How can you find tax records for your ancestors? That’s what I want to share today in the third post in our back to basics with tax records series. The other parts are here:
Back to the Basics with Tax Records: Part 1 – what tax records contain and how they can help you prove identity and relationships
Back to the Basics with Tax Records: Part 2 – what types of tax records exist
So you are convinced by the first two articles that you want to find some tax records for you ancestors? Okay, here’s a process to get started! Use the FamilySearch Research Wiki first to learn about what was available in your area. Check the FamilySearch Catalog, online collections/databases, and manuscript collections. Let’s talk about all of these in more detail.
How to Find Tax Records
Tax records were created by governments as they assessed the people, property, and land in their jurisdiction. Tax records are usually held by the counties or states in the U.S. In other countries, check each jurisdiction to find out which level of government usually levied and collected the taxes.
A good first place to start your search for tax records is the FamilySearch Wiki. Look up the country, state, county or town you want to look in. For example, my Welch and Keaton ancestors lived in Anderson County, South Carolina (link to this locality in the wiki). Scroll to the section about taxation. The wiki contains links to record collections all over the web. The Anderson County, South Carolina section on Taxation has links to the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, FH Library microfilms, periodical articles, and USGenWeb Archives.
I clicked the link to search the USGenWeb collection, “Sarrett, Paul R. “Some 2,264 H/H ‘Tax’ Records – 1843, For persons living in present-day: ANDERSON CO. – Formed 1826 (Pendleton). This list was easy to search by using the ctrl+F keyboard shortcut because it was a typed index. I searched for “Welch” and found George Welch and Elizabeth Welch. I searched “Keaton” and found William Keaton and Archibald Keaton. No more information was included beyond names so I decided to locate the original record to see if I could learn more. I was hoping to find out which district they lived in (if the county was divided into districts for tax assessment), and the amount of tax they paid.
To find the original image of the tax list found in the index above, I went to the FamilySearch Catalog. The list of records for Anderson County, South Carolina, contained 4 entries under Taxation. The one that I wanted was: Anderson District tax returns, 1835-1861.
The entry shows that this is a publication by the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, and that the Family History Library has a copy. The microfilm has been digitized and so I can click on the camera icon to browse the images online. When I did that, I saw that within the microfilm images were section header images showing the year. This doesn’t always happen, so it’s nice to be able to quickly find the year I want. When searching through digitized images, it’s helpful to figure out how the items are organized.
Here is the 1843 grouping. There are 24 images for 1843. The first image was titled “General Taxes Collected in the District of Anderson for the year 1843 by David Simmons.” The page included surnames beginning with A and B. As I paged through, I noticed that the entire list was organized alphabetically, not by company or district like many tax records. This made me think it must be a copy made from the original returns.
Sure enough, one of the first images in the collection contains this note, explaining:
The tax records herein were recorded by the state comptroller general from the returns which he received from the district and parish tax collectors. The comptroller general forwarded the records to the clerks of court in the various parishes and districts in order that taxpayers might be able to compare the receipts issued to them by the tax collectors with the amounts recorded on these lists.*
The records are presented here primarily for their research value since they pre-date the formation of the county auditor’s, treasurer’s, and delinquent tax collector’s offices…
*Thomas Cooper and David J. McCord, eds., Statutes at Large of South Carolina, 10 Vols. (Columbia, S.C. : A.S. Johnson, 1836-1841), No. 2079, 6:10.”
I appreciated that this reference to the state statutes was included, describing the reason these tax lists were created.
The alphabetization of this tax list does make it easier to find who you are looking for, but takes away the ability to find a person’s closest neighbors. I found Archibald and William Keaton on page 11:
Wm Keaton 9 17
Archd Keaton 5 39
What do these numbers mean? It can be tricky to figure out the column headings in tax records, since the column headings are not always listed. Is this shillings and pence? Dollars and cents? Total tax? Property Tax? First of all, we have to learn what the columns are for. There are no column headings in this tax list. In “The Genealogist’s Guide to Researching Tax Records,” authors Carol Cooke Darrow, CG, and Susan Winchester, Ph.D., C.P.A. say:
“It is imperative that you learn what information was recorded in each column of the tax record. If the column headings are missing or unclear, you will have to look for an explanation elsewhere, perhaps in a state guide to tax records, in a journal article about tax records, or in the state tax codes.” (4)
I used the reference mentioned above to the South Carolina state statutes to find more information about the taxes being collected in 1843. The Statues at Large is an enormous ten volume work. I found a digitized version of it at HathiTrust, and chose Volume 10 which included the index, published in 1841. The index included all references to the tax laws over the years, and spanned several pages. I learned that several types of taxes were levied – property tax, poor tax, and road tax. Because this tax list only shows the total tax as a way for taxpayers to compare their receipts with what the state collected, it doesn’t break down what the taxes were for.
In my research to understand South Carolina tax records, I also found this book to be helpful: A Digested Index of the Statute Law of South Carolina, from the earliest period to the year 1836, inclusive, which I found at Google Books. Here is an excerpt showing that tax accounts began to be kept in dollars and cents in 1795 and that persons owning property on the 1st day of October in any year or selling it after that day, paid the taxes.
Now understood that William Keaton and Archibald Keaton probably paid taxes on their taxable property, in the amount of:
Wm Keaton $9.17
Archd Keaton $5.39
Next, I went to find George Welch and Elizabeth Welch in the Ws. I read through the 3 pages containing W surnames several times and didn’t find them. This makes me wonder if the index on USGenWeb was made from a different, or more original tax list, before it copied by the state comptroller. Unfortunately, the author of the index didn’t list a complete source citation for the tax list he was transcribing.
When searching within the FamilySearch Catalog for tax records, you should check each jurisdiction level. There could be tax records kept at each level, as evidenced by the town of Adams in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. The catalog shows the following records in the taxation category:
Adams, Berkshire, Massachusetts, United States:
Berkshire County, Massachusetts, United States:
Inheritance tax records, v 1-2, 1907-1921, Berkshire County Probate Court
Massachusetts, United States:
–United States federal tax: includes District of Columbia Federal assessment, 1790-1805
–U.S. internal revenue assessment lists 1862-1874 (images online)
So, check every level! Town, county, state, and nation!
Is there any easier way to find tax records? Yes, some localities are included in online, indexed databases at Ancestry, FamilySearch, and other locations, like state archives. Check the FamilySearch wiki for your state. Here are some tax records collections at Ancestry and FamilySearch:
FamilySearch Historical Record Collections containing the word “tax” (15) – can also replace tax in the search box for “assessment”
What about tax records that are hidden in those difficult to find manuscript collections that are not digitized? Check Archive Grid. This incredible resource lists manuscript collections at archives, university libraries, and local archives. You can find tax records that are not listed in the FamilySearch Catalog this way. I’ll share the tax records for Black Lick Township as an example. Black Lick township is in Indiana County, Pennsylvania. There are only a few tax records listed for Indiana County in the catalog. There is no entry for Black Lick township in the catalog. But when I searched Archive Grid for tax records in Black Lick Township, I found a collection called the “Huddle Family Papers.”
Clicking the link took me to the finding aid for this collection at the Kegley Library, Wytheville Community College website. The finding aid says that Isaac Huddle was a clerk for Black Lick township, so several account books and loose papers relating to the township were donated to the library.
__ Carol Cooke Darrow and Susan Winchester, The Genealogist’s Guide to Researching Tax Records (Westminster: Heritage Books, 2003) 23.