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TaxPhotoAlanCleaverCClicenseI start my client research projects with the best of intentions to stay on task, and within the budgeted hours. I’ve yet to accomplish this. Instead I usually find myself falling down one rabbit hole or another. (On my own dime, of course.)

I was researching a client’s ancestress born in 1798 in Windsor County, Vermont. Despite knowing her maiden name and her stated town of birth, I was struggling to link her to a set of parents. It occurred to me that she was born during the same year that the federal government authorized a tax to raise money to pay for a military buildup in anticipation of a possible war with France Act of 14 July 1798 (1 Stat. 597). 1 I’ve used these 1798 Federal Direct Tax records in Pennsylvania and they are rich with detail about the dwellings in which the families lived, providing not only the dimensions of the dwelling but also the number of panes of glass in each window, and the dimensions of barns, sheds and blacksmith shops. I thought it might be handy to use these to determine if there were any additional men with her surname in town during the year she was born who might not appear in the deed books or the 1800 census. “Hmmm. I wonder where those Vermont 1798 direct tax lists are?” With this thought, I promptly tumbled down a particularly interesting rabbit hole.

I started by learning some background information about this tax. Before the government could collect the tax, real property had to be valuated and slaves enumerated (Act of 9 July 1798 (1 Stat. 580)).2 Vermont was designated to contain five divisions for the purposes of this tax3  The Surveryor General’s Papers in Vermont contain the commission papers, signed by President John Adams, appointing five men as commissioners of these divisions: Jonathan Hunt, Elijah Dewey, James Whitelaw, Jonathan Spafford, and Ebenezer Crafts.4

This 1798 tax assessment resulted in the creation of at least three types of documents. “Particular Lists” consisted of a description of each dwelling house and out building valued at more than $100 on lots not exceeding two acres. The second detailed land, including dwelling houses valued under $100. The third list enumerated slaves. Able-bodied slaves between the ages of 12-50 were taxed at 50 cents each.5 In 1798 Vermont was a frontier state, and its commissioners found that the rules devised for more populated areas didn’t fit well here. Houses worth over $100 were a minority. Much of Vermont’s land was undeveloped, and in many counties the majority of landowners were nonresidents whose whereabouts were often unknown. Many of these properties were later auctioned for lack of payment of the Direct Tax. These tax sales produced large numbers of land transactions that provide valuable information to family historians, among other researchers.6

I discovered that none of the 1798 direct tax records for Vermont are known to survive at the federal level, but a few remnants do remain in Vermont. The most exciting find was one made last year by Kathy Wendling who discovered a 1798 tax ledger in her Woodstock, Vermont, home. Fortunately, Kathy is an historian and she donated it to the Woodstock HIstory Center. The book contains “footprints of all of the buildings, cellar holes, sawmills and tanneries for Woodstock, Pomfret, Sharon, Norwich, Royalton, Harford, Bethel, Stockbridge, Barnard, Hartland, Bridgewater and Rochester. The last known owner of the book was Nichols Balyies, Surveyor of Revenue.7 In 1938-40, the WPA Historic Records survey identified this book as present in the Woodstock town clerk’s office, but its location was unknown in 1983.8 Digital scans of this ledger can be viewed at the Woodstock History Center in Woodstock, Vermont.

Additional papers pertaining to this tax are tucked away in other Vermont archives. The James Whitelaw papers at the Vermont Historical Society (VHS) contain fragments of records created for this assessment. The entry in the VHS catalog states that the Whitelaw papers include assessments pertaining to houses owned or occupied in Ryegate and Groton, as well as a list of lands owned by residents of Peacham but lying outside the town. The locations of these lands owned by Peacham residents include the Vermont towns of Orange, Billymead (Sutton), Westmore, Brighton, Walden, Wheelock, Treemsbro, Danville, Cabot, Elmore, New Haven, Groton, Barnet, Belton, Barre as well as towns in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Virginia and Pennsylvania. If you descend from a 1798 Peacham resident, knowing where else your ancestor owned property could be key to documenting migration and kinship ties.

