Thank You Mr. Tax Man!


It happens every year and for some, every quarter. The saying goes that there is nothing more certain than death and taxes. We all hate having the government reach into our pockets and take our cash, but for those of us who love genealogy and family history, the tax man can be a real boon rather than a burden.

I’ve met many people who firmly believe that their family tree ends where the church records run out, and this is just not true. It’s not true in American research, and it’s not true in European research either. Long before many church registers began recording births, marriages, and deaths on a regular basis, the tax man was collecting taxes. The nature and benefit you can derive from tax records changes with the locality in which you are conducting your research. In many cases you may only be able to assume possible father-son relationships, without being able to prove this relationship. But even this step can be helpful where other civil records may still exist to establish a burden of proof. In other cases, you may get an idea of the number and ages of people living in the household, which can be very helpful for reconstituting families.

Recently I was working in some Swedish tax lists called mantalslängd. The records from the 1700s contained the name of the head of household and enumerated (no names–just tallies) the wife, sons, daughters, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law, and other various persons in the household. I had a couple with children born on a particular farm in the parish. The children’s births were listed in the parish registers. There was also information pointing to the wife’s birth in the parish. I had located a possible birth record for her, which indicated she was born on the same farm as the children. However, there was no marriage record for the couple in the parish during the time period when they should have married. The marriage was also not recorded in the surrounding parishes, and there was no record of the marriage in the local court records.

Although the names of the daughter and son-in-law for whom I was particularly searching were not listed in the tax records until the 1740′s, I was able to use the tax records to follow the wife’s probable father. His household enumerated a daughter for several years prior to 1730 which was likely the ancestor. Then, in 1731 a son-in-law was also enumerated in the household. The family continued in this way until suddenly, the son-in-law appeared listed separately as a head of household in the tax lists. It appears that he had taken possession of some of his father-in-law’s property.

This is a simplified version of the research problem, but the tax lists when used with other records helped to prove the relationship between a woman and her father even though her name never appears on the tax lists. It also established an approximate marriage date and indicated that the marriage may never have been recorded in the parish registers! This is a problem I’ve had on multiple occasions in early parish registers, where for some reason the birth or marriage or death for an individual does not appear in the parish register–even though it appears that the registers were intact and possibly complete for the time period.

It is important to understand that not everyone may appear on tax lists in every local, and you need to know what the rules were regarding who had to pay taxes. Sometimes the absence of an ancestor from the tax lists can tell you things, such as an approximate age (too young or too old to have to pay taxes) or that they moved, died, their property or their occupation made them exempt, etc.

Whatever the rules were, at some point in your research you will have a problem where tax records can help you in you establish a proof of relationship. Then when they help you solve a difficult problem perhaps you will smile a little the next time you pay your taxes.

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