Sep 23, 2022

Death and Taxes

September 23, 2022

Benjamin Franklin famously wrote “In this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Genealogists seem to have listened to the death part. Most of us spend a great deal of time looking for death certificates, funeral home, cemetery records and probate records. Fewer of us spend time looking for tax records.

Since almost everyone pays taxes of one kind or another, it’s too bad that genealogists don’t dig deeper for those records. Last week I attended a virtual presentation of the Albany County Genealogical Society which focused on that fact. Luana Darby gave a presentation called “The Tax Man Cometh.”

Her presentation described the various types of taxes that people paid in the past. These include property, personal property (items such as livestock), school, ministerial, militia and others. Each of these taxes created records that can help genealogists place an ancestor in an area at a specific time as well as give details that flesh out the lives of our ancestors.

Many years ago, I spent a week at the Family History Library researching my New Hampshire ancestor Jonathan Hadlock and his family. Jonathan was my fourth great grandfather. He and his wife started their married life in Weare, New Hampshire. They later moved north to Bath, New Hampshire and ended their lives even further north in Jay, Vermont.

During my week in Salt Lake, I found several tax records for Jonathan Hadlock spanning the years from before the Revolution up until his death in the early 1820s. I used tax records to determine where he was at various times. For example, I learned that Jonathan’s records in Weare ceased in 1792, and his records in Bath began in 1793. This confirmed the long-held family theory that he had moved to Bath in about 1793.

After using the tax records in this manner, I filed them away and hadn’t looked at them again. After Luana’s presentation, I dug them out of my old paper files. I was surprised to note that the records had more to offer than just the approximate dates when my ancestors moved.

The records covered a broad range of taxes that Jonathan had paid. For example, he had been required to pay a ministerial tax in 1794. It seems strange to us today, but back then, taxes were charged to pay for the keep of the local minister. Although the tax records don’t specify, the taxes were almost certainly used to support the local Congregational Church. Since Jonathan paid for a pew when a new Congregational Church was built in Weare, he was probably a member of that church. However, the ministerial tax was collected from everyone – Congregationalist or not.

The property tax records also gave me insight into Jonathan’s life. When he moved to Bath about 1793, he had no tilled land; it was all unimproved. A few years later the tax records show him having pastures and several acres of tilled land.

All of this showed me that I need to spend more time digging into the tax records that I have already to see what else they might reveal. They also show that I need to spend some research time looking for tax records for some of my other ancestral families.

According to Luana Darby, Family Search has a large collection of tax records. Most of them have been digitized, although I note that many are not available for viewing from home.

A research trip to Salt Lake City might be in my future, depending on what records I find listed in the Family Search catalog. Taxes have always been collected, and it’s time I looked more deeply into what records may have been created about my ancestors.

Carol Stetser