Research Your Scottish Ancestry

Robert WilbanksTax Records: The Wealth of our Ancestors

by Robert M. Wilbanks IV, B.A.
Chief Genealogist & Historian, C.S.A.

There is an old expression that “nothing is certain in life except death and taxes.” So, let’s talk about taxes. Tax records in genealogy research that is.

Taxation dates far back to ancient societies. The basic principles of taxation are as old as human society, dating thousands of years into the past. Taxes are levied to pay for centralized government services, as well as to cover the cost for police, fire or the military, and more.

Fair taxation in England during the middle ages was often an issue of contention in society. A poll tax was a frequent form of taxation on every adult within a jurisdiction. Property and church taxes was also a common practice. Peasants who did not own land still had to pay property taxes on the land they rented or worked. They were also obligated to donate 10% of their labor or produce to the church.

As England established colonies around the world, taxation on these colonies also began to become issues of contention as the colonists were forced to pay hefty duties on staples, as well as various forms of poll taxes, income taxes, property taxes and more.

With the formation of a new government, the United States levied few taxes as it did not maintain a large standing military, instead relying on the local militia as the need arose. Also, the central government, national, state and local, in general was smaller. The primary form of taxation was on property, including livestock, and other, with a poll tax being another annual form of taxation. However, after the Civil War, in order to pay accrued debts brought out by the war, the government briefly experimented with an income tax from 1862 to 1866. In 1917, the personal income tax was enacted as an annual method of tax collection from the citizens.

United States tax records usually are found in county records, held by the county clerk. So, learning about your ancestor’s locality and the types of taxes taken, and whether those records still exist and are available is very important.

Various records exist for taxation throughout the history of Scotland. Originally, revenues came from property owned by the crown. During times of financial need, the government levied differing kinds of national taxes, often separate from local taxes collected for local services and poor relief. After the unification of England and Scotland in 1707, Scotland was levied many of the same taxes as England.

Meanwhile, some unique types of taxes collected, and for which many records still exist, include the following:

  • Hearth Tax was literally a tax of 14 shillings on every hearth in the kingdom, paid by tenants and landowners. This tax occurred from 1690 to 1695.
  • Land Tax Rolls, also known as cess rolls or valuation rolls, was a tax collected from 1645 to 1831 in Scotland. The rolls listed the owners of landed estates and assessed the rental value of their lands.
  • Poll Taxes were levied in 1694, 1695 and 1698. It was levied on all men over the age of 16, except for the extreme poor.
  • Apprenticeship Tax was levied from 1710 to 1811 on the money a master received for an apprenticeship indenture, due within a year the term of indenture expired.
  • Death Duties is a tax levied on the estates of the recently deceased. This began in 1804. Relationships, date of death, and other information.

Window Tax receipt 1755

Many, many other taxes in the 1700s include: Window Tax (1747-1798), Commutation Tax (1784-1798), Shop Tax (1785-1789), Cart Tax (1785-1798), Carriage Tax (1785-1798), and many other various taxes.

Tax records make a great substitute for land and census, and other records. Tax records vary in content, depending on the purpose of the record. Information might include name, occupation, description of property and belongings, number of males over 21, number of slaves, farm animals, and much more. In addition to learning about an ancestor’s inventory of assets and overall wealth, one of the great benefits of tax records is that it can be an annual record of an ancestor between census years. Most notably, their sudden discontinued appearance could indicate migration, or death, etc. Also, widows and children can appear in tax records as well. And, you can determine a year of birth when a male within a household suddenly appears and become taxed, usually for the first time once he reaches the age of 21.

Many of the U.S., Scotland and England tax records can be found in microfilmed copies of the originals at the FamilySearch Library in Salt Lake City. Search the FamilySearch catalog by locality:

For more information about taxation and available records in Scotland, including county-by-county availability, visit the following page of the “National Records of Scotland” :

This is another of a series of articles in which I show you the basics of searching for your family history, discussing the use of family records, public records, and online resources nationally and internationally, etc. The previous articles are now available on the Genealogy Section of this website.   See “Genealogy” in the menu options at the top of the web page.