Tithables – Everything You Wanted to Know

Tithables lists can be extremely valuable to genealogists.  We all know, in a general way, that males 16 and over were taxed, but fine distinctions in the laws and the process for creating the lists are important to understand because they can yield valuable clues for genealogists.  Since neither land nor personal property was generally taxed in the southern colonies, tithables are the most useful colonial-era tax records available to us.1

Tithables were annual “head taxes” levied on residents.  In Virginia, the tax was levied in three parts: to the colony, the county, and the parish.  The majority of the tax, in approximately equal amounts, was collected to defray the expenses of each county and parish.  The amount of the tax was set annually, and independently, by each county and parish.  Although the amount varied by location and year, it was relatively small burden on individuals, amounting to roughly 2 to 4% of the annual production of an average field worker.2 Since parish and county boundaries were not usually identical, each jurisdiction normally kept its own list of taxables.

In order to understand exactly what we can learn from tithables lists it is necessary to understand how the laws regarding tithables changed over time.

Early Virginia Tithables 1624-1704

Among the very first acts of the General Assembly was the imposition in March 1623/4 of a tax of ten pounds of tobacco levied “upon every male head above sixteen years of adge [sic] now living”.3

This terse language was apparently sufficient for several years.  For example, acts setting the amount of tax in 1629, 1632, and 1639 imposed the tax “per poll without further defining exactly what constituted a poll.4 (The term “tithable” does not appear in the statutes until 1643.)   It was apparently understood that the tax applied only to freemen.   As the population grew with the addition of indentured servants, slaves, working women, and non-citizens, it eventually became necessary to more clearly define who was to be taxed.  At the same time, counties and parishes were established, with their own needs for revenue and its collection, necessitating a more complete definition of the taxing process.  The language of subsequent acts suggests that these factors, combined with the concealment of tithables, became significant impediments to tax collection.  The following series of legislative acts addressed these issues:

  • 1643       An act establishing a tax for the support of the parishes defined tithables as “all youths of sixteen years of age as upwards, as also for all negro women at the age of sixteen years”.  Whether some now lost act had added negro women to the colony or county tax rolls is unknown.5
  • 1645       Virginia briefly instituted a tax on both persons and on livestock, repealing the tax on livestock in 1648.
  • 1648       Beginning with the tithables of 1649, all male servants imported into the colony were to be taxed, regardless of age.   Free men, whether imported or Virginia-born, continued to be taxed upon reaching the age of 16.6
  • 1658       Tithables were defined as “all male servants hereafter imported into this collony of what age soever they be, shall bee brought into the lists and shall be liable to pay countrey levies; and all negroes imported whether male or female, and Indian servants male or female however procured, being sixteen years of age, to be listed and pay leavies as aforesaid; such christians onelie to be excepted as are natives of this countrey, or such as are exempted from levies being under the age of sixteen years.”    That is, tithables included all imported male servants of any age, all imported negroes and Indian servants, male or female, 16 or older, and all free males 16 or older.  Masters of households were required to return a list of tithables to the county court during the month of June each year.7  This act was restated for clarity in 1662.8
  • 1661       Each county was ordered to establish four precincts, each with a tax commissioner.  Masters of households were to deliver to their respective commissioner a list of their tithables during the month of June.9
  • 1662       Another act removed a loophole.  Planters had been importing female servants to work in the fields to avoid paying the tax on males.  The General Assembly this year made taxable all women servants who were employed at “working in the crop”.10
  • 1663       One of the early attempts to define the collection process was enacted this year.  Masters of households were required to return to their precinct commissioner a list of the names of the tithables for whom they were responsible by 10 June each year.  Ages of tithables were determined as of 9 June.  A severe penalty was imposed for concealing tithables – anyone found to have concealed a tithable would forfeit either a servant or 1,000 lbs of tobacco to the informing party.  Tithable women servants were exempted from the penalty.11  [Beginning in 1673, the list of tithables was required to be posted at the local parish church, in part to encourage informers.]
  • 1672       All native-born Negro women 16 and older were made tithable, whether free or not.12 The same act required masters to register the births of Negro and mulatto children with the parish, to facilitate determining the age of future tithables.
  • 1680       The prior acts were amended to alter the age at which children were made taxable.  Imported male servants were made taxable at the age of 14, and Negro children were made taxable at the age of 12. 13 [Note that from 1681 through 1705, imported white servants born outside the colony were taxable at 14 rather than at 16.]
  • 1682       Indian servant women were made taxable at any age.14

Few tithables lists exist for the 17th century – Surry County being a notable exception – so in most cases, we need not deal with these constant changes and can skip directly to the 1705 act.

The 1705 Act

The act of October 1705 effectively replaced all prior statutes and redefined tithables in a way that would remain basically unchanged until the Revolution ended the tithable system.15 It declared that:

“…all male persons, of the age of sixteen years, and upwards, and all negro, mulatto, and Indian women, of the age of sixteen years, and upwards, not being free, shall be, and are hereby declared to be tithable, or chargeable, for defraying the public, county, and parish charges.

