News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 3, 2013

GENEALOGY: Tax lists reveal overlooked family history

Tamie Dehler
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — One of the most important records that a family researcher can explore when looking for early ancestors is tax lists. These lists also just might be the most underrated and underused county records in genealogical research. But most experienced researchers know their value. Ever wonder where the 1790 “replacement” census came from? It was compiled from 1789-1791 tax lists after the original census was destroyed. Unlike the 10-year census, tax lists were compiled every year.

Most tax lists are a three-in-one bargain. They can consist of poll or head taxes, used for voting, taxes on the land or real estate that a person owned, and taxes on their personal property, such as horses, cows, plows, rifles. They were taken at the county level each year and consist of the names of heads of households and free (not indentured) white males over 21 years, with columns after the names for the number of acres taxed, quality of the land, and numbers of animals and improvements made to the property. In slave states, the number of slaves owned is also listed, if taxed.

You can learn several things from tax lists: 1) By following an ancestor for years through the tax lists you can locate him in a specific place and time each year. You can also discover if he had land holdings in other counties because each parcel of land a person owned is listed–with the county and watercourse, number of acres, and sometimes grant or patent information.

With this information, the researcher can then go to the deed records in the counties named for further research.

2) By following your ancestor in the tax lists, you may see that one year the number of free white males in his household increases from 1 to 2. This is most often indicative of a son in the household turning 21 and coming of taxable age. This son may be listed by name on a later tax list as a single man being taxed for owning a horse or other personal property. Later, you may find this son as the head of a household owning land. All of this information can help you determine the date of birth of the son and the year of marriage.

By following the father to the point that he is no longer listed in the tax lists, you can roughly determine his date of death. Often his estate is still listed on the tax lists under “heirs of” and his name. Seeing this information on the tax lists should then send the researcher to the county probate records for more information on the death and estate. This information might also be reflected in the deed records, if the heirs sold some or all of the land.

3) Sometimes you can determine the occupation of your ancestor from the tax lists. Perhaps it mentions improvements to the land, such as a grist mill, a tannery, a store or a ferry. If no specific occupation is listed, the person was probably a farmer.

Beware of some pitfalls when doing your research. First, the names are often in initial, not alphabetical, order (e.g., all A’s will be grouped together by first letter only). So check thoroughly when researching the lists. Also, examine the end of each list, where the county clerk would add late or delinquent names, which would be out of alphabetical order.

Second, remember that many people, such as wives and children, indentured servants and various tax-exempt persons (ministers, militia officers, some government officials, some veterans) won’t be on the land and property tax lists.

Third, if there are multiple people in the county with your ancestor’s name, sometimes they can be identified and kept straight by their acreage and location of their property. Sometimes the tax assessor would distinguish between the men by writing “David Welch on Mill Creek,” or “David Welch Senior.” Be aware that the terms “Junior” and “Senior” do not mean that two men were father and son, just that one was older.

You can find out what tax lists have been copied and how to get them by going to and clicking on “catalog,” and then entering the county and state of interest.