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Kentucky's pre-1850 tax lists
Many beginning and even experienced researchers complain of the lack of records created prior to the 1850 census. They complain of the non-existence of birth records, multiple men of the same name, and the families who were so poor they never recorded land or probate records. Many of these same researchers have not discovered Kentucky tax lists or have never used anything but the transcribed lists. The original tax lists can often be the solution to many of their research problems.
Kentucky’s tax records are some of the most complete in the nation for the pre-1850 time period. Records are available from the beginning of most counties. The oldest counties even have tax records before Kentucky became a state in 1792. Fayette, Jefferson, Lincoln, Logan, Madison, Mason, Mercer, Nelson, Shelby, Washington, and Woodford counties all have lists that pre-date or begin with 1792. There are a few counties where the earliest tax lists have not survived: Bell, Boyle, Magoffin, McCreary, and Greenup Counties. All of these except Greenup County were formed after 1850 from counties which have surviving pre-1850 tax lists making information available for the location if not the county. Greenup County is the only area of the state which lacks lists for more than a few sporadic years. Greenup County does not have surviving tax lists from 1804 through 1838.
Tax lists are the only record in Kentucky which contain annually created records on most of the population. The family may not have owned land and may have hidden from the census taker, but the tax collector usually found them. All men over 21 were required to pay the poll tax in Kentucky. This puts most adult men in the tax records even if they owned no property. Women who were widowed and owned property and underage men who owned property were also listed by name in the tax lists. The tax lists give a fairly complete picture of the adult male population and a glimpse of the widowed female land owners in a county.
Original tax lists were handwritten with columns for marking land description, what was taxed, and the amount of tax. The columns are often not labeled on every page. In addition, the specifics of these columns vary across time and may vary somewhat from county to county. The lists have individuals grouped by letter of the alphabet and a single year may have multiple groupings. All of these factors tend to make the novice avoid using tax lists. However, these same varying factors can yield information which can be found in no other record.
To make use of tax list before 1850, data on families and individuals must be extracted across time. The ancestor might avoid payment of taxes for a year or two, pay for a few years, and then successfully avoid payment again. For this reason, tax lists should be examined at least five years before the first apparent entry for an individual or family, then across time until no more entries can be found, and then for a least five years after the last tax payment. This gives a fairly complete picture of the family in a particular location.
Most tax lists have individuals grouped by letter of the alphabet according to the first letter of the surname. Early lists were prepared by district and can usually be used to show the general composition of a neighborhood. The legibility of the list depends greatly upon the handwriting and literacy of the tax commissioner, the condition of the original book at the time it was found and filmed, and the skill of the person filming the record. However, since each list was kept separately by year and each film contains multiple years, even if one year is illegible, other years will likely be clear.
In general, Kentucky taxed real and personal property. Males over 21 also paid a poll tax which was like a head tax and really had little to do with voting. The real property that was taxed was usually land. The personal property might include slaves, cattle, horses, wagons, etc. The pre-statehood tax lists which have survived may separate real and personal property tax payment into two lists. Post-statehood tax lists combine the poll tax, real property, and personal property tax payment into one list.
The variations in the columns within tax lists across time reflect changes in the tax law. Knowledge of some of these changes is critical to understanding and using tax lists. Some of these changes in the tax law and how they might aid research are discussed below. However, a complete study of the tax law will reveal even more detail which may aid in research.
The first Kentucky tax law in 1792 assessed land, slaves, horses and mules, cattle, coaches and carriages, billiard tables, retail stores, and all free white males about 21. All of these taxable categories can be used to identify individuals, particularly those with common names, across time. These become even more useful realizing that the tax commissioners were assigned to canvass their districts; they went from house to house. Men of the same surname taxed on the same day would most certainly have been living in the same neighborhood. Those adjacent in the list were often relatives. Examining and comparing individuals in particular neighborhoods is a good way to distinguish multiple men of the same name within a county.
By the end of 1793, the tax law changed again ordering the reporting of land holdings in other counties. Acreage, watercourse, and county was listed for each tract of land owned by the tax payer. The quality of the land was also noted. The reporting of land owned in other counties can often point to previous residences for the tax payer. The reporting of the acreage per tract points to deeds which should be examined. Land is often the key to following and proving relationships and tax lists can point to deed and probate records.
Researchers always need to be aware of all of the men of the same name in a county at a particular time. Men with the same name can often be distinguished by their property and their neighbors. For example, a marriage register might not reveal the parentage of the John Jones who married Sintha Smith in 1803. However, establishing that there were three men named John Jones being taxed in two different districts of the county in that year immediately signals the researcher to begin organizing data on each man. Establishing which man of the three married Sintha Smith would require a study of all three men.