Thus, after 1705, tithables were all males 16 and older and all non-white servant women 16 and older.  In 1723, an act clarified that free Negroes, mulattos, and Indians (except tributary Indians) and their wives were taxable at the age of 16.16 As before, the age of tithables was determined as of 9 June.

The 1705 act required that each county be subdivided into convenient precincts, with a justice or commissioner assigned to take tithables for each precinct.  Masters or mistresses of households were to return to the justice a list of all tithables in their households, and concealment of tithables was subject to a significant fine – imposed on both the concealing party and on the justice of his precinct.  The date on which tithables were due remained at 10 June, with the age of tithables determined as of 9 June.  However, tithables could be delivered to the justices until the end of June without penalty.

In 1748, the Virginia legislature replaced and consolidated many of its prior statutes.  Among the statutes restated was a new tithables act, with the relatively minor clarification:  “all male persons of the age of sixteen years and upwards, and all negroe, mulatto, and Indian women of the same age, except Indians tributary to this government and all wives of free negroes, mulattoes, and Indians…”.  Certain persons, including county sheriffs and the staff of the College of William and Mary, were exempted.

How were the tithables lists compiled?

The process was not fundamentally changed after the 1661 and 1662 statutes.  Beginning in 1662, each county created precincts for tax purposes – though they were often vaguely defined and their boundaries subject to annual changes.   A commissioner, usually a justice, was assigned to each precinct to actually create the tax list.  Residents were required to deliver a list of the taxable persons within their households to one of those justices.  It’s important to understand that the commissioner did not go door-to-door, as in later censuses, rather the taxables were self-reported.  It follows that the sequence of names on a tithables list are not significant, since at best they reflect only the sequence in which the names were reported.  [They were frequently copied into an alphabetical list for recording purposes.]   To assure accuracy, the penalty for omitting or concealing a tithable was quite severe, and copies of the lists were publicly posted to encourage both corrections and informants.

Each parish followed the same process.  Although parish and county boundaries were often not aligned, it appears from the available records that the counties and parishes arranged to “share” both the precinct alignments and the commissioners, so that residents gave in their tithables only once.   (They usually used the same tax collectors as well.)  The counties and parishes set their tax rates independently of one another and each kept its own copy of its tithables list as well.

The 1705 act contains a reasonable description of the process which had already been in use for several decades:  “…every master or mistress of a family, or in his or her absence, or non-residence at the plantation, his or her attorney, or overseer, shall, on the said tenth day of June, by a list under his or her hand, deliver, or cause to be delivered, to the justice appointed to take the same, the names and number of all the tithable persons abiding in, or belonging to, his or her family”.

Lest this language be misinterpreted, it’s important to note that the purpose of compiling the lists in the first place was to identify the persons responsible for the tax and the amount they owed, so that the sheriff could later collect the tax.  Thus the first name in a “household” was the person from whom the tax was to be collected.  The names or numbers of tithables in the “household” represented the amount of the tax owed (the specific levy usually not being determined until later.)  Thus, the “household” was not a physical one, but rather a taxable one.

It was not, strictly speaking, required that persons report their tithables to the justice or commissioner for their home precinct.  If convenient, they could report to another justice.  Whether or not their name ended up on the correct precinct’s list is undeterminable.  As a result, we may find persons occasionally listed in a different precinct, giving the possibly erroneous impression that they had relocated within the county.  However, recall that the precinct’s justice had a significant incentive to assure that his precinct was correctly enumerated, and was therefore motivated to include the name on his own list.  This probably explains the occasional duplicate listing.

Finally, it’s important to understand the source of the list we might be examining.  The lists that still exist may be county lists or parish lists, or both.  They may or may not include corrections and exemptions.  They may be the original lists or clerk’s copies, or they might be the corrected and aggregated lists entered into the record by the county or vestry clerk.  The origin of the list therefore may affect our assessment of its likely accuracy.  In addition, we should keep in mind that spelling and penmanship varied considerably, and a justice’s list and a clerk’s list may very well spell the same name differently.

