Don’t Forget to Check the Tax Records!

It’s Tax Day (though I hear usual deadlines are extended to Monday this year since the 15th is Friday). I hope by this hour you’ve finished the grim duty or got an extension…. I’ve been trying think of a good time to share this research idea, and since it does involved taxes, April 15th is the day!

This is certainly not a research idea that I invented. Meg Groeling and I have talked about it at length, and it was useful in her Ellsworth research for her book First Fallen. Many other historians and genealogists use the tip as well. Here it is:

Go find the tax records or assessments for the family or individual you’re researching. (Or verify if the records were destroyed.)

The tax records help to show the value of 19th Century property. Income tax wasn’t federally mandated at the time of the Civil War, so they might not be helpful for looking at wages. But if property of any type by 19th Century standards (land, assets, or enslaved people) is involved there should be some records or possibly even court documents.

As many blog readers know, I’m working on a biography of John Pelham for the ECW Series. Last month I was in Alabama, poking around a local history room before I needed to head back to the airport. I found a post-Civil War property tax record and assessment book for Calhoun County and found values on Atkinson Pelham’s land (John Pelham’s father) and for the cotton that land produced. Unfortunately, the library didn’t have any war era or pre-war county tax records so I could make the comparisons that day, but it was still enlightening to see the land acreage and tax records that were available.

If good fortune is on the researcher’s side, there should be yearly tax records on property owners. That ideally allows for year-to-year comparisons and the tracking of individual or family’s economic situation. And don’t forget to look at their neighbors to see where your research subject fit into the economic status of their county or town. These points of research can help to build or clarify the actual economic position of that individual or family and may help to dispel myths or just create a better understanding of their place in their society.

Bonus Tip: if you’re going through county or state records anyway…sometimes it’s worthwhile to look for the big volumes of deeds and wills. I found a ton of little pieces of information about members of the Pelham family by going through 1850’s legalize. While useful anytime if there’s relevant information, this can be particular important in women’s studies. By the 1860’s many middle and upper class women had legal wills of their own and sometimes named other women as inheritors in those wills. If you’re trying to find out more about a particular woman’s economic power or her relationships with family members, look for wills. I’ve found this true in both North and South civilian research over the years, and I had a big discovery (though not Pelham related) in a will last year. It even involved the inheritance of a tea set!

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