Georgia Tax Records FAQs

What are the earliest tax records available?

Mary Warren’s publication of Georgia’s Memorials for Quit Rents 1755-1775 covers practically all the colonial Georgia tax records known to survive. (See Georgia Archives’ microfilm library card catalog drawer entitled Official Records of Georgia for microfilm of original record.)

Tax digests from 1783 until 1871 exist sporadically for many counties. (See Georgia Archives’ microfilm card catalog drawer labeled Tax Digests. Almost all pre-1871 tax digests known to the Georgia Archives are on microfilm. Also, see Research in Georgia by Robert Davis. This publication provides a good inventory of tax digests for each county.)

Numerous county histories, patriotic society collections and periodicals abstract various early tax digests. The five-volume set of indexes published by the R. J. Taylor Foundation entitled An Index to Georgia Tax Digests, 1789-1817 contains over sixty selected tax digests dating 1790-1820. This compilation is a very valuable research tool. Ruth Blair’s pioneer work Some Early Tax Digests of Georgia published in 1926 contains complete transcripts of nineteen pre-1820 Georgia tax digests. More recent works deal with the tax records of counties critical to Georgia’s period of backcountry settlement. These works included Martha Acker’s Tax Digests of Franklin County, four volumes spanning 1798-1839. Frank P. Hudson has produced A 1790 Census of Wilkes County, Georgia as well as a two volume set entitled Wilkes County, Georgia Tax Records 1785-1805. Both of these volumes contain excellent text for tax record interpretation.

From 1872 forward, state law demanded each county file a copy of its tax digest with the Georgia Department of Revenue. Most tax digests survive from this period forward and are in the holdings of the Georgia Archives.

What is the genealogical value of tax records?

Tax records rarely state interpersonal kinships, and are not a universally useful genealogical tool. Their most critical genealogical value is for establishing the jurisdictions of county governments over particular individuals. This is of primary value in the years before 1820 for which practically no Federal censuses exist for Georgia. Establishing such a jurisdiction allows the researcher to consult more informative county records, such as wills and marriages.

Very focused genealogical research in tax digests sometimes yield important results. For example, a taxpayer’s inclusion in the tax digests combined with a subsequent disappearance may indicate that the individual has moved or died. This is especially useful when attempting to narrow a date span of searching in an unindexed record such as court minutes. Sometimes tax digests carry key phrases such as “widow of,” “heirs of,” or even “estate of.” Clearly, such remarks are of great genealogical value. However, it can take months for a death to be reflected in the tax record.

The poll tax is also useful to the genealogist in helping to determine how many males were in a household who were in the range of 21 to 60 years of age. The digests often record the number of polls in each household, or one can infer that information by seeing what amount of poll tax was paid. Sometimes, relationships can be inferred by the proximity of families with the same name, but coincidences abound. For a much more detailed analysis of the genealogical uses of tax records, see pp. vi-ix of Wilkes County Georgia Tax Records, 1785-1805, Volume One.

What is a Poll Tax?

The poll tax is a specific sum to be paid by a person between 21 and 60 years of age. The age varies with legislation. This tax is levied without regard to property, and taxable persons with no land are frequently listed in the tax digests. The tax applies to males exclusively. After the Civil War, the poll tax evolved regionally to be a complex legal device to disenfranchise African-Americans. (For the role of the poll tax in this region in the twentieth century, see The Poll Tax in the South, University of Alabama Press, 1958.)

If a person owns land in more than one county, where do they pay their taxes?

Land tax was paid in the county in which the owner resided, not necessarily in the county where the land was actually located. This practice was changed by legislation in 1847, after which land tax was paid in the county with jurisdiction over the specific plot of land.

Why does it appear that all taxable lands lie on waterways?

“On the waters of” is a recurrent category in tax digests. The phrase does not mean that the land in question necessarily bordered on a specific waterway, but that water draining from that land eventually entered that creek or river. In other words, the land was located on the watershed of the specific waterway. These references are further compounded by the fact that early tax collectors often referred to only the major watersheds. Over time, minor waterways received their own name. Early tax references may indicate that the land is on a major waterway; later references may indicate a tributary that had since been differentiated by its own name. This practice gives rise to confusion for the researcher who may assume that the taxpayer has moved.

What are defaulters?

A list of persons owing taxes was often included at the end of the tax digests. These lists were usually published in a local newspaper, as well. Sometimes the lists were published before the tax deadline, and are really lists of persons who had not yet filed their returns, as opposed to actual defaulters. There were several ways a person could be listed as a defaulter:

  1. The taxpayer had moved out of the geographical area of the militia (tax) district.
  2. The person reported as a defaulter was under age. The captain’s tax list was often formulated from lists of men registered for militia duty. Such lists included the age group 16-20, which was not subject to taxation.
  3. The person actually defaulted (failed to pay their taxes).
  4. The person was absent from the area.
  5. The person was listed as a taxpayer and a defaulter in the same district. This situation may have resulted from non-standardized spelling.

What is the 1798 Direct Tax?

Apparently, the 1798 Direct Tax was assessed in Georgia as result of a February 2, 1798 Act (Marbury and Crawford, p. 680). This act was passed in compliance with a demand from the Federal Government for support.

