Researching Early Kentucky Tax Lists: 1792-1840
By: Kandie Adkinson
Ky. Secretary of State
When I first started doing genealogical research in the late 1970’s, I heard the experts mention the value of tax lists. I pulled out a roll of microfilm to see how the lists could help me. Admittedly, I was confused and bewildered. What did those columns mean? Why were they so valuable? It certainly was beyond my comprehension. I rewound the microfilm and placed it back in the drawer; I was content to “dodge” tax lists and concentrate on census, county and family records. That kept me busy for awhile, but eventually there were such research challenges as: When did my husband’s ancestors move to Mercer County? Did they own land? Did they own slaves? Did they patent the land themselves? If not, who did? I couldn’t find those answers in any of the records I had been researching. What next? Tax Lists! It was time to visit the State Law Library in Frankfort and read the Acts of the General Assembly.
Excerpts From Early Kentucky Legislation Regarding the Tax Process
1792 (June 26) – Shortly after attaining statehood, the Kentucky General Assembly approved legislation (effective July 1, 1792) establishing Permanent Revenue. Tax rates were set for land (“whether the land be claimed by patent or by entry only”), slaves, horses & mules, covering horses, cattle, coaches & carriages, billiard tables, & retail stores. Commissioners were to be appointed to make a “true & perfect account of all persons & of every species of property belonging to or in his possession or care, within that district”. Under this Act, the number of commissioners within a county was determined by the legislature; the county court then assigned each commissioner a certain district to canvass. Commissioners were paid six shillings a day; they were exempt from militia service. The commissioners were required to make four alphabetical lists reciting tax information that had been collected; columns identifying the number of all free males above the age of 21 (within the household) and those subject to county levies were to be added. The lists were distributed by the last day of October (annually) as follows: 1. Commissioner’s file; 2. County clerk for laying the county levy & fixing the poor rates; 3. High sheriff for tax collection; and 4. State Auditor for use in tax litigation involving the county sheriff. (ref: Littell’s Statute Law of Kentucky, Vol. I, Chapter X, pgs 63-75, pub. 1809)
1793 (Dec. 21) – The Kentucky General Assembly approved legislation allowing taxpayers to report land they owned in other counties to the tax commissioner for their resident county & district. Out-of-state landowners could list their holdings with any tax commissioner within Kentucky. Taxpayers were to list the acreage and county for each tract they owned. Additionally, the legislature divided the lands into three classes by “quality”: first, second and third-rate. First-rate land was taxed at three shillings, second-rate land was taxed at one shilling and six pence, and third-rate land at nine pence per 100 acres. “And the rich lands in Fayette County shall be considered as the standard of first-rate land.” Taxpayers could file appeals with the county court if they felt the commissioners had graded their land incorrectly. Lands ceded by the federal government to Native American tribes (in Kentucky) were exempt from taxation. (ref: Littell’s Statute Law of Kentucky, Vol. I, Chapter CXXVII, pgs 211-215, pub. 1809)
1794 (Dec. 20) – The Kentucky General Assembly approved legislation that created a standard form for a newly-required Tax Commissioner’s Book. The form included the name of the property owner, county in which the land was located, watercourse, acreage, land rate, amount of tax, and the years in which the taxes were paid. The legislature also reduced the 1795 taxes by one-fourth. The Fayette County standard for first-rate land determination was repealed. (ref: Littell’s Statute Law of Kentucky, Vol. I, Chapter CLXXIII, pgs 265-270, pub. 1809)
1795 (Dec. 19) – The Kentucky General Assembly added fields to the commissioner’s form that identified the name of the person(s) who originally entered, surveyed and patented the lands being taxed. “And if the party giving in his list of land shall swear that he does not know for whom the land was entered or surveyed, or to whom patented, the commissioner shall be at liberty to obtain the best information he can get, and insert the same in his book.” The revised tax form also added fields to include the number of white males above 16, the number of blacks above 16, and the total number of blacks. (The “number of white males over 21” column was already in place.) (ref: Littell’s Statute Law of Kentucky, Vol. I, Chapter CCII, pgs 321-324, pub. 1809)
1797 (Feb. 28) – Legislation declared “taxes shall be paid in Spanish milled dollars at the rate of six shillings each, or in other current silver or gold coin at a proportionable value”. Land sales to collect delinquent taxes were to be advertised by the sheriff or collector “at the door of the courthouse of his county” and for three weeks successively in the “Kentucky Gazette” or “Herald” one month prior to the sale. (ref: Littell’s Statute Law of Kentucky, Vol. I, Chapter CCCVII, pgs 653-671, pub. 1809)
