Today’s post is written by Elise Fariello, Archives Technician at the National Archives at Chicago
A passionate distaste for taxes is built into the very foundation of the United States. Taxation without consent was one of the grievances to King George III outlined in the Declaration of Independence and played no small part in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War. The Whiskey Rebellion in 1791, one of the first major threats to the fledgling nation, was waged by farmers in retaliation to a tax on distilled spirits. From Thoreau to Capone, taxes have played a significant role in American history ever since.
Because of this rocky relationship with taxation, the first major income tax was not levied on Americans until the Civil War. President Lincoln created the Bureau of Internal Revenue (predecessor to the Internal Revenue Service) in 1862 to help pay for the war. The income tax ended in the early 1870s and was not successfully revived until the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913. During the intervening decades, the government continued to tax certain goods and services. The Civil War Tax, and the taxes that followed, created a bounty of records for historians and genealogists. Though the returns themselves were not kept, the Assessment Lists that tracked the individuals and businesses who paid taxes provide a unique insight into nineteenth and early twentieth century American lives.
Cynthia G. Fox’s Prologue article “Income Tax Records of the Civil War Years” provides an excellent overview of the Civil War Tax Assessment Lists and how genealogists can make the most of them. Since that article was published in 1986, there have been a few changes and updates to their accessibility that make these records even easier to use!
Tax Assessment Lists are held in NARA Record Group 58, Records of the Internal Revenue Service. A project during the 1970s and 80s microfilmed the actual Civil War period of these records, 1862-1866. The microfilm was later digitized and is now available on our partner websites familysearch.org and ancestry.com. Ancestry is a fee-based website but is available for free at all National Archives research facilities. FamilySearch is free from any location. The lists beginning in 1867 are available at the regional facility that holds the record for the state of interest. See NARA’s website to learn where the Federal government records of each state are held.
There are a few exceptions to this. Some states, such as Ohio, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts, were never microfilmed. In those cases, the earlier (1862-1866) lists are held at the National Archives at Kansas City as part of the series Assessment Lists, 1862 – 1874 (National Archives Identifier 4735478). The post-1867 Lists should still be at the corresponding Regional Facility.
In 1862, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue divided each state and territory not in rebellion into Collection Districts. States that seceded began being taxed as soon as Union troops established control. There could be as few as one District and no more than the number of congressional representatives. This is the arrangement researchers will still find the records in today: first by State, followed by District, then by Division. Divisions generally correspond to particular counties. The Collection Districts shifted dramatically over the course of the nineteenth century. The changes to Districts took place mostly after the Civil War Tax ended, but greatly affect the post-1870s Assessment Lists.
Finding an individual on these lists can be somewhat tricky because you have to know where they lived, down to the county. For most nineteenth century individuals, you find that information in census records. Once you know where they lived, you have to determine which Bureau of Internal Revenue District encompassed that county. This information can be found in the Descriptive Pamphlets (sometimes called DPs) produced for the microfilm publications for Tax Assessment Lists, 1862-1866. DPs can be found and downloaded from the National Archives microfilm catalog. They are also reproduced on the first roll of film. For the states that were not microfilmed (and therefore have no Descriptive Pamphlets) researchers should check the Catalog for the District information or consult staff at the regional facility where the records are held.
The tax laws of 1862—like tax laws of today—were very complicated. As such, the records can be complicated as well. Once you get down to the Division, the records are further broken up into Monthly Lists, Annual Lists, and Special Lists. Special Lists were used to supplement the incomplete Annual and Monthly Lists and included special taxes as designated by Congress. The Special Lists are generally found at the end of the Annual or Monthly Lists.
Monthly duties were placed on a variety of articles and products and corporate profits. Researchers can discover a trove of information on individual’s businesses in the Monthly Lists.
For example, here is boot and shoe salesman Reuben Savidge of Mount Rose, New Jersey. Perhaps this limited information in the July 1866 tax assessment lists doesn’t provide you with much information about Reuben’s life. In it, we see where he lived, his business, how much that business was worth, and what he was taxed on it.
Given this information once a month for four years (and more if you are able to go to the regional facility), you can really gain a lot of insight into how someone lived. Undoubtedly, the information recorded would be invaluable to the descendants of that individual. Beyond that, though, these records are notable for their value to business historians, local historians, and labor researchers. These records can provide valuable insight into the movement, activities, and lifestyles of particular communities such as immigrants and women in business. Though the lists themselves do not track that information, data can be interpreted through names, locations, and other context.
The 1862 tax law imposed a 3% tax on annual income over $600 and a 5% tax on income over $10,000. In 1864 it increased to 5% on income over $600 and 10% on income over $5000. On the Annual Tax Assessment Lists, you will find the names of all those who made over $600 a year, their business, their income, and what they were taxed. Certain luxury goods, such as carriages and silver, were taxed as well. The Annual Lists also track licenses that were required of certain trades, professions, and businesses.
From these records, a researcher can track the success of their ancestor, or a historical figure of note. For example, the document displayed here shows famous showman P.T. Barnum doing pretty well for himself in 1863. In addition to his impressive $19,400 income he possessed a number of carriages and 700 grams of silver plates. He paid a total of $978 in taxes. Even compared to his well-off neighbors in the Fairfield, CT area, who paid between $6 and $250 in taxes, Barnum was doing exceedingly well.
