Using Tax Records for U.S. Genealogy
Basic information about how tax records can be used to learn more about your ancestors
Since the first federal census happed in 1790, U.S tax lists and records can contribute to tracing ancestors, especially between U.S census years and before 1790. They are a helpful resource for genealogists to trace ancestors throughout their life and help discover bits and pieces of family history. These lists go back to before colonial days and can bridge the gap between censuses and other records.
Tax records are typically found at the state and county level. Though taxes were kept for many years, those records may or may not exist today.
Availability of digital, indexed or offline records will depend on the state and local area. You will need to do some research to find out what is available.
Types of Tax Records
- Federal direct taxes: The federal government collected taxes directly from citizens at various times
- Poll, tithable, or head: This was the tax levied on an individual (usually adult male), and was not based on personal assets.
- Property tax: This tax was levied on a person's land. Since some places taxed the renters of the land (rather than the owner) you may see more than one name listed.
- Personal property: These taxes were collected on different types of personal property such as cattle, slaves and other assets.
- Quitrents: These are records of property taxes paid to the proprietor, lord or Crown. Sometimes the town founders levied to fund community projects.
- Other: Taxes on various other things such as roads, schools, guns, highway or liquor etc. These will vary across locations.
Possible Information from Tax Records
Here are a few examples of details that you can potentially glean from tax records:
- Year of Birth: You can trace an individual's tax records back to the year they became a legal tax paying adult. Generally men ages 21 and over were considered of legal age, though some places had different ages that were used.
- Parentage: While checking back on tax records of a previously unlisted male, he could be the son if he appears next to an individual with the same surname.
- Year of Marriage: When an adult male first appears as head of household this indicates marriage. Otherwise, he is normally listed as ‘single' or ‘single freeman'.
- Year of Death: An individual will disappear from tax records for two reasons: age of tax obligation or death. Tax obligation usually finishes between 50 and 60 years of age. You can confirm the year of death by searching for probate or land records.
- Location: If an individual disappears in a county or township he may have moved. Be sure to search nearby jurisdictions for details about the individual.
Limitations of Tax Records
- Tax laws and lists will vary across location and jurisdictions. Try to find the specific tax laws for the area.
- Typically, only white males of obligation age are listed. So, you may not find children, women, slaves or minorities there (although in some cases, the woman is listed at the death of her husband).
- Most tax records are not yet digitized or found online yet. So further research may be required to locate them.
- Many tax records were kept but have since been lost.
- There can be difficulty reading the penmanship and unusual formatting of the records.
Locating Tax Records
A good place to begin locating tax records for the area you are interested in is to use our records directory for tax records.
Checking with local genealogical societies, historical societies, and public libraries may also help you to determine if tax records exist for the area you are researching.
Need help finding more records? Try our genealogical records directory which has more than 1.3 million sources to help you more easily locate the available records.
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