1797 (Mar. 1) – The Kentucky General Assembly declared “all male persons of the age of sixteen years & upwards and all female slaves of the age of 16 years & upwards” were “tithable and chargeable for defraying the [county] levies”. The tax commissioners responsible for collecting revenues on property taxes were now required “to demand from each person being tithable, or having in his or her possession such as are tithable, a written list of such as are tithable persons in his or her family.” The list was to be arranged in columns and added to the commissioner’s book of taxable property. For those years in which property taxes were not collected, the tithables list was to be recorded by the county clerk. Anyone concealing a tithable was subject to a penalty of 500 pounds of tobacco, payable to the county and informant. Tax commissioners who did not report their personal tithables were subject to a fine of 1000 pounds of tobacco. (ref: Littell’s Statute Law of Kentucky, Vol. I, Chapter CCCXIII, pgs 678-681, pub. 1809) Note: The Act immediately following directs the county courts of Nelson & Mason “to levy as much money on the tithables in their counties as will be sufficient to dig a well & fix a pump on the public ground at each courthouse.” (ref: Littell’s Statute Law of Kentucky, Vol. I, Chapter CCCXIV, pgs 681-682, pub. 1809)
1798 (Feb. 12) – This Act amended & revived the Act of 14 December 1796 which had expired. No title would be impaired if the landowner had not registered with the auditor & tax commissioners. Refunds were to be issued to non-residents whose lands had been classified incorrectly and excess taxes had been paid. Non-residents whose lands had been underclassified and insufficient taxes had been assessed were ordered to settle with the auditor. All taxes for 1797, to be collected in the year 1798, were reduced one-third excepting the tax upon billiard tables “for each of which there shall be paid annually the sum of twenty pounds, in lieu of the tax heretofore imposed on them, to be collected as other taxes……and the owner of a billiard table who shall set up the same, and suffer it to be used or played on, without having entered the same agreeably to this act, shall forfeit and pay the sum of $100 for every such offense….one half to the informer and the other half to be applied towards lessening the county levy & accounted for by the sheriff as other levies are directed by law to be accounted for.” (ref: Littell’s Statute Law of Kentucky, Chapter XXXIV, pgs 55-57, pub. 1810)
1799 (Dec. 21) – “An Act to amend & reduce into one, the several acts establishing a Permanent Revenue”. Among the provisions were: an adjustment to the tax rates, confirmation of the land rating system, and revision of the form for identifying taxable properties. The “Entered, Surveyed & Patented to” columns remained intact. The option of paying taxes with “cut silver money” was added: “it shall be received by weight as round money”. Additionally, anyone owning property in another county (other than their resident county) who did not pay the required tax, was reported by the local tax commissioner to the state auditor. The auditor then notified the appropriate county sheriff of the tax delinquency so the collection process could begin. (ref: Littell’s Statute Law of Kentucky, Vol.II, Chapter CCXIV, pgs 316-334, pub. 1810)
1800 (Dec. 20) – This Act provided for the payment of tax commissioners. Commissioners were ordered to obtain a certificate from their county court detailing the expense of compiling the tax list, including “the paper furnished to make out the lists”. The Auditor was ordered not to pay any commissioner until a certified copy of his list of taxable property had been lodged with the Auditor’s office. ref: Littell’s Statute Law of Kentucky, Chapter CCCV, pgs 415-416, pub. 1810)
1801 (Dec. 19) – An Act to amend the Act of December 21, 1799. Among the provisions were an adjustment to the tax rate and the establishment of a one-year waiting period before a tax commissioner could serve as sheriff or deputy sheriff. (ref: Littell’s Statute Law of Kentucky, Vol. II, Chapter CCCLXXI, pgs 462-465, pub. 1810)
1804 (Dec. 15) – An Act granting a two-year grace period for the payment of delinquent taxes. (ref: Littell’s Statute Law of Kentucky, Vol. III, Chapter CCXI, pg 192, pub. 1811)
1805 (Dec. 26) – An Act stating the land around certain towns, i.e. Flemingsburg, Washington (Mason County), Cynthiana, Paris, Mount Sterling, Winchester, Lexington, Georgetown, Versailles, Nicholasville, Richmond, Lancaster, Stanford, Danville & Beargrass, is adjudged first-rate. (ref: Littell’s Statute Law of Kentucky, Vol. III, Chapter CCCXV, pgs 309-311, pub. 1811)
1810 (Jan. 30) – An Act “altering the mode of taking in lists of taxable property” changed the way tax commissioners were selected. The law now required county courts to appoint “some fit person in the bounds of each militia company to receive and take in all lists of taxable property within the same”. Taxpayers were to travel to the militia company’s place of muster and file their property lists with the new commissioner during April and June. (ref: Acts of the General Assembly, Chapter CLXV, pgs 120-124, pub. 1810) The law was amended in 1811 to state that taxpayers “not bound to attend muster” did not have to participate in muster when they filed their lists. Note: You will see an added field on some county tax lists that names the captain of the militia company for each taxpayer’s district. It is not an indication of the taxpayer’s military service.
