… or, how I learned to wish my ancestors paid their #$%@$# taxes
If ever you wanted evidence of The Legal Genealogist‘s family’s deep Scots-Irish roots, today’s foray into the records would prove it.
You see, there is one characteristic for which the Scots-Irish are known.
We’re not good at doing what we’re told.
Poor folks, in general, but proud. That’s the way the noted American historian David Hackett Fischer described the more than quarter million people from the territories of Britain bordering the Irish Sea who flooded the backcountry of colonial America in the years before the American Revolution:
This combination of poverty and pride set the North Britons squarely apart from other English-speaking people in the American colonies. Border immigrants demanded to be treated with respect even when dressed in rags. Their humble origins did not create the spirit of subordination which others expected of “lower ranks.” This fierce and stubborn pride would be a cultural fact of high importance in the American region which they came to dominate.1
It isn’t so much a matter of overtly breaking the law — though my family certainly has its our share of folks who got themselves into trouble.2
It’s more a matter of, well, avoiding the law. Perhaps the best description I ever read was supposedly from a brother-in-law’s ancestor, who said:
[W]e lived quite happy before the Revolution, for there was no courts and no law and no sheriffs in this here country, and we all agreed very well. But by-and-bye the country came to be settled; the people begun to come in, and then there was need for law; and then came the lawyers, and next came the preachers, and from that time we never had any peace any more.3
So why is this all coming up today?
Think about what today is.
It’s the 15th of April.
And all good red-blooded Americans know what the 15th of April is.
It’s Tax Day. Income Tax Day, to be precise.
Okay, so this year, we get a reprieve. First because today’s Saturday, we wouldn’t have to file until Monday anyway, and this year it’s even pushed back to Tuesday.4
But the fact that it’s Tax Day — or Tax Weekend — sent me off into the records of past federal taxes to see what I could find about my ancestors.
Now there isn’t a whole lot. Federal tax records in the modern income tax era tend to be protected under privacy rules. But there are two older types of federal tax records worth a look: the 1798 direct tax lists and the Civil War era tax records.
The 1798 direct tax was enacted by Congress in response to a build-up of tensions with France. It wanted to raise $2 million in case the new nation had to go to war. And they’re wonderful records: “The voluminous records created for the 1798 federal direct tax—valuation, enumeration, and tax collection lists—have long been a treasure trove for researchers in a wide variety of fields. Historians, economists, geographers, and genealogists as well as those interested in historic preservation, material culture, slavery, and women’s studies all have gleaned valuable information about 18th-century life.”5
Except for one problem: “Unfortunately, relatively few are known to exist today.”6
And… sigh… not one of them for a single area where any of my known ancestors lived.
But hey… there are those Civil War era taxes. All kinds of taxes, including income taxes, “part of a very complicated system of federal duties, stamp taxes, and fees that the government collected from individuals and businesses.”7
Many of these records have been microfilmed, and much of the microfilm has been digitized. Ancestry has these online in a collection called “U.S. IRS Tax Assessment Lists, 1862-1918.”8
And — oh joy — they purportedly include records from many of the areas where I had ancestors living at the time. Alabama, 1865-1866. Kentucky, 1862-1866. Texas, 1865-1866.
And out of all my lines and all my people…
Pretty much zilch.
I mean, there’s one William Battles on the 1866 Alabama lists being taxed for cotton that could be a relative. But his post office is given as Dublin,9 and my direct ancestor should have been in Centre.
No research joy for me on Tax Day…
- David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed : Four British Folkways in America (New York : Oxford Univ. Press, 1989), 615. ↩
- See e.g. Judy G. Russell, “Oh George… you stinker!,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 9 Jun 2012 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 14 Apr 2017). ↩
- “A Traveller,” “Adam O’Brien,” Southern Literary Messenger 4 : 294 (Richmond : Thos. White, 1838). ↩
- Thank you, thank you, District of Columbia. Monday is a legal holiday there — Emancipation Day. So the whole tax schedule gets pushed back. See IRS, “2017 Federal Tax Calendar : IRS Tax Due Dates for the 2017 Calendar Year,” U.S. Tax Center, IRS.com (https://www.irs.com/ : accessed 15 Apr 2017). ↩
- Judith Green Watson, “A Discovery: 1798 Federal Direct Tax Records for Connecticut,” Prologue vol. 39 (Spring 2007), html version, Prologue Magazine, Archives.gov (https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/ : accessed 14 Apr 2017). ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Cynthia G. Fox, “Income Tax Records of the Civil War Years,” Prologue vol. 18 (Winter 1986), html version, Prologue Magazine, Archives.gov (https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/ : accessed 14 Apr 2017). ↩
- “U.S. IRS Tax Assessment Lists, 1862-1918,” digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 14 Apr 2017). ↩
- Ibid., entry for William Battles, Alabama, District 3, Mar-Dec 1866, p. 39 (penned). ↩
Judy, my understanding is that you had to earn at least $600 the previous year to be taxed; so, there could be a very good reason why your ancestors and my Freidrich Eiler doesn’t show up. On the other hand (brow furrows here), John C. Bode didn’t pay the first year, but the next he declared $1800 value of product sold the previous year. He went from income of <$599 to $1800 in 365 day? I. don't. think. so.
I suspect there was an awful lot of … um … tax avoidance going on, if not outright tax evasion!
The assessors usually knew who was present and liable for taxes. Whether the assessed actually paid was a different issue. I especially appreciate it when there are dated lists of tax delinquents 😉
Local tax assessors, for sure. That was, after all, their key responsibility. Not so easy when it’s a federal tax being collected in an area that was then or recently in rebellion.