The poll tax, or head capitation tax, was generally a flat amount charged to all free adult males in antebellum and colonial towns and counties. Some areas began charging that tax when a male reached age 16 or 18. Although, most did not charge the tax until a male reached the age of 21. The tax was generally stopped after a male reached a certain age. The stopping age might be 50 or 60 and varied, depending on the year and location. Therefore, searching the tax records can help researchers to identify when a certain person reached the taxable age of the time. Occasionally, sons from age 16 to 20 might be listed on those poll tax lists under their fathers’ names because the fathers were charged a head tax for each son in that age range. Occasionally, women of the time owned land and were charged taxes for that land. However, they were not subject to poll taxes. So, they are not listed on poll tax lists.
The state of North Carolina offers a perfect example of major variations in poll taxes. It first started charging a poll tax in colonial times to all males 16 and older. From the Revolutionary War onward that age was raised to 21. Then, beginning in 1801, it exempted any men over the age of 50. In 1835, the tax law was changed again, making the age range 21 to 44. Then, in 1868, it was changed to an age range of 21 to 50. So, researchers must be cautious of those changes.
Clerks often added very useful information to property tax and poll tax lists. Therefore, the two list types together can often serve as good substitutes for a census. Examining tax lists from several consecutive years can give a lot of information about when men came to or departed from a given county. That information can also help to identify different men with common names. Therefore, it’s important for researchers to examine several years worth of county tax records, especially since some men are omitted for a year or two, if they stayed on the same piece of land during that time. So, researching several years worth of information is the best way to verify when a man arrived or departed from the county in question. It is recommended that researchers examine the records as far as 8 years before and after the person first appears or disappears from the records.
Clerks often received tax lists from different sources, such as constables, militia captains, and justices of the peace. This meant that it was impossible to fully alphabetize the tax lists. So, instead, all A surnames are grouped together, all B surnames are grouped together, and so on. This is known as initial order. Clerks often added names to the end of the list if people were insolvent, delinquent, or late as well. That means that it is important for researchers to always examine the end of the county list for names that are out of initial order.
Many people were not listed on tax lists. Those people included tax assessors, militia officers, ministers, paupers, justices of the peace, and those over the poll tax age who didn’t own land. Indentured servants may have been listed as unnamed, taxed property, but many slaves were not listed. Children were also not generally listed. According to an 1826 statute in the state of Indiana, "all persons who had served in the land or naval service of the United States, during the Revolutionary War, from the payment of a poll tax, and a tax upon personal property." Therefore, those people were not listed on tax records in that state. In addition to all of those omissions, some people were omitted because they were simply overlooked, and others were omitted because they were found to be exempt for various other reasons.
The head of household’s surname may be different from several of the hidden surnames. Also, the final county tax record list contains less names than the various other tax lists from which it was compiled, generally.
Many state census records have been lost over the years, but a lot of them have been recreated using the tax lists from each county for the time. These "censuses" can help to identify a man’s state of residence quickly and easily, but they present some problems for researchers who want to cite their sources in a clear way. Several states were given copies of their county tax lists over the years. So, many of those lists have been stored in multiple locations, making research easier.
New York and colonies to the south often charged a quitrent, which was a type of land tax reminiscent of feudal dues charged in old England. New England residents took pride in not having to pay that particular tax. The name "quitrent" comes from the times when the British manors were taken care of and all fees were paid for things such as haying and plowing once per year. After that, the year’s obligations were "quit." In the United States, the quitrent tax was sometimes paid to the proprietor, such as in the Northern neck of Virginia. Other times, it was paid to the crown, such as in Virginia in the area to the Rappahannock River’s south. Most quitrents were abolished after the Revolutionary War.
Many quitrent records have been lost over the years. Part of that is due to the fact that many of them were kept privately by proprietors. So, several records disappeared by the time the Revolutionary War ended. Some quitrent books have survived, but there is no complete set for any of the colonies. It’s also worth noting that most quitrent lists were incomplete because many people resisted paying the tax. Those who used land for speculation, rather than farming, were particularly opposed to the tax.
In order to raise army money, three federal direct tax series were produced. Each of them included name lists. The French war scare of 1798 also led to a slave and real property tax. That resulted in multiple name lists, but they may be incomplete and might not include certain economic levels. Only fragments of those 1798 lists are extant. Those that have survived have for the most part been placed on microfilm, but not in one specific series. Those that have been located are listed below:
- Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts: New England Historic Genealogical Society
- Rhode Island: Rhode Island Historical Society
- Connecticut: Connecticut Historical Society
- New York (vicinity of Clinton and Franklin counties): Vermont Historical Society
- Pennsylvania: National Archives (717 volumes filmed as M372)
- Delaware: Historical Society of Delaware
- Maryland and District of Columbia: Maryland Historical Society; Maryland State Archives (formerly Hall of Records)
- Tennessee: Tennessee State Library
- Georgia (part of Burke County): Georgia State Archives
Between 1814 and 1816, the federal government once again instituted a direct tax. However, very few of those lists are still in existence today. The law in 1813 stated that $3 million was to be distributed to each state based on the populations of each of the states. The levy cost minus 15% was payable to the federal treasury from each state. The 15% deduction was due to the fact that collection costs were bypassed. Seven states opted to do that in 1814, while only four did so in 1815 and 1816. As a result, very few tax lists were created.
Assessment lists, which are federal direct tax lists that date from the Civil War all the way to 1917, make up the greatest collection of such lists. During that time, the government levied license fees, property taxes, and income taxes. However, since those taxes were mainly directed towards the wealthy, the lists cover a much smaller portion of the population than earlier lists.
Direct taxes were extended to conquered Confederate states. That caused problems for many Confederate state landowners, who couldn’t afford to pay those taxes. As a result, the government sold off their lands.