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Taxes – Useful for Genealogy and Family History Research


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The month of April has me thinking about taxes. It was the topic for the just released South Carolina Genealogy newsletter and I thought I’d give some general information here as well. Of course, most of us think first of the Federal Income tax. This dates back to the Civil War, when an income tax was enacted to help fund the war effort. It was later revived in the 1890s and then become a permanent fixture of American life in 1913 after the ratification of the 16th amendment to the US Constitution. That’s not the only tax that Americans have been subject to throughout it’s history. There have been others, property taxes, poll taxes among the most common.

The property tax is perhaps the next most common that we’re familiar with. The idea here is that ones property is enumerated and they pay a certain amount on that property, sometimes a percentage, sometimes a fee per item. I remember in touring an older home somewhere once being told that they had a tax on windows and so the style at the time was for floor length windows that were actually doors and so they sidestepped the “window” tax by claiming they in fact had several doors in the room. (Looks like loopholes have been around as long as taxes…)

Property taxes could be on live stock, real estate, these days is on vehicles, but at one time could have been on slaves. Our ancestors had a variety of taxes to face just as we do.

The poll tax is somewhat misunderstood today. The earliest poll taxes had nothing to do with voting but were a per person tax. The word poll here was derived from an earlier english word meaning “head”. It was not uncommon to see households taxed per adult male. So, the tax rate would be based on the men older than age 18 in the household. It wasn’t until later years of the 19th and 20th centuries that term poll tax came to mean a tax at the voting booth. This idea was seen by many (most importantly by the courts) as a means of discouraging minority and poor voters and has been abolished.

So, I guess as we’ve finished our taxes we should at least take some comfort in the fact that we are not the first generation to be taxed, this unfortunately is a certainty of life that most of our ancestors faced as well.

Fortunately these things have been well documented and many of the old tax records do survive and can fill in a lot of the “in between” census year gaps. So, remember the old tax records as possibilities in your genealogy and family history research.