A study of tax lists across time would reveal which of the three men named John Jones owned land. The land could be identified by location and tract. The acquisition and disposal of the land can be tracked for each man. With this knowledge, deeds and land grants can be checked. Deeds may reveal the wife’s name. This may now have helped pinpoint which John Jones married Sintha Smith. John Jones’ relationship to the other Jones men in the neighborhood can then be studied.
Relationships are often suggested by tax lists and can then be studied through other records. Men in the same neighborhood of the same surname were often related. What Jones men were adjacent to John Jones when he first paid taxes? Were the taxes paid on the same day? Were the adjacent Jones families of similar economic status; did they both own slaves, horse, and cattle? Were the men well established, poor, or just establishing their own households? Do tracts of land seem to be taxed first under one man’s name of the surname and then another? Leads from the tax list often provide clues to the study of other records.
By 1810, the tax law changed again. Tax commissioners were selected from the bounds of each militia company. Some counties identified the name of the captain of the militia company. Tax payers were required to travel to militia muster sites to file their taxes in either April or June. The researcher’s use of the tax list must adjust to information resulting from the new law. Militia companies can still be used to identify individuals living in the same general area. However, since the tax collector no longer canvassed the neighborhoods, adjacent names in the tax list no longer imply that individuals lived in adjacent households.
With the passage of another ten years, education became part of the tax collector’s duty. In December, 1821, law makers required tax collectors to record the number of children in each household. This column can be used to help match individuals in the tax lists and census records. Care should be taken to note the actual age range for the school age column across time.
Not all of the tax laws have been listed here and the requirement listed from the beginning of tax collection until 1840 were only partially legislated. Columns in the tax lists varied somewhat from county list to county list and from year to year within a county. All lists and fields were handwritten. Consistency was not a requirement. Additional information might be recorded at the beginning or end of the tax list for a particular year. Care must be taken to gather all the information which the tax lists contain.
With all of this information, the novice researcher may be tempted to only record the names from the tax lists by year. Researchers who have tried to save time summarizing information or leaving out some of the men of the same surname in a particular year have probably had to return to the same list multiple times. Researchers should be thorough in examining each year of the tax list. They should begin at least five years before the person of interest was believed to be in the county. If the person being researched was already paying taxes, then earlier years should be examined. The researcher should not forget to look in the parent county when the person being studied paid taxes in the first tax list of a county. Every person of the surname of interest should be recorded. Every district for a particular year should be examined. If individuals of the surname of interest lived in more than one district, but some of them owned no land, then the land descriptions of other families in the district should be recorded to identify locations. This process of thoroughly examining the tax list year by year should continue until at least five years after the individual of interest disappears from the tax list before 1850.
All of this work can be the key to finding answers that are not obvious anywhere else. The diligent researcher may be rewarded with information about one or several of the following:
• The tax list will suggest when a man first paid taxes in a county, often with a specific date. By using the information in the lists, the researcher may be able to determine whether he moved into the county or had been living there and had turned 21.
• Tax lists show a man above 21 on a particular date. Tracking men across time in conjunction with early census records can narrow birth years for men who were born and died before 1850.
• Tax lists show when a man disappeared from a county. If his land was listed under a female or another man, perhaps he died. Probate and court records could be searched for the settlement of his estate. Was a new county created which included his land or did he move? If he simply disappeared, deeds can be searched within a specific time frame for the sale of his land.
• The listing of all tracts of land with acreage, watercourse, and county before 1840 helps identify the land owned by a family. It can pinpoint where the family lived and give clues to locating deeds and grants. If the land is located in other counties, it may suggest an earlier county where the family lived.
• Linking men to their land, lack of land, and ownership of slaves, cattle, horses, etc. helps to distinguish men of the same name through their property and economic status.
• Tracking a man across time through tax lists, may show the various given names that a man used.
• The widow or heirs of man can often be identified as they pay taxes on his land when he dies. His death date can be narrowed if he left no will.
Kentucky tax lists have been microfilmed by the Kentucky Historical Society and by the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives. Each film contains multiple years for the early tax lists. These film are available for many counties in large libraries. The Kentucky Historical Society, the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives, and the LDS Family History Library have fairly complete microfilm collections. Film can be rented through local LDS Family History Centers and purchased through the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives.
Other helpful sources
The Kentucky Land Office site has an excellent article on early Kentucky tax lists by Kandie Adkinson [n].
[In progress. Sources and links are being added.]
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