Using Tax Rolls for Family History Research

You’ve probably heard the tired old cliché that nothing in life is certain except for death and paying taxes. Roll your eyes if you must, but if you’re researching your family tree, you can make this reality work in your favor! Tax records are probably one of the most sorely underutilized resources in the genealogist’s toolbox. Much like census records, they provide lists of people living in a specific place at a specific time, with the added bonus that they’re created every year instead of every decade like the federal census. Moreover, they contain all sorts of information about each taxpayer’s property and occupation–anything that was being taxed at that time. Government officials used the information to determine how much to charge each citizen in taxes, but you can use it to help reconstruct an ancestor’s life and household.

An employee at the Leon County Tax Assessor's office helps a customer (1961).

An employee at the Leon County Tax Assessor’s office helps a customer (1961).

The most commonly available tax record is the annual tax roll, a list of all the taxpayers (or their agents) in a county and a table showing the various kinds of property and activities they were taxed on for the year. Today’s tax rolls deal almost exclusively with real estate, which is certainly helpful, but the most descriptive rolls come from the early to mid-19th century because in those days the county tax assessor was responsible for collecting taxes on everything from land to professional licenses to household property.

Just like today, early county tax assessors would receive guidance from the state on how to calculate the taxes for the year, plus the necessary forms. He would then take inventory of the taxable property belonging to each head of household in the county. The tax collector would then be responsible for collecting the revenue. Sometimes the positions of tax assessor and tax collector were combined, and sometimes the county sheriff acted as both. No two tax rolls are exactly alike, even for the same county–the tax rates change from year to year, as do the categories of property and activity that were being taxed. Take a look, for example, at the column headers from these three tax rolls from St. Johns County:

This graphic shows the column headers from three 19th-century tax rolls from St. Johns County. Compare the headers to see how taxation changed over time. Tax Rolls (Series S28), State Archives of Florida.

This graphic shows the column headers from three 19th-century tax rolls from St. Johns County. Compare the headers to see how taxation changed over time. Tax Rolls (Series S28), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

So what can you do with these records? One of our favorite uses for tax rolls is to get a better sense of when exactly someone moved into or out of an area. Take John Toby of Monroe County, for example. John shows up in the 1850 federal census as a butcher living in Key West, but he’s missing from both the 1840 and 1860 censuses, and we haven’t yet been able to positively match him up with any of the other John Tobys who appear in records from other parts of the United States. John does, however, show up in multiple tax rolls from Monroe County on either side of 1850. By looking through the Monroe County rolls, we can get a better sense of when he arrived in Key West and when he left.

Excerpt from the 1849 tax roll for Monroe County showing an entry for John Toby. Tax Rolls (Series S28), State Archives of Florida.

Excerpt from the 1849 tax roll for Monroe County showing an entry for John Toby. Tax Rolls (Series S28), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Looking through the tax rolls, the first time we see John Toby in Monroe County is in 1846. He didn’t have much at the time–no real estate, just one silver pocket watch. If his 1850 census listing is to be trusted, he was about 31 years old then. Moving forward in the records, we see him in the tax rolls for each year after 1846 through 1859. He does not, however, show up in the 1860 tax roll or any other roll thereafter, at least not for Monroe County. We can reasonably guess, then, that he lived in Key West from about 1846 to 1859, and then either died or moved someplace else. When a man dies, his name usually still appears on the tax roll for a year or two afterward while his estate is being settled, or sometimes his wife will appear on the tax roll instead as head of household. In John Toby’s case, neither of these occurred, so we can infer that John and his wife Mariam moved away from Key West around 1859. It’s no silver bullet, but this information could help us match our John Toby up with other John or Mariam Tobys that occur in other records, even if they don’t specifically refer to Key West.

An excerpt from an 1859 Monroe County tax roll showing John Toby once again, this time with much more property than he had ten years before. Tax Rolls (Series S28), State Archives of Florida.

