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The Value of Using US Tax Records in Genealogy Research

Historic Tax Records with overlay that reads reads Overview of US Tax Records for genealogists

For decades, researching in US Tax Records has been challenging and often confusing. As the number of digital tax collections has increased, the ability of family history researchers to find their families in assessment tables has grown exponentially.

And yet, you may still wonder why you should research your ancestors in tax records when they have such limited information.

VIDEO: Genealogy Research in Tax Records

Watch this video on YouTube.

That my friend, is why you’re reading this blog post and I’m super excited about the discoveries you might make.

A Brief Overview View of US Tax Records for Genealogy

In the US, citizens have encountered tax collectors since colonial days. While the types of assessments vary from locality to locality, all tax records place an individual in a specific place at a specific time.

Tennessee, Early Tax List Records, 1783-1895

Some tax records only list an individual by name. These lists typically reflect poll taxes, or taxes on individuals regardless of their personal assets.

Arkansas tax records, 1821-1884

Other US tax records that help in genealogy research record a citizen’s name, their real estate, and their personal property (including slaves and livestock).

These records can not only reveal the wealth of your ancestors, but the value their colonies, counties, and states placed on assets.

Genealogy Details Found in US Tax Records

US tax records can help expand your genealogy research through direction information and indirect details (or details you can infer from the document you view).

As I pointed out in the previous section, every tax assessment record varies from place to place. The only consistent detail that every tax list records are the individual being taxed. After that, the content available varies greatly.

Therefore, the following list includes details you MAY find in a tax record.

  1. Property Description

  2. The property may be a residence

  3. This property may be a business

  4. Some properties are owned by real estate speculators

  5. Ownership or rental status

  6. Occupation

  7. Descriptions of certain forms of personal property

  8. Slaves

  9. Cattle

  10. Horses

  11. Donkeys

  12. Jewelry

  13. Household goods

  14. Etc

  15. The number of taxable males in the household

  16. The number of school-aged children

  17. Delinquency status (Did you ancestor pay their taxes?)

↪️ Are you looking for more genealogy resources?

Grab your copy of this FREE Genealogy Research Guide:

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The Value of US Tax Records in Genealogy Research

Once you discover your ancestor in a tax list, what can you do with the information?

Tax records can help you place an ancestor in place and time. Such a find can help you locate a ‘missing’ ancestor or establish their identity.

As you research every year your ancestor appears in a tax record, you can fill in the gaps between census records. You can see when they purchase land, sold land, migrated within a county, had years of prosperity, or years of struggle.

You can determine the age of the ancestor. You may discover what year you ancestor became of age to be assessed a tax or aged out of taxation. You must be careful with making assumptions, but these clues, combined with other record collections, can help you determine a likely birth date.

Tax records help genealogists who research in “burned counties.” In many cases, tax records were not kept in the same location as many other land, census, and court records. As such, tax records have often survived where other essential genealogy records have not.

If you research in the US before 1850, tax records are critical in your efforts. They add an additional layer of information that the 1790 -- 1850 census record can not.

Finally, tax records can help you find new kin. While researching Chester Ward in Genesee County, Michigan, I discovered two Chesters! As it turns out, the clues I found in the tax records helped me extend my family line back to one more generation.

Fall in Love With US Tax Records in Genealogy

Online access to US tax records has dramatically changed the way I research my family trees. I have moved beyond limiting myself to census records and vital records.

While I do not hide my love for city directories (as you can see in this video and this video), I am genuinely loving the discoveries I can find in US Tax Records.

For more information about tax record research, visit:

  1. US Tax Record -- FamilySearch Wiki

  2. Tax Record Research -- Family Locket

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