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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.