What State Property Tax Records Can Reveal About the Early American Economy
Frank W. Garmon Jr.
State property tax records reveal much about the early American economy. Assessment records describe the assets each taxpayer owned. Collection receipts document who paid and who did not. Tax lists provide a community snapshot at a particular moment in time. Although these sources are among the most consulted by genealogists, they have been underutilized by historians. Economic historians surveying American wealth have often preferred to use probate inventories rather than tax lists because the former are more comprehensive in enumerating household possessions owned by the decedent. Yet tax lists have the advantage of including individuals who owned little or no property, who would not have been wealthy enough to have their estate inventoried.
The lists of delinquent and insolvent taxpayers, held at the Library of Virginia, report the names of individuals who could not pay their taxes each year. In my article, “Mapping Distress: Taxation and Insolvency in Virginia, 1782–1790,” I employ these sources to examine the economy after the American Revolution. By dividing the number of individuals who could not pay their taxes by the number listed in the assessment lists, I have constructed a measure that I term the “insolvency rate” that provides an indicator of the distress in the local economy. The measure is comparable to a modern bankruptcy or unemployment rate, as the incentives for tax collection were strong and the penalties for non-payment were severe. Virginians risked debtors’ prison if they failed to meet their obligations. Anyone who could not pay their taxes must have faced significant economic hardship.
The records also reveal tremendous outmigration from particular counties. Sheriffs made annotations on the tax lists to explain why the debts could not be collected. In many cases individuals left the county after the assessment list had been drawn up but before the tax could be collected. Contemporary observations support the view that many individuals left the county deliberately to avoid paying taxes. In such cases sheriffs noted that the taxpayer in question had “Removed of the County & left no property.” In extreme cases, as many as 75 percent of those cited for nonpayment removed from the county in a given year. Such removals could be large indeed. In Charlotte County, southwest of Richmond, the number of men leaving the county surpassed 5 percent of the number of adult white males recorded in the 1790 census (see Table 1). Outmigration was largest in the southern and western counties that experienced the most significant hardship in the postwar years. For individuals in these counties the frontier presented a tempting opportunity for tax evasion.
Although records have survived for a number of counties and towns for other states during this period, they are often interspersed with tax assessment lists, making them difficult to analyze systemically as I have for Virginia. From the surviving lists, it appears that the insolvency rate was higher in Virginia than in many other states, with the possible exception of Massachusetts. Table 2 presents evidence from North Carolina for the same period. The records suggest that the insolvency rate might have been much lower in North Carolina, particularly in the years surrounding the ratification of the Constitution. At the same time, the surviving tax lists are less complete than those from Virginia, and the records mostly hail from the eastern counties along the coast or in the vicinity of Raleigh, which may have been less likely to experience economic distress.
State property tax records present avenues for future research. Many states assessed property in the tax lists annually, and the records offer the opportunity to link taxpayers between censuses to follow their wealth, trace inequality and social mobility, and study migration. Although tax records often require great effort to transcribe and tabulate them, the results are worthwhile. As Max Edling notes, historians have often found it “difficult to judge whether the farmers were merely putting on the poor mouth or if they were in genuine distress.” Tax records allow us to answer such questions and others.
 Max M. Edling, A Revolution in Favor of Government: Origins of the U.S Constitution and the Making of the American State (New York, 2003), 156.
11 June 2020
About the Author
Frank W. Garmon Jr. is an assistant professor at Christopher Newport University.