In praise of tax lists

Courtesy of NARA

One of my personal “Great Moments in Family History Research” occurred several years ago in the town hall of Pomfret, Connecticut. I was immersed in a volume of early Pomfret land records at a small table set aside for researchers, when I happened to ask a former town clerk in passing whether any of the town’s early tax lists had survived. Without a word, she disappeared into the town hall’s records vault and emerged carrying a large cardboard box filled with original copies of eighteenth-century local tax lists.

I hadn’t really worked with tax lists before, but I knew that they were supposed to be a useful source of information for family history research. From an early date, American towns large and small annually assessed the value of their residents’ property holdings for tax purposes. Each year, a detailed tax list – commonly known in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as an “assessment list,” “assessment roll,” “rate list,” or “rate book,” depending on the time and place – was compiled by town authorities (known as “listers” in Connecticut) listing the name of every local property owner and the amount of taxes that he or she owed. During the nineteenth century, these lists often included detailed information about the property on which the tax-payer’s assessment was based, including the amount of land owned, its appraised value, the appraised value of the tax-payer’s house and material possessions, and more. Because the vast majority of pre-twentieth-century Americans farmed for a livelihood, many tax lists also delineated the specific amounts of “plow-land,” pasture, meadow, and woodland that each local tax-payer owned, along with the quantities and varieties of livestock owned.

I had regularly used local land records to identify the location and size of an ancestor’s landholdings, but the tax lists allowed me to go further…

The Pomfret tax lists proved to be a treasure trove. I had regularly used local land records to identify the location and size of an ancestor’s landholdings, but the tax lists allowed me to go further – making it possible for me to compare the size and value of my ancestors’ property holdings with those of other residents in the community. By carefully rank-ordering the taxable wealth of every local property-owner identified on a Pomfret tax list for a given year, I was able to measure the economic status of three generations of my eighteenth-century ancestors relative to that of the town’s other property owners. And because wealth and property largely determined social status in pre-twentieth-century America, the lists were helpful in identifying my ancestors’ position in local society as well.

Tax lists aren’t always easy to find. Some – such as those in Pomfret – are still stored in the local town hall, while others have been transferred to the local or county historical society. And some may have found their way into the collections of the state library, state archive, or state historical society. No matter how scattered they may prove to be, however, a search for them is well worth while – and perhaps essential for determining where an ancestor’s family ranked within the social and economic hierarchies of its community.[1]

Note

[1] After 1900, as U.S. society became increasingly urban and the populations of U.S. cities swelled in size, local tax lists grew so large and unwieldy that they became impracticable for research on twentieth-century families.

Michael Grow

About Michael Grow

Michael Grow, a retired history professor at Ohio University and a longtime NEHGS member, is the author of John Grow of Ipswich, Massachusetts and Some of His Descendants: A Middle-Class Family in Social and Economic Context From the 17th Century to the Present (Amherst, Mass.: Genealogy House, 2020).

16 thoughts on “In praise of tax lists

  1. Tax lists for much of the 19th century in Norwalk CT have been preserved in the local history archive of the city’s public library. They were saved from likely destruction years ago by a historically-minded city employee who recognized their potential value.

  2. Municipal tax valuation lists in the northeast are most useful in establishing when any major structure was first built or significantly enlarged. Because the day of assessment was often 01 April, it is a safe bet that the building was erected the year before first assessed. We don’t do much building in Jan. – March. Early 19th century lists give interests in shipping (eg. 1/16 ship “Bazaar”), wharfage, hay scales, $ at loan, and wheeled conveyances such aschaises and carriages. Later listings include bicycles, musical instruments, radios and early tv’s.

    The records of the Overseers of the Poor are my other favorite Municipal Record Series. Here are the names of people who didn’t own property or vote. As one Town writes another trying to get it to take $$$ responsibility for those needing assistance, you get a feel for where these people might have come from. The new “Vital Records of Richmond, Maine” published in 2020 by ME Genealogical Society includes 83 pages of these “pauper records” from 1833-1894.

