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Tax Records Detail Ancestors' Pay, Lives

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 24, 2013 at 02:34 AM

We all know the taxman cometh on April 15, but just when did he start knocking on your ancestors' doors? Better yet, what can we learn about his visits?

The first personal income tax was imposed in 1861 to pay for the Civil War. The first tax day was June 30. It wasn't until 1955 that April 15 was designated as the day to dread year-round.

In 1895, our ancestors got a reprieve when the U.S. Supreme Court declared income tax unconstitutional. Everyone was free of the personal tax until 1913, when the 16th Amendment to the Constitution knocked over the obstacle cited by the 1895 court.

The 1861 tax rate was 3 percent for anyone with an income of more than $800, which turned out to be about 3 percent of the population. The following year, the rates changed to 3 percent for incomes of $600 to $10,000, with higher incomes paying 5 percent. The 1862 law also provided for the creation of the Internal Revenue Service.

Copies of early tax records are available, but to appreciate them, you should know a bit of their history.

In addition to taxes on personal income, the Revenue Act of 1862 taxed a wide range of products. In fact, it appears the government sought to tax just about everyone for everything imaginable.

Bankers, retail dealers, brewers, brokers, livery stable keepers, candle makers, peddlers, lawyers, physicians and a wide array of other professionals had to purchase annual licenses. Hotels and taverns were taxed according to their annual rents. Eating houses and theaters were licensed based on their volume of business.

Congress didn't do a very good job of legislating how the taxes would be collected, so President Lincoln issued executive orders that divided states and territories into collection districts and appointing tax collectors.

Individuals and businesses were required to submit lists of their incomes and taxable items to the assessors, who made alphabetical lists of who was taxable, what they owed, and where they lived.

Although citizens could appeal their bills, the assessors had the final say. The law also authorized the assessors to add a 25 percent penalty for late payment and a 100 percent penalty for false reporting.

Assessors had lots of power, including the authority to search homes and businesses. If a citizen failed to pay his taxes, the assessors sold his possessions to pay them.

Records for this period, 1862 through 1866, are housed at the National Archives and have been microfilmed, making them easier to access, but there are gaps.

The alphabetical tax lists are arranged by collection district and then are in chronological order. Tax records for post-Civil War periods are in the National Archives Regional facilities. Go to www.archives.gov, and look for "National Archives Locations" and click on the appropriate regional facility. You then can explore all the files, including tax records, in that facility.

Much easier than dealing with National Archives is to use online databases available through Ancestry ( www.ancestry.com) at a Hillsborough County library or from you own home computer if you have a subscription. At the Ancestry site, look for the database named "U.S. IRS Tax Assessment Lists, 1862-1918." You then can access digital copies of all the federal tax records from 1861 to 1918.

Since all this taxation started during the Lincoln presidency I thought it would be fun to see his tax bill. I found his 1864 assessment, which showed him living at the White House and owing $1,296.90.

One-Name Studies

Genealogy is all about names and we're all partial to the ones our ancestors bring to our family tree. Some genealogists get caught up in the study of a particular surname. Such interests have led to one-name studies or projects dedicated to researching a surname and all who have used it, as opposed to looking at ancestors or descendants of a particular person.

There is even a Guild of One-Name Studies. This group has a listing of 7,500 names being studied around the world. Learn more about the group and see if your surnames are in its registry by going to www.one-name.org/about.html.

The guild has partnered with Pharos Teaching and Tutoring to offer a five-week online course on One-Name Studies. It will begin April 27 and costs $61.48. The course will cover surnames and their history, core records needed for a one-name study, analysis of one-name data and practical aspects of running a study.

You can learn more about Pharos or register for this class at www.pharos tutors.com.

Sharon Tate Moody is past president of the Association of Professional Genealogists.