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Researching tax records may pay off for you

President Lincoln "temporarily" established the federal income tax to fund the Civil War. Peter the Great taxed beards. And England taxed windows in the 1700s because they symbolized wealth. Like death, no one escapes taxes. For rooters, both are good resources for probing the past.

Congress acquired the authority to levy taxes with the adoption of our Constitution in 1789. Each colony devised its own tax structure. These included poll taxes _ a fixed rate on all adult males _ and taxes relating to the earning capacity of specific trades.

Property taxes offered a steady stream of revenue for local governments and included real estate and assets such as livestock and dogs. Real estate taxes were especially popular because land remained in a fixed location. It was visible. And its value was generally known.

Property taxes may be based on real or personal property or both. Anyone who owned real or personal property was taxed. Since property owners were listed alphabetically and taxes were collected annually, tax rolls can fill in the gaps between population censuses.

The information contained on tax rolls depends on the time frame and the city, town or county levying the taxes. A glance at Hillsborough County's 1883 tax rolls shows that Isaac Carlton had 40 acres, 1 horse and 20 swine. One male under 55 lived in his house. Mary Daniel appears on the 1884 roll. She had 40 acres, none of which was improved.

Both documents include a legal description of the land and the money due the state, county and local school board.

Separate rolls exist for special taxes. Local governments derive their ability to provide services from their power to tax real and personal property. Townships and counties may levy special assessments that neighboring governments do not. These taxes often appear on separate lists.

Officials in Yates County, N.Y., kept a separate list from 1874-1900 of individuals paying a scraper tax and of those who paid highway and poll taxes from 1906-1910.

Property that was sold to pay off back taxes, liens or to settle an estate may appear on yet another list.

Savvy researchers poke through all these lists because each has the potential for providing an important piece of information.

School taxes may reveal children's names. Free public education in this country was almost nonexistent in the early 1800s. Only children whose parents could afford to pay tuition attended school. Some local governments used tax monies to pay the tuition for poor kids.

Pennsylvania, for example, passed a law in 1790 to force local governments to subsidize schools. A clause added in 1809 required counties to compile lists of impoverished children between the ages of five and 12 and to use public funds to pay their tuition.

Parents whose children's schooling was subsidized by the county may appear on tax rolls. Isaac Davis is on the Philadelphia County tax list with Lydia, 8, and John, 6. By 1850, all Pennsylvania counties offered tax-subsidized education for all children.

Other states and territories created similar laws, so it's wise to check out what regulations were in place during the period being researched.

Where to find tax rolls

Property tax records date back to the 1700s in some colonial states. By 1800, virtually all government entities imposed some form of taxation. Copies of tax rolls may be found at the local courthouse, a county, state or municipal archives, state libraries and historical societies.

Mormon Family History Centers are also a great resource for tax records. Just pop into the one nearest you to see if the main library in Salt Lake City has copies of the ones that interest you. If so, you may borrow them for a nominal fee and view them at the local History Center.

Read past Donna Murray Allen columns online at Type "Donna Murray Allen" in the search box. You can write to Allen c/o Floridian, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail her at Her Web site:, which includes information on classes and lectures. Allen welcomes your questions about genealogy and will respond to those of general interest in future columns.