  3. Pennsylvania has many of these in the Pennsylvania Archives, generally available on Google books. The ones I’ve been exploring are from as early as 1760, I believe, and go up to at least 1800. They are also useful for noting near neighbors with the same last name, or with the wife’s maiden name (if known).

  4. Tax lists in the 20th century are not impracticable, just very difficult at the moment. If you are not within driving distance of where the records are kept, actually everything is difficult! I know where the surviving tax lists of Concord, MA are: on microfilm at the Munroe Archives, which is the repository for town records, located in the Public Library, but I will have have to have staff help as I am presently in Oregon. Do further research on where these are for the town or area you are interested in. I do not believe there is anything like a consolidated list or guide book on the subject. Michael just happened to ask the correct question to the appropriate person!

  5. In 2011 my husband and I created an 1890 Census Substitute database for Newtown, Connecticut. We used the Grand List (taxes), Voters List, Electors List, and school registers. The database is posted on the Genealogy Club of Newtown website. Our hope was that other towns would do the same and town by town the 1890 Census would be available. I wrote about it in my blog: http://growingupinwillowcreek.blogspot.com/search/label/Newtown%20CT%201890%20Census

  6. Interesting, Michael. Thank you! I too have had the experience of unearthing old tax lists in town halls, in my case Rhode Island. Do you know of any organized effort to keep track of or catalogue these lists?

    1. Thanks, Jane. I’m unaware of any centralized or comprehensive listing of local tax lists. Such an undertaking would be challenging, given their scattered nature. Terminology poses an additional problem. In one instance, a county historical society in upstate New York informed me that they possessed no 19th-century tax lists for their area. However, their catalog of manuscript holdings listed an “assessment role” for 1838, which upon investigation turned out to be a tax list.

  7. In my experience, mostly w/ ME municipalities, the Assessment or Valuation List was the full detailed listing of all taxable real and personal property. At the far right would be a total value of real property, a total Value of personal property, and the number of “polls” ( males of appropriate age). These totals would be used to proportion Town taxes including the poll tax, highway district taxes and school district taxes, each in their separate Tax Lists. In the case of a few missing years of Assessment or Valuation Lists, I have used highway and/or school district tax lists that show a large jump in the total valuation, compared to others, to determine year of construction of a house. Unfortunately, in late 19th century the Valuation books became quite large and voluminous. As such, once the real and personal property totals were carried forward to the Tax Lists, the Valuation or Assessment Lists were “lost.”

  8. One other feature of Assessment or Valuation Lists is that they first list all residents, then they list all non-residents. You can track people physically moving into, out of and back into Town. Deeds don’t reveal these movements.

  9. New York State tax rolls, while covering only 1799 thru 1804 are very useful since it is almost an early census list. It list the property owners and that land in a township whose owners are unknown. Early deeds in NY were only 2 copies (owner and buyer) later on they where required to be copied by the town or county clerk where the land was located. Subsequent boundary changes or annexations left the original copy in the initial county where it was recorded. Clerks who made the copies got 10 cents a word for the work and might explain the redundancies.
    The names of both husband and wife (if it applied) are both recorded as the seller. Adjoining lands are described in boundary deeds. And warrant and defend was the obligation to preserve the land transaction from any other claimants

    Hope this helps
    In NY residents can check state records at anscetry.com for free

    Rick
    Fingerlakershousehistories.com

    1. Rick, How are those rolls for those years accessed? Is there a county by county list? I’ve got a Butler family who slowly move through the Finger Lakes and get to Lake Erie.

      1. These are kept with a county by county list in the state archives and are free for NY residents to access. Interlibrary library loan thru a local public library or thru a paid ancestry subscription. The state collection covers only those counties that were formed when the state was created and has the later counties that were formed before 1804. One other way to find mostly deeds are to look at land company records or land agents for certain areas of the state.

        If you would like to communicate thru a separate email, I maybe able to give you specific ideas as to where to trace your people through the maze of NY records

        Hope this helps

        Sincerely
        Rick Porter

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