One of the most valuable, yet overlooked record sets for genealogical research is the tax digest.
When census records are missing, tax records can fill the gap, showing residence in a particular place at a particular time. Combined with other evidence, a number of facts can be gleaned from extant tax digest. But extracting information from the digest requires patience and perseverance.
Regardless of the state or county in which your ancestors lived, tax records were created, although not all have survived. A check of the websites for the state archives where your family lived might be helpful in determining what is obtainable. It is also important to understand what the tax records imply, which can change from year to year according to the laws established by the state Legislature for each year.
In Georgia, many tax digests have been preserved. Original digests can often still be found in county courthouses, either in the office of the Superior Court clerk or Probate Court, or in the county archives or records retention facility. Most have been microfilmed and are held by the Georgia Archives in Morrow. Some, but very few, are indexed.
Many 18th century Georgia tax digests have been digitized and can be accessed from the comfort of your own home and computer by signing into Georgia’s Virtual Vault.
Ancestry.com also has a large collection of late 18th and 19th century Georgia tax digests that are accessible online. Although Ancestry.com is a subscription site, it can often be accessed through your local public library. So far, Georgia tax digests found on Ancestry.com are not complete for every county, but they certainly are worth checking before resorting to rolling through microfilm.
Once tax digests for the years of interest are identified in the appropriate county, researchers should extract the pertinent data and assemble it in chronological order in order for it to be most useful.
In Georgia, prior to 1852, assessors were expected to list the taxpayer’s name, whether he was polled, the number of slaves held, the acreage of land owned by category, its location including county and watercourse upon which it was situated, names of one or two neighbors, and to whom the tract was originally granted. Taxes were paid in the county where the taxpayer lived, and tracts held in other counties were included.
In Georgia, poll taxes were due from all males over age 21, and after 1825, under age 60. This means something can be determined about dates of birth, especially when a young man reaches legal adulthood, or an older man ages out of the poll tax.
If a woman is listed, she was either a single woman with property (femme sole) or a widow.
People with the same names can be sorted out based on the taxes they were paying, the property they held and sometimes with descriptive notes.
Taxes were returned by Georgia Militia Districts, which means neighbors were listed together. Neighbors were very often relatives, sometimes with different surnames.
Tax records provide many clues for further research into land deeds showing when property was bought and sold. Marriages can sometimes be ascertained even when an official record has not survived. When a widow with property remarried, her land was afterwards generally returned by her new husband.
To better understand Georgia’s tax records, good overviews can be found in Georgia Research: A Handbook for Genealogists, compiled by Robert Scott Davis Jr. (2012) and in the introduction found in Wilkes County, Georgia Tax Records, 1785-1805, compiled by Frank Parker Hudson (1996). Both can be found at the Adamson Library of the Augusta Genealogical Society at 1109 Broad St., as well as many other books that will help sort out your family history. Time spent extracting this unique information about your ancestors will be rewarded with a richer understanding of their lives.
IF YOU HAVE A QUESTION FOR THE AUGUSTA GENEALOGICAL SOCIETY, E-MAIL IT, WITH “ANCESTOR SEARCH” IN THE SUBJECT LINE, TO AUGUSTAGENSOCIETY@COMCAST.ORG.