The Stevens Family Papers and the Crafts Papers at the University of Vermont’s Bailey-Howe Library hold more fragments of the 1798 assessment. Enos Stevens was an assistant assessor for Orange and Caldonia Counties. Ebenezer Crafts and his son Samuel were charged with the counties of Franklin, Orleans and Essex. I haven’t personally viewed these papers and published information leaves the exact contents somewhat unclear. An oversize sheet, 32 by 22 inches, among the Stevens Papers is the “Particular List” for the town of Barnet. The column headings include occupant, owner, property description, and evaluation. The Crafts papers (and to a lesser extent, the Whitelaw papers) contain summaries of the average value of land per acre and the number of houses in each town valued at more than and less than $100.9 These records provide valuable contextual information for any family historian.

There is still reason to hope that more federal or local copies may be found. In 2004, some “Particular List” valuation slips describing the dwelling houses and property and the tax collection lists for CT towns of Kent and Warren were found at NARA Northeast Region in Waltham, Massachusetts, among the custom’s records for the port of New Haven. A look at the resolution of this tax makes it understandable why these records ended up in seemingly odd places. An 1801 statute directed the surveyors to send their records related to this tax to the top treasury official in each state and an 1803 statute allowed for any remaining responsibilities of the supervisors of the tax to be transferred to “any other officer of the government of the United States.” “The Treasury Department never required that the 1798 direct tax records be sent to Washington.” process was recommended in 1803 but the directive was never issued. If it had been, they would likely have been destroyed in the treasury building fire of 1833. Because of this, the supervisor’s official papers may exist among the records of almost any branch of government.10 Nathaniel Brush, Vermont’s Supervisor of Revenue, wrote a letter in 1801 directing the surveyors to mail him their documents pertaining to the Direct Tax. Bandel tells us that a search by Bennington Museum staff and other failed to locate any of these records.11 In Vermont, the responsibility for collecting the tax was transferred to the U.S. marshals.12 Thus, it is not impossible that the 1798 tax records for Vermont may still be hidden under vague titles such as “court records” or “marshals records” among various record groups at NARA Northeast. Watson identifies several possibilities. Local copies or working papers might be among the manuscript collections of any the small, local Vermont historical societies or museums, or even waiting for discovery in someone’s attic. If you are associated with a local repository in Vermont, can you take a look next time you visit? Please post a comment here to let us know what you find.

Are you a descendant of a 1798 tax payer? Have you ever used these direct tax records? For what state? What did you discover?

(Photo by Alan Cleaver, used under Creative Commons License.)

  1.  “An Act to Lay and Collect a Direct Tax within the United States,” Statutes at Large, 5th Congress, 2nd Session, Act of 14 July 1798 (1 Stat. 597); Library of Congress, American Memory, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875” (http://www.memory.loc.gov : accessed 6 September 2012).
  2. “An Act to Provide for the Valuation of Lands and Dwelling-Houses, and the Enumeration of Slaves within the United States,” Statutes at Large, 5th Congress, 2nd Session, Act of 9 July 1798 (1 Stat. 580); Library of Congress, American Memory.
  3. Ibid, p. 581, para. 6.
  4. Robert L. Hagerman (Assistant Editor, State Papers Division, Vermont Secretary of State’s Office) to Peter B. Sheridan (Congressional Research Services, Library of Congress), letter, 4 August 1976; Secretary of States Office, Vermont State Archives and Records Administration, digital image provided to author by Scott Reilley, Archivist I.
  5. Judith Green Watson, “A Discovery: 1798 Federal Direct Tax Records for Connecticut, Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration, vol. 39 (Spring 2007), no. 1; online archives, National Archives and Records Administration (http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2007/spring/tax-lists.html : accessed 6 September 2012), para. 6.
  6. Betty Bandel, “The 1798 Census in Vermont,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, vol. 137 (Spring 1983), 4-17. This publication is archived online at www.americanancestors.org.
  7. Audrey Richardson, “Tax Ledger Dating From 1798 Discovered In Woodstock,” The Vermont Standard, Woodstock, 17 February 2011; viewed at http://www.thevermontstandard.com : accessed 6 September 2012).
  8. Bandel, “The 1798 Census in Vermont,” p. 16-17.
  9. Ibid., beginning on p. 4.
  10. Watson, “A Discovery.”
  11. Bandel, “The 1798 Direct Tax in Vermont,” citing the Crafts Papers.
  12. Watson, “A Discovery.”

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