An excerpt from an 1859 Monroe County tax roll showing John Toby once again, this time with much more property than he had ten years before. Tax Rolls (Series S28), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Another useful feature of tax rolls is their ability to show us how families change over time. Using John Toby once again as an example, we can follow his taxpaying years in Key West and see how his wealth and property grew the longer he operated his business. When he first appears on the tax rolls in 1846, he was only charged a head tax for himself and a small tax on his silver pocket watch. The next year, however, he was also taxed for a town lot valued at $200. By 1850, the assessed value of John’s town lot had increased to $300 and he owned one slave. He seems to have sold or lost the slave soon after that, but in 1856 he was taxed for a carriage or cart worth $20, horses and mules worth a total of $40, $50 worth of household goods and that same silver pocket watch, which was valued at $10 that year. Business must have been picking up for John, because the following year (1857) he had at least one slave valued at $300, and by 1859 he had two slaves with a total value of $1000 (see the excerpt from the 1859 tax roll above). These are small details, but when we look at how John Toby’s taxable property changed over time and combine that information with what we know from his 1850 census record, we start to get a clearer picture of what his life was like in Key West. It also gives us a sense of what kind of person we should be looking for when we search for John or his wife Mariam in other records.

Another valuable feature of 19th century tax rolls is the information they can provide about an ancestor’s occupation. For many years, license taxes were reported on the tax rolls, which means you can quickly scan to see who all of the doctors, lawyers, merchants and other professionals were in a given county in a given year. Other occupations can be determined by looking at a person’s taxable property. If someone was being taxed on a sawmill or $2,000 in cattle or $5,000 in merchandise, for example, you can safely guess at least part of what they were doing for a living. We can see lots of occupations represented in this excerpt of the 1851 tax roll from Leon County:

Excerpt of the 1851 tax roll from Leon County. Tax Rolls (Series S28), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Excerpt of the 1851 tax roll from Leon County. Tax Rolls (Series S28), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

One final feature that you may find useful is the tabulations page at the end of each year’s tax roll. One of the roll’s most important functions was to determine how much tax revenue the county would receive that year, as well as how much the county had to remit to the state. At the end of each roll, the tax assessor would write up a summary with totals for each category of taxation for the entire county. This is a great way to track how many people there were in certain occupations in a county at a given time, the total number of slaves, the value of land, etc. Here’s an example of one of those tabulation pages from Escambia County in 1854:

Data from the tabulation page of the 1854 Escambia County tax roll. Tax Rolls (Series S28), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Data from the tabulation page of the 1854 Escambia County tax roll. Tax Rolls (Series S28), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

So where do you find these tax rolls? The State Archives of Florida holds a fairly large–though by no means exhaustive–collection of these documents for the early to mid-19th century. They have not yet been digitized, but they are open for public research. Also, if you know the specific tax roll you need, you can contact the State Archives’ reference staff at archives@dos.myflorida.com to request copies of the entire tax roll for a specific county in a specific year, or just the page with a specific person on it. Reproduction fees may apply; see our fee schedule for details. To see which tax rolls we have for the counties that interest you, visit the catalog record for Series S28 in the Archives Online Catalog. From that page, click the yellow folder icon to display a box listing of the tax rolls we have available in that series of records. The records are arranged alphabetically by county and then chronologically.

Counties also sometimes hold copies of tax rolls from the early to mid-19th century. Depending on the county, older tax records may be retained by the clerk of the courts, the tax collector or the property appraiser.

 

 

 

Familiar Faces on Florida Memory

Every October, archives across the United States celebrate Archives Month. This year, the State Archives of Florida is focusing on how archives change lives. Join us throughout the month as we share stories about the impact the Archives has had on staff and patrons like you!

UPDATE

As our blogs this month have demonstrated, sometimes you can find more in the Archives than you anticipated. Recently, the State Archives received an email from Orestes Ortega III giving names to previously unidentified faces—his grandparents and aunts. After seeing the photograph on Florida Memory, he wanted to share with us the history of his family’s journey to the United States. Together with his aunt Maritza, who is shown in the photograph, Mr. Ortega shared their family’s story with us.

Explaining the photograph’s significance to him, Mr. Ortega says, “My grandmother showed me this photograph when I was a boy and it is well-known in our family. It is something of a point of pride for my grandparents. This image has always been so important to me. Their decision to leave in such crazy circumstances, a pregnant wife, two small girls, and a rickety little boat, has always inspired me. I am here today because of the moment in that photograph.”

The Ortega family and Armando Rodriguez wait on a Coast Guard boat at Key West (April 11, 1961).

The Ortega family and Armando Rodriguez wait on a Coast Guard boat at Key West (April 11, 1961).

This photo shows the family of Cuban mechanic Orestes Ortega, Sr. (wearing a hat) waiting in a Coast Guard boat with ex-Castro captain Armando Rodriguez (seated back). Ortega’s oldest daughter, Maritza (far left holding a doll), his wife, Aracelia (who is five months pregnant with the couple’s son, Orestes Ortega, Jr.), and youngest daughter, Meca (center) joined him to escape from the rising political instability of mid-century Cuba. Ortega and an old mariner named “El Isleño” hid a small boat, Jocuma (pictured), near a dock and waited for the right time for the Ortega family to leave the island.

