When Is A Tax List a “Census?”

Genealogists who have some length in their genealogical teeth talk about the importance of knowing the purpose of a record.

It’s true–any researcher who wants to use and interpret something as correctly as possible needs to know (among other things) the purpose for which the record was originally created. This may not be the same thing as the purpose for which the record is now used.

Tax lists are a great example. In some states, particularly in the late 18th and early 19th century, census lists may be missing or not extant, if they were even taken at all. And that’s just the way it is. If there are no census records, then there are no census records. The purpose of a census is usually to count everyone in a specific geographic region–or at least those individuals that meet the parameters set down by the governmental entity taking the census.

Tax lists–both of real and personal property–serve a different purpose. They are created as a way for the government to tax citizens, those who own real property and those who own sufficient personal property (or property of a specific kind) to be able to pay a tax.

When census records are unavailable for a certain area and time period, tax lists may be used to obtain the names of individuals who were residing in that area. But tax lists are not censuses and censuses are not tax lists.

There’s never a guarantee that a real estate landowner actually lived on the property on which he was taxed. He probably was, but it’s possible that he was not. So you could find a person on a real estate property tax list in County A who never lived in County A.

And a person of extremely limited financial means (without real property and without any significant personal property) may not appear on a tax list for County A when he would have appeared on the census for County A because he lived there.

Tax lists should be used when they are extant for a location. But don’t call them census records and don’t call them “substitute” census records either. Call them what they are not leads to confusion and misunderstanding.

It’s actually pretty easy–call them what they are: tax lists.

Oh, and the answer to the question that’s the title of this blog post is “never.”


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