It’s federal income tax season in the United States, and many Americans find themselves mumbling about the 16th Amendment, which gave Congress the power to tax. But though nobody enjoys paying taxes, at least we can enjoy the benefits of our ancestors paying them. Where tax records exist, they tell us where our families were and sometimes what they owned.
According to the National Archives (U.S.), the Civil War prompted the first national income tax here, a flat 3% on incomes over $800. (See an image of the 16th Amendment and the first 1040 form here.) The Supreme Court halted a later attempt by Congress to levy another income tax, saying it was unconstitutional. In 1913 the 16th Amendment granted that power. Even then, only 1% of the population paid income taxes because most folks met the exemptions and deductions. Tax rates varied from 1% to 6%–wouldn’t we love to see those rates now!
Ancestry.com has indexed images of U.S. federal tax assessment lists from the Civil War period (and beyond, for some territories). Here’s a sample image from Arkansas:
Of course, the U.S. federal income tax is just one type. Taxes have been levied on real estate, personal property and income by local, regional and national governments throughout the world. In the U.S., you can often find real estate and personal property taxpayer lists in county courthouses or state archives. If you don’t find them, consult genealogical or historical organizations and guides to see what exists and where it might be. Or use your favorite internet search engine to find the ones you’re looking for. A Google search for “tax records genealogy Virginia” brings up great results from the Library of Virginia, the Virginia Historical Society and Binns Genealogy. (Use the keyword “genealogy” so historical records will pop up: without that term, you’re going to get results that talk about paying taxes today.)
Some tax records are online, too. In addition to the federal records mentioned above, Ancestry.com hosts an enormous collection of tax records from London (1692-1932); significant collections from the U.S. states of Pennsylvania and Georgia; and many from Scotland, Ireland, Canada and Russia (there’s more: see a full list and descriptions here). FamilySearch.org hosts over a million records each of U.S. state tax records from Ohio and Texas.
I’ll leave you with this tantalizing list of data gathered in the Calhoun County, Georgia tax list of 1873: first, it enumerates whites, children, the blind/deaf/dumb, dentists, auctioneers, and those who have ten-pin alleys, pool tables and skating rinks. Then, real estate is assessed in detail. Finally, each person’s amount of money, investments, merchandise, household furniture, and investment in manufacturing is assessed. As you can see, it can pay you big to invest time in looking for your ancestor’s tax records! Just make sure that if you’re here in the U.S., and reading this before April 15, you’ve got your own taxes out of the way before you go searching for someone elses.