One evening in April 1961, Ortega decided to take his chances. This would be their third attempt to escape from Cuba. With El Isleño’s help, Ortega placed his young family and some supplies into the small boat before setting off for the United States. They left Cuba around 6:00 pm as the sugar mill horn blew. Read more »

A Visit from the Past

Every October, archives across the United States celebrate Archives Month. This year, the State Archives of Florida is focusing on how archives change lives. Join us throughout the month as we share stories about the impact the Archives has had on staff and patrons like you!

Mary Lou Bisplingoff, 1951

Mary Lou Bisplingoff, 1951

As archivists working with the Florida Photographic Collection, we often receive phone calls and emails from patrons looking for specific images. Sometimes photos are acquired for news articles or academic publications, but other times pure curiosity fuels their inquiries. Whatever the case, we archivists become detectives for the public. The research process can be tedious and frustrating, but it can also be quite exciting and rewarding—especially when we are able to uncover surprising material for our patrons.

A few months ago, we received a question from patron Katie Godwin. Her family has an old portrait from 1951 of her late grandmother Mary Lou Bisplingoff. At the time, Bisplingoff, who had not yet married, was on the edge of twenty and a student at Florida State University. While Katie was replacing the broken glass of the framed picture of her “Nana,” she discovered something interesting about the photo: “When I took the frame apart to install the new glass, I found two surprises: one was a baby picture of my mother. The other was that the picture we had admired for so long was actually an ‘unfinished proof.’ A stamp on the back said the picture had been made at L’Avant Studios.”

With a sense of mystery, Katie began her quest. This is her story: Read more »

It’s in the Directory

Remember back before the Internet when you needed the “phone book” to find a phone number or address for a person or business? These days, we tend to use printed directories for booster seats and doorstops more than for their intended purpose, but these volumes do have a critical role to play as a historical resource. Especially the older ones.

A few of the printed city directories available at the State Library of Florida - others are available on microfilm or through online databases like Ancestry.com.

A few of the published city directories available at the State Library of Florida – others are available on microfilm or through online databases like Ancestry.com.

For many Florida municipalities, city directories have been published annually for over a century. The content in each volume varies by town, year, and publisher, but generally they include an alphabetical list of residents with addresses, a classified business directory, information about local officials, clubs, public services, and societies, and a street guide. Some directories also include information on nearby towns too small to have their own published directories.

City directories are a goldmine for genealogists, because they can potentially provide several kinds of information about an individual:

  • Where the person lived
  • The person’s occupation
  • The names of persons living in the same home (including spouse) or neighborhood
  • Who lived at the same address before someone moved in
  • Where the person moved to/from (if in the same city)
  • How long a person lived in a particular city

These volumes are also useful for local historians because they can help with tracing the history of a particular building, a business, a club or society, or other local entity.

City directories may be found in public libraries, the State Library of Florida, or through one of a number of online databases. Ancestry.com provides searchable digitized editions of many Florida city directories, and a number of Florida cities have completed their own digitization projects to make the directories available online.

So how do you use these city directories for family history research? Let’s make an example of this gentleman whose portrait is included in the Florida Photographic Collection:

Leonard A. Wesson of Tallahassee (1940).

Leonard A. Wesson of Tallahassee (1940).

Read more »

The Armed Occupation Act of 1842

Land records are some of the most useful items in a genealogist’s toolbox. They pinpoint specific people in specific places at specific times, and can serve as a stepping stone to other historic records that illuminate the lives of our ancestors. Sometimes land records can tell us a lot about a given moment in the broader history of Florida as well. The records associated with the Armed Occupation Act of 1842 are an excellent example.

Read more »

Family History on the Farm

Sometimes the best genealogical information comes from truly unexpected sources. The State Archives of Florida holds records from a wide variety of state agencies, many of which have had direct contact with the state’s citizens over the years. As a result, many of the records document the specific locations of specific individuals at specific times, which can be a big help for folks tracing their family trees. Read more »

Doing Genealogy with Pension Records

The Confederate Pension Applications are one of the most popular series of historical documents on Florida Memory. They chronicle the efforts of Confederate veterans and their wives to obtain pensions from the State of Florida in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By law, in order to obtain a pension a veteran or his widow had to provide information about the veteran’s Civil War service, his birth, and proof of a qualifying disability. Widows of Confederate veterans had to provide proof of their marriage. The State Board of Pensions reviewed these applications and approved those that met the proper qualifications.