1821 (Dec. 14) – Among the provisions of this Act was the addition of a field to the Tax List identifying “the number of all children within each school district, as established by the county courts, between the ages of four and fourteen”. (The list was then transmitted to the school commissioners for each district.) (ref: Acts of the General Assembly, Chapter CCLXXVI, Section 5, pg 358, pub. 1821) Note: My research indicates not all counties chose to enter this information in the Commissioner’s Tax Book. When the state generated an “official” printed tax form in 1840, a field was added to identify the number of “children between 7 & 17 years old” in each taxpayer’s household. The actual law restricted the listing to “white children”. (ref: Acts of the General Assembly, Chapter 19, pgs 24-26, pub. 1840)
1824 (Dec. 14) – As some tax commissioners were valuing property by gold & silver and others by the Commonwealth’s Bank paper, this Act directed tax commissioners to list and value the taxable property in the notes of the Bank of the Commonwealth. This established a uniform standard for property valuation. (ref: Acts of the General Assembly, Chapter 44, pgs 37, pub. 1825) Note: Commissioners were ordered to determine property value in gold or silver by an Act of the General Assembly dated January 28, 1828. (ref: Acts of the General Assembly, Chapter 41, pgv 37, pub. 1828)
1831 (Dec. 23) – This Act amended the revenue laws by deleting the “bound to a militia company” requirement for tax commissioners by saying “the county courts..shall appoint one or more fit persons to receive and take in lists of taxable property”. The county clerk was now required to enter the commissioners’ lists in two books: one for the state auditor and one for the county sheriff. (ref: Acts of the General Assembly, Chapter DCCXXVI, pgs 173-178, pub. 1832)
1837 (Feb. 23) – This Act equalized taxation. All persons, when giving in their lists of taxable property were required to fix, on oath, a sum sufficient to cover what they shall be worth, from all sources, on the day to which said lists relate, exclusive of the property required by law to be listed for taxation (not computing therein the first $300 in value, nor lands not within Kentucky, nor other property out of Kentucky, subject to taxation by the laws of the country where situated), upon which the same tax shall be paid, and the same proceedings in all respects had, as upon other property subject to the ad valorem tax: Provided, that nothing herein contained shall be so construed as to include the growing crop on land listed for taxation, or one year’s crop then on hand, or articles manufactured in the family for family consumption. (ref: Acts of the General Assembly, Chapter 437, pgs 313-314, pub. 1837)
1840 (Jan. 4) – This Act “changed the form of the Commissioners’ Books of taxable property” and regulated the duties of the Tax Commissioners. The “Entered, Surveyed, Patented to” columns were deleted. The state generated printed tax forms that were used by the tax commissioners during canvassing and by the county clerks when they were compiling their official tax books. (ref: Acts of the General Assembly, Chapter 19, pgs 24-26, pub. 1840)
NOTE: The above references are selected abstracts from certain Acts of the Kentucky General Assembly. The complete legislation, as well as other “Acts Establishing a Permanent Revenue” may be researched by visiting the Supreme Court Law Library, Kentucky History Center Research Library or the Department for Libraries & Archives Research Room, all in Frankfort, Kentucky.
Points to Remember Regarding Early Kentucky Tax Lists
- County Tax Lists can serve as an “Annual Census”. Researchers can determine when an ancestor first appeared in the county-and when he/she left the county or died. Birth years can be approximated by using the “above 21” and “between 16 & 21” columns.
- Women (often Executors of Estates), Free Blacks & Veterans are included in Tax Lists.
- Counties are divided into taxing districts. You may need to research several districts within a given tax year to find your ancestor. (Hint: if one taxpayer is paying taxes on land and there are others with the same surname listed immediately before or after the taxpayer-and those persons aren’t reporting any land ownership–you probably have a family group, i.e. father and sons living on the same property.) Check the Tax Lists from “cover to cover”. If the commissioner missed a taxpayer during the regular canvass, the name and information may be written at the bottom of the commissioner’s tax list or at the end of the county report.
