a grantor or grantee index (though one sometimes finds bills of sale for personal property recorded in a deed book). He would also not serve on a jury nor appear in a voter list. He might not be found, or more accurately stated, easily found in chancery papers and court orders, if he did not have any arguments with others over money, politics, religion, or other matters that might have resulted either in an arrest or lawsuit. As I note in my article on using such records, they tend to be poorly indexed if indexed at all.

It is also possible to distinguish between individuals of the same surname, if not the same exact name, by yet other means, such as where an individual lived, his occupation, or a physical characteristic. It should be noted that such distinctions might appear only in one of the tax districts of a county or only in a single year, though I can say that I was struck by the "persistence" by which individuals in the personal property taxes for Hampshire County, now West Virginia, were identified by who their father was, and by the fact that a tract in Powhatan County belonging to the ancestor of a client was identified as "Parsonage".

That name was ironic for a variety of reasons.

1) as noted in my article "Where Do I Find...", the overwhelming majority of place names at least in Virginia have been relatively short-lived;

2) it apparently acquired the name as a result of being purchased by an ad hoc committee serving as the interim vestry for a proposed new parish in Powhatan County as the residence of its priest. However, the term specifically used in the Episcopal Church for the residence of the parish priest is "glebe," not "parsonage";

3) after new parish was finally established a few years after the purchase, the property was sold back, because it laid outside of the parish, to the previous owner who then sold to my client's ancestor. I believe that prior owner was Episcopalian as were most individuals of the surname in Powhatan County, many kinsmen of mine;

4) that ancestor was a founding member of Fine Creek Baptist Church, a denomination which uses the term "parsonage", yet the property was so named before he bought it and continued to be so known for generations after he sold it. I must admit, however, that I made no effort to determine in any of the subsequent owners were Baptists, much less ministers, thus might have had reason to keep the name;

5) hoping for a bit more information on the property such as its precise location (something I was never able to do with absolute confidence) and whether a cemetery was known to exist on the property, I spoke by phone conversation with the diocesan archivist. He told me he had never heard of it, indicating the purchase as a "glebe" was done without the knowledge, or approval, of the Diocese.

I should also note that taxes are more likely than many other record classes to indicate if an individual was a free Negro or Indian, though I cannot recall encountering any specific instances of the latter. That is because the primary racial classifications in Virginia, as well as elsewhere across the United States, has historically been white or "not white", with "Negro", "Colored", "African" and other terms being more of a synonym for "not white" than a specific racial classification.

Tax, and most other, records would most likely identify individuals as Indian where there were "clusters" of Indians, such as the Pamunkey, Chickahominy and Mattaponi reservations which have existed in Virginia since the late 1600s. There were a number of instances where marriages in Henrico County, Virginia, identified either the bride or groom as Indian, no doubt because the Chickahominy Nation was concentrated in the adjoining counties of Charles City and New Kent.

So many Indians died of the diseases brought to Virginia by white, were killed in wars with whites, as well as each other, or moved elsewhere to avoid whites, that even those living on reservatons were so few that, "Indian" has never been widely used as a synonym for "not white". There have also been those, most notable, Dr. Walter Plecker, first Director of the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics, arguing their numbers have been too small for centuries to sustain without mixing with blacks, thus, they should be considered as black.


Do Not Ignore Land Taxes

I have thus far discussed primarily personal property taxes, primarily because, as I have already noted, they are the one class of records in which virtually all white males were likely to appear. That said, land taxes should never be ignored.

Not only do land taxes note any transfer of real property between people, regardless of means, those transfers were not always recorded in a will or deed book, or might not be found due to the deed or will book having been lost. Further, other sources for establishing land ownership, such as census records, can also be misleading. I recently discovered by reading the land taxes of Isle of Wight County where not only had one Josiah Beal owned land that was not acknowledged in census of the county, but it had been the dower of a previously unknown wife. She had been unknown as no actual marriage record has yet been found and she died before she could ever have been identified in a census by name. In the system used in Virgiia before 1853 for recording marriages, only if a bride was called "Mrs." would there likely be any indication in the record of either party having a prior marriage.

Noting that William Turner, the prior owner of Josiah's land, was identified in the tax roll as "deceased", I first looked for a will and found the same identifying Josiah as a son-in-law but without mentioning the daughter by name. I found her identified as Virginia in a lawsuit over the division of Turner's property. The 1850 census did not acknowledge Josiah as an landowner because he had already sold, to pay a debt, the land his wife had inherited. His wife was not mentioned in that deed, so had apparently died before the date of the same.

When land belonging to a deceased person was transferred to another as the result of either an auction or direct sale, the executor/administrator of the decedent or a trustee specifically appointed by the Court will often be identified as the grantor. Should the surname of that individual be different than the decedent, the land taxes may be the only means to determine both who the grantor and prior owner were.

Similarly, when land was held in trust for the benefit of another, the beneficiary might be identified as owner in the taxes, but the trustee as grantor in the deed book (index).

It should also be noted that when title to land was transferred by either will or intestate succession, there is typically no corresponding deed. Thus, land taxes are a means to establish not just who was the previous owner but also relationships between different owners when one finds no deed and the explanation is not "the courthouse burned".

Typically tax rolls note a title transfer only in the year that the transfer occurs, so one is well advised to read land taxes over a multitude of years rather than only for short periods of time.


Location, Location, Location

It is not unusual for deeds to give very vague descriptions of the boundaries of a tract or detailed descriptions to reference "markers" such as saplings, bushes, rocks, etc., which with the passage of time may no longer exist or no longer be recognizable (e.g., a sapling would no longer be a sapling). In the face of such descriptions, Virginia land taxes after 1814 can be very helpful in establishing the approximate, if not specific location of a piece of land.

