Opinion

Using tax records to find family clues

Americans hate taxes and some of us dread the Ides of April on a par with being told we need a root canal.  Grumbling about taxes is hardly new. Our ancestors felt exactly the same. Our ancestors protested taxes of all sorts whether the infamous tea tax, poll taxes permitting men to vote, or the ubiquitous real estate taxes.  Our very revolution for independence from Britain rested firmly on the introduction of increased taxes by the mother country. 

Tax records can be of enormous help in researching our ancestors.  Most common is the real estate tax. Towns levied taxes based on the value of property. For many years only  property owners could vote, so locating an ancestor on the town’s tax roll indicates status. You can tell by the amount your ancestor paid, compared to others in the town, what his or her economic status was.  Many of these early tax rolls still exist though they may not be at your town office unless they were entered into an official town book. Often surviving tax records or fragments of them are in historical societies or archives.  Many have been transcribed by dedicated historians or genealogists. These may be found in bound books, unpublished manuscripts, or journal articles. Be prepared to ask questions and do some searching to find them.    

What will all these records reveal about your ancestors beyond economic status?  You can also learn details about what your ancestor owned for property, how much, and whether a business was involved.  Tax records can help you determine an ancestor’s death date. If your ancestor is on a tax roll for 1758, for example, and by 1759 the property is listed as “heirs of” or “widow of,” you can narrow the death date to one year.  This is especially useful and valuable if there are no records of a death date in town vital records, no family Bible, and no cemetery stone.  

One thing you can count on from then to today is that taxes were levied and someone had to pay them.  Dead or alive, your ancestor’s property taxes had to be paid or the property was seized and sold. 

During the Revolution when Maine was part of Massachusetts, Maine towns were taxed heavily for items supporting the Army, including beef, ammunition, guns, clothing and shoes.  These tax records often survive in early town records or in provincial records in Massachusetts. People who refused or couldn’t pay their share of these taxes usually ended up charged as traitors.  As the war continued the demands increased and Maine’s bled dry towns were forced to mortgage future crops or other income to borrow money to purchase the items necessary to meet their tax burdens. There were grumblings from many, and fortunately the war was won before patriotism wore thin.     

Tax records may not be your first choice in your search for your ancestors, but if you can find them they may prove of great value in learning more about an ancestor’s life.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com. 

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