Tax records tend to be one of the least used resources available to genealogists and historical researchers. Tax records can be valuable in a number of ways: tax lists offer a better understanding of the status and wealth of people during a certain era of time; such records can help pinpoint when an ancestor lived in a certain community between the years U.S. censuses were taken; they can also be used to help determine when a person died; and land ownership questions are often answered through a search of tax records. In addition, tax data can offer beneficial historical insights about specific taxable items and the rate owners were taxed. For the most part, tax records can be divided into three different categories: poll tax, land tax, and personal property tax.
During early statehood and throughout the nineteenth century, Tennesseans were taxed on a variety of items. One of the major taxes during this period was the poll tax, paid by each adult free male in a household between the ages of twenty-one and fifty. While most Tennessee males paid a poll tax, there were some exemptions, i.e., ministers, men wounded in military service, or those with disabilities such as blindness or deafness. During the antebellum period, slave owners were taxed on the number of slaves they possessed—referred to on tax lists as a “black poll” (as opposed to a “white poll”). All slaves, male and female, between the ages of twelve and fifty were taxed. After the Civil War, enslaved workers were emancipated and tax records reveal this change by combining the polls into “Every Taxable Poll.”
During the 1890s and into the 1900s, Southern state legislatures began to make the payment of a poll tax voluntary, but if the person wished to vote he or she would have to pay the poll tax a year in advance of any election. Typically, the voters were asked to produce the receipt for payment of the tax at the time of voting. If they did not have evidence of paying the tax, they were prohibited from voting. Since many newly emancipated African-Americans and poor whites could not afford the poll tax fee, many were left out of the voting process. The poll tax continued in Tennessee until 1953 when the Constitutional Convention of that year abolished it.
In addition to the poll tax, another primary source of revenue in Tennessee was a tax on land. For many people during the early statehood and antebellum eras, land became the main source of wealth and farming remained the main occupation for most Tennesseans throughout the nineteenth century. The tax on land was based on the amount of acres, its location, and sometimes its quality. In addition to these factors, improvements made on the property, such as the construction of barns and other structures, generally increased the tax rate. Prior to 1834, land in Tennessee was taxed at a uniform amount per acre; but in 1834 a provision was made to tax the land according to its value (ad valorem). By the 1870s the tax lists included the surnames of the other property owners surrounding each taxpayer—a boon for researchers doing land records.
Although poll and land taxes served as the main sources of revenue, other taxes were implemented that involved personal property. As more people began to acquire goods in the nineteenth century, the Acts of Tennessee reveal that more items were taxed. Some of these items included billiard tables, wagons, entertainment shows such as circuses and vaudeville-type acts, and animals, especially stud horses. Each of these items was valued at a certain fee for the owner to pay. Although most items were taxed a specified fee, other items were taxed based on the population of the city or town. For example, in 1889 a theater in a city or town with 20,000 inhabitants or more was charged a tax of 400 dollars; in contrast, a theater in a city or town with a population between 8,000 to 20,000 inhabitants was taxed a fee of 250 dollars.
While some taxes were based on population quotas, other taxes were determined based on other criteria that made the tax fee differ for a similar item. For example, in 1855 a race track for turf racing was taxed 100 dollars, while a half mile track cost 50 dollars, and a quarter of a mile track cost 25 dollars. Tax fees were also different for people, such as peddlers, who sold goods. As the Acts of Tennessee show, peddlers in 1857 were charged a certain fee depending on how they sold their wares. If a peddler sold his merchandise on foot, he had to pay 10 dollars; however, if he sold his goods on horseback he had to pay a 20 dollar tax fee.
Taxes also reflected the social and cultural values of the time period. For instance, in the nineteenth century heavy drinking of liquor was associated with societal problems such as crime, heavy debt, and physical/emotional abuse in alcoholic families. The negative social attitude towards alcohol seems to be reflected in the higher taxation of items associated with places where vices such as drinking liquor and gambling would occur. For example, billiard tables that were often found in taverns and saloons during the nineteenth century are charged a substantially higher fee compared to other items. In 1803, a billiard table had a tax fee of 1,000 dollars while owning a 100 acres of land was only 12½ cents.
In addition to many taxable items, there were exemptions created for certain institutions in society. Some of the exemptions in the nineteenth century included land that was appropriated for the use of schools, as well as land held for any religious society for the purpose of having a church, meeting house, or other building of public worship. Tax exemptions also included all court houses, jails, poor houses and almshouses. In addition, public roads, streets and cemeteries were freed of taxation.
Typically, the fees people owed were collected annually by a district tax collector appointed by the county court. In order to determine the tax districts, the court divided the county into specified numbered districts. These districts were designated by the names of the captains in the county militia and referred to as Captain’s Companies until 1836, at which time they then became known as Civil Districts. After the collector deducted his fee, the money was then given to the county sheriff who, at the time, served as the county’s treasurer. The sheriff then subtracted his fee and forwarded the tax money to the state treasurer.
This finding aid serves as a guide to the different taxes that have been applied to Tennesseans from 1796 to 1899. The information was gathered from researching the volumes of the Acts of Tennessee that are housed in the Legislative History section of the Tennessee State Library & Archives. This guide provides a listing of the items that were taxed, the date that the tax on the item began, and some notations of changes in the tax fees. The tax listings have been put in two types of charts. The first chart (pages 4-38 of this guide) offers the taxation of items by year, while the second chart (beginning on page 39) provides a listing by item type. The tax lists are available on microfilm and are generally located with each county’s records. For an inventory of the available tax lists, please consult the county registers. There are also early tax lists available for some counties in Tennessee that are located in a separate collection. Please consult with a TSLA staff member for the location of the microfilm of these early tax lists. A listing of the county taxes is also available online on the Tennessee State Library & Archives website at http://sos.tn.gov/tsla. Within the “History and Genealogy” webpage, there is a link to “County Records” that provides a section entitled “Early Tennessee Tax Lists at TSLA.” The direct web link is http://sos.tn.gov/products/tsla/early-tennessee-tax-lists-tsla. Within this webpage is a section entitled “An Inventory of Microfilmed Tax Lists for Counties in Tennessee.”
Taxation in Tennessee: 1796 – 1899
This guide, prepared by Dr. Kevin Cason, Public Services, Tennessee State Library & Archives, provides a listing of the personal property items that were taxed on Tennesseans during the nineteenth century. The information was gathered from researching the volumes of the Acts of Tennessee that are housed in the Legislative History section of the Tennessee State Library and Archives. The guide provides a listing of the items that were taxed, the date that the tax on the item began, and some notations of changes in the tax fees. The tax listings have been put in two types of charts. The first chart offers a chronological listing on the taxation of items, while the second chart provides a listing by item type. This guide should be a helpful resource for genealogists and historical researchers who visit the Library and Archives and want to use the tax lists that are available on microfilm.
Cason, Dr. Kevin, Public Services; Taxation in Tennessee:1796-1899; Tennessee State Library & Archives; PDF, [https://tennesseegenealogy.org/taxation-in-tennessee-1796-1899/ : last accessed 26 July 2022].