They say that the only things certain in life are death and taxes. Genealogists are used to dealing with records surrounding an ancestor’s death, but what about taxes?
Tax records in many locations date back earlier than vital records. They’re great for our research because they tend to be kept on a regular basis. (Have you ever heard of a government saying, “Never mind. We’re not going to collect taxes this year.”?) Tax records tend to cover a wide range of people, including those who didn’t own land. Some locations taxed personal property (sometimes called “chattel”). This could include livestock, slaves, furniture, stills, carriages, etc.
Tax lists don’t necessarily prove residency. A person doesn’t have to live where they own land. Generally speaking, real property (land and buildings) is taxed where the land is; personal property and income is taxed where the owner/earner lives. There are always exceptions, but a good rule of thumb is that a real estate (land) tax list doesn’t prove residency, but a personal property or income tax list does.
IRS Tax Assessment Lists
Ancestry.com has numerous collections of tax lists. One of my favorites is the IRS Tax Assessment Lists, 1862-1918. Be sure to scroll to the bottom of the page to see the states and years that are included in this collection.
The Internal Revenue Service (originally called the Bureau of Internal Revenue) was created in 1862 to “provide Internal Revenue to support the Government at to pay interest on the Public Debt.” These tax lists generally list the person’s name and residence, the items being taxed and their value, the amount of the tax, and whether or not the tax was paid.
Here is a portion of the record from May 1863 for Wayne County, Indiana. Henry Binkley was taxed on $275 worth of wagons; for this, he was taxed $8.25. Aaron Boyer’s corn brooms worth $27 resulted in a tax of $1.41. (See, I told you people were taxed on more than just land!)
What about A.D. Band at the top of the list? His taxable item was way over on the right hand side of the page under “Class C – Enumerated Articles.” (This is a good reminder to scroll across the page!) His taxable articles: 30,475.95 gallons of distilled spirits, with a tax of $6,095.19.
And a Tax Cheat
On Tax Day, it’s hard not to think about one of the most famous tax evaders of all time: Al Capone. The federal government tried for years to gather evidence to convict him of distributing alcohol during Prohibition as well as the violence that surrounded his Chicago gang. What finally did Capone in was an investigation that connected him to income from a gambling house; though it was illegal, the income was taxable. He was convicted of tax evasion in 1931 and was eventually sent to Alcatraz.
Capone’s indictment and conviction made the front page of newspapers across the country, including this one from the Benton Harbor, Michigan News-Palladium, available on Newspapers.com.