Boo! Death, but Yeah! Taxes

No one likes death, although genealogists are overly fond of death certificates, and tombstones.  But every genealogist should love tax lists and should seek them out for their genealogical revenue.  The census-taker only came around every 10 years, but the tax collector turned up every year – surely we can learn something from those extra records, right?

Let’s look at Nelson Griffin of Stewart County, Tennessee.  He was dead by 6 June 1881, when an administrator was appointed for his estate and years’ provisions were ordered for his widow, Nancy.

Here are Nelson and Nancy in the 1880 Stewart Co. census:


So Nelson was born in 1800, right?

Here they are in the 1870 Stewart Co. census:


Oh, so Nelson was really born in 1799 – got it.  That’s close to 1800 – no big deal.

Here they are in the 1860 Stewart Co. census:


Yep, 1799, just like we already know.

What about the 1850 census?


Yikes.  Now we have 1795 as a candidate for his birth year.  At this point, which one would you pick – 1795, 1799, 1800, or none of the above?  Maybe we just average the numbers and be done with it?  Not a chance – we can figure this out using poll tax records!

Nelson Griffin, as a free white male in 1800s Tennessee, would have had to pay a poll tax every year that he was between 21 and 50 years of age.  Poll taxes, among other taxes, helped raise revenue to fund county and state operations.

Based on census records, we suspect that Nelson Griffin was born between 1795 and 1800, and therefore would have turned 50 between 1845 and 1850.  In the year that he turned 50, he would have no longer had to pay the annual poll tax.  Let’s look at the poll taxes that Nelson Griffin paid in Stewart County during the 1840’s:

1842:  paid tax on 1 white poll

1843:  missing from the tax list

1844 & 1845:  tax lists for the county do not survive

1846:  paid tax on 1 white poll

1847:  paid tax on 1 white poll

1848-1858:  tax lists survive, but Nelson Griffin does not appear in them

1859:  Nelson Griffin appears in the tax list, paying property tax on land, but no poll tax

We aren’t too concerned that Nelson Griffin is missing from the 1843 list, or that the lists for 1844 and 1845 are missing.  Based on him appearing in the 1846 and 1847 tax lists and paying a poll tax, but disappearing from the 1848 tax lists and later, we can safely conclude that Nelson Griffin was born about 1798, give or take a few months.

An excellent article on the history of tax laws in North Carolina and Tennessee is Ann Evans Alley’s Taxation and Politics: Tennessee’s Poll Tax Laws, which appeared in the Fall 1997 issue of the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, the journal of the Middle Tennessee Genealogical Society.

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