For genealogists, tax records can help solve a multitude of genealogical problems, especially for tracing ancestors prior to the 1850 census. Clues may lead to the birth, marriage or death year of your early ancestor when no other record may have survived. Taxes were collected annually.
Tax records came in many forms. Poll or head taxes which were levied upon a person, real property taxes which were levied upon a person's land, and personal property or income tax. These can be recorded separately but may have been combined into one record with various columns representing each property type. In some early colonial areas, quit-rents were collected. The rents, a remnant of the old feudal system in Europe, were collected by the government or by large land owners annually on small parcels sold to private citizens.
The Federal Government levied taxes upon citizens usually to help defray the cost of a war or pending war. Federal records are usually indexed. Researchers can usually locate tax lists in print and indexed for the years 1798, 1814-1816, and 1862-1866 for any given county. The same would also apply to many state and some local jurisdictions. Local laws governing who was taxable and who was exempt changed from time to time and for various reasons. A poll tax levied to raise money for a new courthouse may include persons over the age of sixteen, and a property assessment the same year may only include citizens age twenty-one and above.
Tax records can be used to determine parentage. When an ancestor has been tracked in the tax records for a series of years and suddenly a male with the same surname appears on the lists next to him, he is more than likely a son who is now of legal or taxable age. The legal age for owning land was 21 years which would explain a male who suddenly appears on the same assessment roll as your ancestor.
Some counties created a separate list for unmarried men often labeled singlemen or single freemen which meant they were not indentured to any individual. A young man coming of legal age would be taxed on his personal property--usually a horse or a cow. Once married, his name would leave the single freeman list and suddenly appear on the regular list with other heads of families.
You can determine the year your ancestor arrived and left the jurisdiction by his first and last appearance on a tax record. If the assessment shows enough detail, a match can be made across county and even state lines. Look for a matching occupation, livestock, or any unusual taxable items that would have been transported. Always use a series of years and always look in every township in the county. Like counties, townships were also divided.
Many tax records list occupation as a category, and those that don't will often include the occupation to avoid confusion between two individuals with the same name. A father may have passed his trade on to son. Tax records issued for licenses and permits will be listed under occupations or business and commerce.
Upon his death, a man will disappear from the tax lists, but often the death is confirmed when his estate is still taxed awaiting probate. If you are lucky enough to find an entry listing the estate of your ancestor you can determine the year of his death. Make sure to look at a number of consecutive years because the deceased may be taxed for several years until his estate is probated.
Always check the end of each tax list as your ancestor may have been late or delinquent in paying or have un-resolved issues. Sometimes there will be two lists for each year: the local list and the list sent to the county. Check both because your ancestor may have been accidentally omitted from one.
Tax records and indexes are become increasingly available online through Family Search and Ancestry thanks to the efforts of the Family History Library. They can also be accessed at the county courthouse, the county historical society, the state archives, the National Archives, in published county histories, journals and periodicals.