As far as can be determined, the Direct Tax was comprised of three lists-dwelling houses land lots, and wharves and slaves. For Georgia, it appears that the Direct Tax is extant for only three counties: Burke (Georgia Archives MF #186/6), Franklin (Georgia Archives MF #258/14), and Warren (Georgia Archives MF #186/6). Please note that ordinary property tax digests for 1798 exist for Greene, Jackson, Montgomery, Oglethorpe, Warren and Wilkes Counties.

What do the columns or headings on early tax digests mean?

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, tax digests assume a printed standardized form. It is primarily the earlier tax digests that present a problem. If the headings are simply absent, go to the beginning of the tax digest and see if they are on the first page of the digest itself or at the beginnings of each militia district. If that is not the case, it is likely that the headings were in a chart in the digests that is now lost. An examination of the tax act creating the digest is useful. Each heading represents a clause in the creating legislation. Most often the forms of recording information follow the clause sequence within the legislation. However, idiosyncrasies arise where columns and headings are arranged in different ways. If the digests dates very early, a glance at Ruth Blair’s Some Early Tax Digests of Georgia will provide a complete transcript of digests of similar date with legible headings.

What are agents? What relationship does agent imply?

Agents are simply representatives for the named taxable person. No specific relationship is implied. Many times a neighborhood sent one person to pay everyone’s taxes and his name appears in several entries. Often a family member is an agent. When women appeared as taxable persons, a male agent usually represented them.

Are there special applications for African American research in early tax digests?

The early tax digests provide a number of important possibilities for African-American history and genealogy. With the loss of early census records, the tax digests are among the better sources for understanding the demography of slavery. Consistently from 1783 until 1820 the tax digests reflect varying rates of taxation on ownership of slaves. By analyzing the amount paid the researcher can determine the number of slaves owned by the taxpayer. (Later in the century, the census schedule of slave-owners provides a much better source for this type of information.) It is notable that in the late eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century, slaveholders on the Savannah River removed their slaves to South Carolina to avoid Georgia’s heavier rate of taxation.

Free persons of color were heavily taxed, and legislation in 1818 mandated that a register of free persons of color be maintained in tax digests. The lists have a great deal of information, including the names of minors and of white guardians. These registers survive fairly frequently and can be accessed by the Georgia Archives’ finding aid Microfilm Inventory Black History by Cynthia Plato.

Later tax digests of the 1870s and 1880s often contain lists of African-American freedmen enrolled under the name of their employer. From the time after the Civil War until the mid-twentieth century, tax digests are segregated by race.

What is a homestead exemption?

Homesteads, Pony Homesteads and other designations refer to a legal concept that has evolved over time. The basic purpose of this exemption is to make a certain amount of person’s property untaxable. Originally, this seems to refer to property that was necessary to maintain a person in an independent condition and to protect this critical property from creditors. These records first appear in Georgia after the 1852 act, which transformed Georgia’s property tax to an ad valorum basis. They survive frequently from the late nineteenth century. These records can contain very important information for historians and for genealogists. The record formats and the information vary widely from case to case. To locate homestead records, check the county record section of the Georgia Archives’ microfilm card catalog for individual counties and also check the tax drawer of the same catalog.

Why is my ancestor listed on the tax digests owning land before the date of the grant?

Land that had been surveyed for an individual was subject to taxation even though the land had not yet been granted to that individual. Many land grants in Georgia were not made final for years after the land had been granted by petition or by fortunate lottery draw.

List of Tax Acts of Georgia: 1780-1817

         
Jul. 31, 1783 Dec. 22, 1791 Feb. 2, 1798 Dec. 12, 1804 Dec. 10, 1812
Feb. 21, 1785 Dec. 20, 1792 Feb. 13, 1799 Dec. 4, 1805 Dec. 6, 1813
Feb. 13, 1786 Dec. 19, 1793 Dec. 4, 1799 June 26, 1806 Nov. 22, 1814
Feb. 10, 1787 Dec. 29, 1794 Dec. 1, 1800 Dec. 8, 1806 Dec. 16, 1815
Feb. 1, 1788 Feb. 22, 1796 Dec. 10, 1802 Dec. 10, 1807 Dec. 19, 1816
Dec. 29, 1789 Feb. 11, 1797 Dec. 10, 1803 Dec. 22, 1808 Dec. 19, 1817

Legislative Activity for Taxes: 1817-1850

1818-1839: The acts during these years are all based on the tax act of 1817. These tax acts continually revive preceding acts, often with amendments. Many simple tax questions can be answered by a glance at the 1817 law. Complex or refined questions may require consulting the specific act for the year in question and then backward through a chain of revived acts.

1840: This act revives the Tax Act of 1804, with amendments. This was probably an attempt at simplification. The stated intention was to make this act permanent.

1842: This act increased the taxes of 1840 by 25%.

1843-50: The final years of the first half of the nineteenth century the Georgia Legislature re-enacted the 1840 act, which itself was a revival of the 1804 act. The 1847 act did require that taxes be paid in the county in which the land was held in jurisdiction. Previously, the tax had been paid in the county of residence.