Researchers can use this resource to find out about the business endeavors of nineteenth century Americans. Barnum himself had a great deal of success, as the 1864 Annual List shows. Just one year later, his annual income increased to $35,000! That year Barnum paid over $1700 in taxes. According to Fox, paying income taxes was a point of nationalist pride during the Civil War. Barnum, a noted abolitionist, may have partaken in this particular bit of patriotism, perhaps even more so after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation the previous year.
The Annual Tax Assessment Lists’ Annual Lists are a great resource for local history. By tracking the annual licenses, one can really get a sense of a town or city. These lists can reveal the rise of certain industries and reveal who was involved with certain trades, they can tell us how communities changed (or how they didn’t) during this time period. In the following image you can see the wide swath of American life captured in these lists. On this one page of Indiana District 1, Division 4 in 1867, we see where local citizens of Vincennes would have gone for a drink, to Brewer John Elmer’s – he even had a billiard table for Hoosiers to enjoy. Or they could get their liquor at Gimble Bros if they preferred! They could go bowling at Emmons, get their sweets at confectioner Eberwine, and hire lawyer W.H. DeWolf to handle their legal affairs. The record provides a vivid image of life in Vincennes, Indiana.
Four years later, in the 1871 list, we can see what has changed and what has stayed the same in Vincennes. Clearly, the retail alcohol business was doing well with Ebner’s Brewery and the Gimbel Bros still in business, as well as many more liquor and tobacco dealers. It looks like a number of the businesses from 1867 fell by the wayside. However, the lists do not tell the whole story.
Which brings us to some of the limitations of these assessment lists. They only tracked certain information, providing a snapshot of someone’s life. Did some of those other individuals die, or just leave the area? Did they change careers, their businesses fail, or did they not make enough money to get on the lists that year? There is added complication because the assessors only listed people with some margin of success. Unlike the census—at least from 1870 and onward—which captured people of all socio-economic statuses, races, ethnicities and genders, the assessment lists only captured people who had a business or a career that required a license, or made more than $600 a year.
Even if you know for sure that the person you are researching did one of those things, if you do not know exactly where the person lived it can be still be hard to find them on the list. Adding to that, the lists will often only use someone’s first initial with their surname. You may also find that there some gaps in the records.
However, other NARA resources can be used to solve some of these mysteries. Take F.G. Eberwine, the Vincennes confectioner whose business was taxed in 1867 but who was not represented in the 1871 list. From just the tax assessment list, we cannot know what happened to Mr. Eberwine. The census, that stalwart resource of genealogists, can help. See F.G. Eberwine on line 14 of the 1860 census, living in Illinois, and aptly listed as a “Baker & Confectioner.”
Now here he is in 1870, living in Vincennes, listed as a “Coal Agent”. Neither the census nor the tax assessment lists tell us why Eberwine switched careers, perhaps there was a downturn in the economy and coal was a more reliable seller than sweets. However, the two sources together fill in some of the blanks of Eberwine’s life.
The plethora of court cases found in Record Group 21, the Records of the United States District Courts, can shed more light on how the tax laws impacted American lives during this period. The courts are littered with people accused of not paying taxes or obtaining the proper licenses for their businesses, like distiller John Cone of Wisconsin and “lawyer” James S. Pritchett of Indiana.
After the Civil War Tax
The Civil War tax expired in 1872. While this gave Americans a reprieve from income taxes, excise taxes on certain goods continued. NARA’s holdings include some Assessment Lists from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though the holdings are generally much smaller. The 1894 Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act reintroduced income taxes, instituting a 2% tax on income over $4,000. The following year, the Supreme Court decision in Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust struck down parts of the law on the grounds that the income tax violated the rule stating that direct taxes must be apportioned as laid out in the Constitution, thereby declaring income tax unconstitutional in 1895. That year, Congress required income tax returns to be destroyed; the assessment lists were preserved because of the information they contained on business licenses.
Over the next 20 years, support for an income tax grew from farmers and populists, who were disproportionately affected by high tariffs, and by those in government who recognized the country needed more revenue. The Sixteenth Amendment in 1913 legalized income tax in the U.S. by removing the apportionment clause in the Constitution. NARA holds some assessment lists from the period of about 1914-1919, after the passing of the Sixteenth Amendment. The Revenue Act of 1913 imposed a 1% income tax on those who made over $3000 or couples who made over $4000. This impacted less than 1% of the population, far less than the Civil War Tax had. By this time the Collection Districts had changed dramatically from what they looked like in the 1860s and 70s.
Bureau of Internal Revenue Tax Assessment Lists are one of many NARA records held in our regional facilities that can illuminate life in nineteenth century America. These records cover a relatively short but prolific period of U.S. history. The Civil War began and ended, the Emancipation Proclamation and Thirteenth Amendments legally ended slavery in the United States; Reconstruction began in the South and the Indian Wars continued in the west. The 1860s saw the completion of the first transcontinental railroad and the Homestead Act that sent many Americans westward. The records can help researchers understand the history of businesses during the Gilded Age and into the First World War. The Assessment Lists provide unique insight into how some Americans fared during this tumultuous period. They reveal the arrangement of communities in the 1860s and 1870s and show how complicated tax laws impacted American lives.
 Fox, Cynthia G. 1986. “Income Tax Records of the Civil War Years”. Prologue (Washington, D.C.). 18 (4).
 Fox, “Income Tax Records of the Civil War Years”.
 Fox, “Income tax records of the Civil War years”