That is because those taxes routinely include either the name of an adjoining property owner &/or landmark such as a road or stream. They also include direction and distance of the tract from the courthouse. The combination of both will often allow the area of a tract to be narrowed considerably, albeit with "qualification". The direction and distance will be both approximate and from the courthouse that was being used at that time!

While I am not aware of the practice continuing after 1785/the disestablishment of the Church of England, in the colonial era one will see in Anglican vestry books references to "processions", where actual landowners and their neighbors were regularly instructed to inspect the markers described in deeds to confirm that they not only continued to exist, but were also recognizable as such and to replace those which were not.

This appears to be an appropriate place at which to return to my earlier remark in the second paragraph of this article about "exceptions to the rule". One of the things that struck me about the land taxes of Prince George County, Virginia, was that in addition to stating from whom a tract of land was acquired and why, e.g., deed, will or marriage dower, there were numerous instances where the tax collector "elaborated". These "elaborations" included such detail as the date of the marriage and the bride's name when the land was the wife's dowery!. Not only is such detail quite unusual, it is made all the more "sublime" by the extent of loss of the corresponding civil records for Prince George that would have otherwise documented the dates and relationships.


Tax Rolls In Other States

Earlier I mentioned that Kentucky has tax records similar to Virginia. I have not worked as extensively with taxes in Kentucky so I am unable to say how typical those rolls I have used are of rolls for other localities. That said, I was struck by two things. First, it appears to be the norm in Kentucky for both personal property and land taxes to be included on the same roll, something that has been rare in Virginia Second, by 1830, the taxes included children, of both genders, who were of "school age". The former is of significance because it offers a further means of differentiating between individuals of the same or a similar name. I am reminded of a client's ancestor who, according to a family tradition, owned a large number of slaves but no land. Normally one would expect an individual owning a large number of slaves to be a planter with those slaves working his plantation, but fortunately the land taxes confirmed he owned no real estate as there was no other individual of the same name, much less one owning land. One can begin to see how having real and personal property taxes on the same roll can help to identify a specific individual.

The inclusion of school age children in Kentucky taxes is particularly beneficial, providing an additional basis for not just establishing the children's approximate years of birth, but to do so even for daughters and before other records which would do so were widely available. Before the 1850 census, such would not be possible as census typically gave the name only of the household head and only a range for the ages, while a female rarely apeared in a tax roll unless a widow. If she had minor children, she might even disappear from the taxes long before her actual death. You see, a widow typically held only a life-right to the real and personal property of her late husband. Once her children were adults or married, the tax liabilities for the property often transferred to her children, and specifically owning no taxable property, she would likely be no longer listed. If she remarried, she could replaced in the tax rolls by her new husband as trustee for the benefit of her children. Accordingly, the taxes can provide clues to when a widow had remarried, and who she married. Of course, another individual might be appointed as trustee for the children when she remarried, particularly if someone in the family felt the new husband was not looking after the children's best interests.

A trustee might also be taxed on property held by an unmarried woman who lived alone, but whether the trustee would be so identifed unless appointed by the Court specifically when there were no men in her immediate family is unclear.

Finally, a woman who possessed "covenanted" property would appear in tax rolls. Covenanted means she owned the property which her husband, if she was married, was barred from exercising any control, be it monetary or managerial. One type of covenant would be a marriage contract, what would today be called a "prenuptial agreement". Other ways a woman acquired covenanted property would be wills and deeds of gift. Covenants were rare and I do not know if the covenanted property would continue to be taxed in her name when any children who would inherit upon her death came of age or married.

Particularly while in the employ of the DAR, I have had occasion to work with genealogical records from every region of the United States and also foreign countries. That said, the overwhelming bulk of my research experience has been in the original 13 British colonies and, of course, as stated in my profile, my specialty is Virginia and West Virginia. Thus, while I know other states to have tax records, my familiarity with the extent of those records is quite limited. Specifically as the result of my 3+ years at the DAR, I know Pennsylvania has extensive tax rolls from the colonial period to approximately 1800 that have been abstracted and published in Series 3 of Pennsylvania Archives with an every name index available for the same. I also know those taxes differentiate between married and unmarried adult males, something that was not done in Virginia.


For Further Research

Regrettably, I know of few on-line resources for tax research in Virginia or elsewhere, largely limited to brief runs &/or specific districts of a particular county on USGenWeb and like sites.

A state-wide index to the 1787 Personal Property Taxes has been published by Nettie Schreiner-Yantis as the 1787 Census of Virginia (this year is significant in that it is the only year in which all taxpayers in a single household were identified by name, often with the relationship given, state-wide.

The 1800 personal property tax lists of Virginia (organized alphabetically by county through Princess Ann, meaning that 19 counties in both Virginia and West Virginia in existence at the time remain undone) were serialized by John Frederick "Fred" Dorman in his magazine Virginia Genealogist. There are indexes to these lists both by individual volume and a cumulative index (which is in 3 chronological parts).

The 1815 land taxes of Virginia have been transcribed by Roger G. Ward with the location descriptions noted in this article, and published by New Papyrus Publishing Company in 6 volumes organized first by region, then alphabetically by county within each region as well as by individual counties.

Microfilm of both the personal property and land taxes of Virginia are available for interlibrary loan from both the Virginia state library and Family History Library. Both facilities will only loan through other libraries rather than directly to genealogists, but depending upon the policies of the borrowing library, it may be possible for those having their own readers to take film borrowed from the state library home to read (I understand there is some discussion about changing that policy). The Virginia state library does not charge a fee for loans, but the borrowing libraries may charge a fee to cover postage and other return of the film costs. Film borrowed from the Family History Library must be used in the borrowing center. There has been some recent changes in how film is ordered and further changes are expected so one should probably visit.


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