- The “Entered, Surveyed, Patented to” columns should identify who patented the land being taxed by an ancestor. The names may vary in each column depending on who filed the entry with the county surveyor reserving the land for patenting, who had the survey made, and who received the grant. In the South of Green River Series of land patents, the “Entered” column refers to the person who qualified for the Warrant/Certificate authorizing the survey. If all three of the columns are blank, no one remembers who patented the land originally, but check several years-they may remember later.
- Ditto marks, the word “Ditto”, or the word “Same” is frequently used in the “Entered, Surveyed, Patented to” columns. This indicates the same person who entered the property (filed an entry reserving the land for patenting or obtaining a South of Green River Commissioner’s Certificate) is the same person who had the survey made and the same person who received the Grant. The columns run horizontally-not vertically. Also, the Kentucky General Assembly allowed persons in the South of Green River to pay taxes on land that had not been officially Granted. In those instances, you will find the name of the person who obtained the Certificate under the “Entered” column, the name of the person for whom the survey was made under the “Surveyed for” field, and a blank space or “squiggle mark” in the “Granted or Patented to” field.
- If the “Patented to” column indicates a patent was issued to the taxpayer, a study of Jillson’s KENTUCKY LAND GRANTS, Vol. I & II, is recommended. If the “Patented to” column says the land was patented for someone other than the taxpayer, that indicates the taxpayer purchased or inherited the land. See county deeds and wills. (Hint: you may find it helpful to run the “chain of title” forward from the patent recipient to your ancestor; be sure to start your research in the county in which the patent was granted. Then use county formation tables to move forward through the chain.)
- Taxpayers reported all their land holdings-those in their county of residence as well as those properties they owned in other counties. Remember these are STATE tax lists. These monies were collected by the sheriff then sent to the state auditor for the general fund.
- County formation dates are critical when researching tax lists. You will need to study “mother county” tax lists to find ancestors prior to county formation. Example: Marion County was formed in 1834 out of Washington County, therefore Washington County Tax Lists must be researched for information prior to 1834.
- Taxpayers can appear on tax lists and not list any land ownership. Males & Females over 21 who owned nothing but a horse were included on tax lists.
- “Headers” on tax lists change. Avoid the mistake of looking at one tax list and thinking all tax lists are structured the same way. The “Entered, Surveyed, Patented to” columns are included from 1795 to 1840. The ages of children vary in the columns labeled “number of children between the ages of….” . Read the headers and realize those columns were the columns approved by the General Assembly for the current tax form.
Mercer County, Kentucky
Tax List for 1819
|Name of Person Chargeable with Tax||1||2||3||County in which Land Lies||Watercourse||Name Entered||Name Surveyed||Name Patented|
|Robards, George||220||50||Mercer||Shawnee Run||J. Gordon||Same||Same|
|Same||Same||Cedar Run||Caleb Wallace||Same||Same|
|Same||400||Union||Tradewater||Peter Garland||John Overton||Same|
|Same, Executor for Wm Robards, Dec’d||1500||Breckinridge||Clover Creek||William Robards||Same||George Robards|
This example tells us the following information. In 1819 George Robards was paying taxes on four land parcels. The first tract (220 acres of first-rate land) was located in Mercer County on Shawnee Run. The Entry was filed by J. Gordon. Gordon also had the land Surveyed and the Patent (Grant) was issued in his name. The Kentucky Historical Society publications pertaining to the Virginia and Old Kentucky Land Grant Series index by Survey name, therefore you would find this patent filed under J. Gordon. Jillson’s index on Kentucky Land Grants and the Jillson index of Old Kentucky Entries & Deeds would also list the Entry and Grant for this patent under J. Gordon…….Let’s examine the 1500 acre tract in Breckinridge County. (Notice Robards appears to be a resident of Mercer County, but he is permitted to pay taxes for land in other counties.) This tract was Entered in William Robards name . (Jillson’s Index of Old Kentucky Entries & Deeds would list this tract as a William Robards Entry.) The land was surveyed for William Robards. The Kentucky Historical Society publications index by survey name; therefore, you would look for this tract under William’s name. The Grant was issued to George Robards. Jillson’s index on Kentucky Land Grants (Virginia or Old Kentucky Series depending on when the Grant was issued) would index this patent under George Robards’ name……Jesse Ray was a white male over 21 who owned no property, however he is included on the tax list because he is a resident of Mercer County.