Posted by Amy Johnson Crow on April 15, 2014 in Collections, Website

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 Basics

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 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

Benton Harbor, Michigan News-Palladium, 24 October 1931, page 1.
Benton Harbor, Michigan News-Palladium, 24 October 1931, page 1.



Amy Johnson Crow

Amy Johnson Crow is a Certified Genealogist and an active lecturer and author. Her roots run deep in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states. She earned her Masters degree in Library and Information Science at Kent State University. Amy loves to help people discover the joys of learning about their ancestors and she thinks that there are few things better than a day in a cemetery. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Amy Johnson Crow.


  1. arole Taylor

    Good to know about this technique. I do have a challenging brick wall. I can not find anything on my paternal grandfather except his name found once in the Census. Fletcher Taylor lived in Monroe County, Bolinbrooke, GA. around 1880. I would like to know what happened to him. My father said “you don’t need to know about that” during his lifetime. My father, John Taylor, was born out of wedlock so I know nothing except hearsay.

  2. Amy Johnson Crow

    T – I’ve seen pianos listed, but not organs. I’ll have to look for those! I wonder what other musical instruments might have been taxed.

    Arole – That can be tough when you have so little to go on. The best advice I can give is to follow each clue that you do find, no matter how small. Are there other Taylors living in the area? They could be related. He might be named in one of their obituaries.

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