The applications alone are full of useful information for genealogists and historians, but when used in conjunction with other collections at the State Archives of Florida they can do much more. For example, if you know you have a Civil War veteran or veteran’s widow in your family tree who received a state pension, in many cases you can find out how long the person received that pension, how much they received, and where they lived while they were receiving it. This can be achieved by finding the veteran or widow’s pension application on Florida Memory, then visiting the Archives for a look through the State Comptroller’s records of pension payments (Record Series 678).

Let’s use Floridian Civil War veteran Robert H. Parker as an example. If you search for Robert H. Parker on the Confederate Pension Applications page, here’s what you get:

Search results for "Robert H. Parker" in the Confederate Pension Applications" on Florida Memory.

Search results for “Robert H. Parker” in the Confederate Pension Applications” on Florida Memory.

Sometimes an individual will have multiple application numbers, but as the example above demonstrates, usually only one application will have the best information. In Robert Parker’s case, if we click on the application numbered A01666, we’ll get over a dozen pages of information from his soldier’s pension application, as well as the widow’s application of his wife Marietta.

Page from the Confederate Pension Application file of Robert H. Parker of Hillsborough County. Paperwork from the pension claim of his widow Marietta is also included in the file.

Page from the Confederate Pension Application file of Robert H. Parker of Hillsborough County. Paperwork from the pension claim of his widow Marietta is also included in the file.

We see from Marietta’s pension claim form that her husband Robert died on October 16, 1914, and that the Pension Board approved her to continue receiving a Confederate pension as his widow. What we can’t tell from this paperwork is how long she continued to receive that pension, or whether she moved after her husband died. That’s where the Comptroller’s records can help!

Volume 24 of the State Comptroller's record of approved pension claims, 1895-1917 (Series 678, State Archives of Florida).

Volume 24 of the State Comptroller’s record of approved pension claims, 1895-1917 (Series 678, State Archives of Florida).

If you’ll notice in the example search results above, each of the Confederate Pension Applications is identified by a number. In Robert and Marietta Parker’s case, the number is A01666. The “A” in this code simply means the application was approved; the “1666” is the part used across state agencies to identify the pensioner.

The State Archives holds a series of ledgers from the State Comptroller’s office that record each payment made to each pensioner up through 1917. There are separate ledgers for soldiers and widows. The entries in each ledger are sorted by the pension number, so if we know Marietta started receiving a widow’s pension after her husband Robert’s death in 1914, we should be able to track her payments from that time by looking in the “Widow” volumes for entry number “1666.”

Volume 24 of the State Comptroller's record of approved pension claims, 1895-1917 (Series 678, State Archives of Florida)

Volume 24 of the State Comptroller’s record of approved pension claims, 1895-1917 (Series 678, State Archives of Florida)

And there she is! In the example above, you’re seeing the information recorded for pension payments made on October 1, 1915 by the State Comptroller’s office. For each pensioner, you get the pensioner number, name, pension amount per year, postal address, Comptroller’s warrant number, date the pension was sent, and the amount of this particular payment. The pension payments were generally sent quarterly.

Just from this entry alone, we learn a few helpful bits about Marietta Parker. We know she was living on a rural postal route near Lutz in Hillsborough County in October 1915, and that she was receiving $37.50 every three months. Each ledger page typically covers a year’s worth of payments. Let’s keep following Marietta Parker’s payments to see if anything else helpful turns up. Read more »

Find Your Pioneers!

In 2014, Florida Memory digitized the returns of Florida’s 1845 statehood election. They explain who voted in each precinct, which offices each voter voted for, and whether their qualifications as a voter were challenged at the time of the election. Each return also contains the election officials’ certification of the results.

An example return from Precinct 1 (Tallahassee) of Leon County. Visit the 1845 Election Returns collection page to browse or search the entire collection.

An example return from Precinct 1 (Tallahassee) of Leon County. Visit the 1845 Election Returns collection page to browse or search the entire collection.

On the surface, that doesn’t sound like much information. To a genealogist, however, these documents can be a real treasure. First of all, voters were assigned to precincts based on where they lived. So, if you locate an ancestor in these returns, you can determine with some degree of certainty the county and precinct in which that ancestor lived as of May 26, 1845, when the election was held. Read more »