Implied information on tithable lists

  • Keep in mind that tithables lists do not enumerate physical households in the sense that later censuses did.  They merely enumerate each person responsible for paying the tax along with the number of “heads” for whom they were the responsible taxpayer.   Two individuals living in the same house, each an individual taxpayer, would probably be listed independently.   And two individuals living in separate  households might often be listed together as taxables.
  • When there are multiple names, the first name is that of the “master or mistress of a family” (the person responsible for the tax), followed by the names or number of the taxable persons for whom that person would pay the tax.  In the 18th century this was males over 16 (children, overseers, apprentices, servants, and slaves), and non-white, enslaved or indentured women over sixteen.  A free male 21 or over was legally responsible for his own tax, and thus should be listed separately — although we can’t be certain that this was always the case.  As early as 1644, “master of a household” was defined as meaning the person in “command” of the farm or plantation.
  • When a male appears as an independent tithable, it is reasonable to assume that they were of age.  A separate appearance on the tax list indicates tax responsibility, which was normally assumed upon reaching majority.  This does not indicate that the person was maintaining a separate physical household.  In the case of males between 16 and 21, their parents, guardians, or masters (in the case of apprentices or servants) were responsible for the tax.
  • The age of persons on the list was calculated as of 9 June of the same year.  This can be a very valuable genealogical clue, since the first appearance as a tithable implies the last date on which the person could have turned 16.  In the case of disputes over age, the county or vestry courts adjudicated.
  • Apprentices typically were taxed to their master, that being a typical provision of an apprentice’s indenture.
  • Although free white women were never tithables themselves, a widow or spinster can appear on a tithables list if they were responsible for taxes on male children, servants, or slaves.
  • The sequence in which names appear on a list is not significant, for the list was self-reported by the taxed persons themselves, rather than by a door-to-door assessment such as was done for later censuses.  That is, we can’t draw any conclusions about neighbors from the tithables lists.  The precinct in which names appear only identifies the general geography in which they lived.
  • The sequence in which names appeared within a “household” usually followed the custom of listing immediate family members first, then other freemen followed by servants or apprentices, with slaves listed last.
  • It is reasonably safe to infer that male children taxable to a parent or master, regardless of age, are unmarried, for they would otherwise be responsible for their own tax as “master of a family”.
  • Religion was not a factor in parish tithables lists – all persons were responsible for the support of the parish regardless of their own religious affiliation.  Nor was nationality a factor.

Who was exempt?

The 1662 act made certain colonial officials exempt from paying the parish tithables tax, and exempted Anglican ministers from paying the public portion.  In 1643, poor persons who were unable to work due to infirmity or age were relieved of the county tax, though it was left up to the individual county courts to determine who would be exempted.  It is probably safe to assume that these exemptions were made only to those unable to work.  The parishes seldom exempted such persons, for the parish made provisions for supporting them where necessary.

The act of October 1705 provided for local discretion, exempting “such only, as the county court, and vestry, for reasons, in charity, made appear to them, shall think fit to excuse”.  This permitted the county courts to exempt whomever it wished from the public tax, and allowed the vestry to independently exempt persons from the parish tax.  It is likely that exemptions were mainly for the aged and infirm who were unable to support themselves.  The act of 1748 contained nearly identical language, exempting “such only as the county court, for charitable reasons appearing to them, shall think fit to excuse.”   Exempt persons were normally included in the lists, but noted as exempt or as taxable “to the parish”.  If a person was exempt, you may find a court or vestry record of that exemption.  The county courts also sometimes exempted county and parish officeholders, and the 1748 act formalized that to exempt ministers, constables, and other officials.

Note that the substantial fine imposed for concealment of tithables encouraged even exempt persons to be sure they were listed.

Value of Court Records

You should carefully check court records for information related to tithables.  The local county and vestry courts adjudicated ages of tithables, processed appeals, handled jurisdictional disputes, processed exemptions, and determined the ages of slaves, orphans, and servants.  Court records thus often contain supplementary information that you’ll find helpful.  In addition, the court records defining the precincts and appointing their list-takers usually describe the general bounds of each tax precinct.  Finally, court records also frequently contain mention of persons added to, or deleted from, the tithables lists subsequent to their recording.

After the lists were recorded and the number of taxables identified, the courts determined the amount to be levied.  In Virginia, the Sheriff was responsible for actually collecting the tax (and was paid a handsome percentage of the amount collected).  The collection process normally uncovered additional taxables or generated the appeals found in the court records.

The Switch to Poll and Property Taxes

When the colonies became independent, the tax system changed significantly.  In Virginia and North Carolina, after a brief experimental period, it shifted to taxing mainly males over 16 and to taxes on personal property and land.

For example, Virginia enacted several statutes to change the capitation tax system beginning in 1777.  One focus of these acts, illustrated by the act of 1780, was to tax “every free male person, above the age of twenty-one years, who shall be a citizen of this commonwealth, and also upon all slaves, to be paid by the owners thereof, except such free persons and slaves as shall be exempted on application to the respective county courts through age or infirmity.” 17 The act of 1783 clarified that “nothing in said act contained, shall be construed to prevent the several county courts from causing lists to be taken of all free male tithables, between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one years, and of imposing taxes upon all such for the purpose of county or parish levies.” 18 The act of 1786 completed the switch.  The majority of capitation tax lists from 1779 through 1787 taxed 21-year olds, but nothing prevented the individual counties from taxing males at 16, and some did so.  [You should carefully check the applicable laws and county court records to interpret tithables lists made during and after this period.]

North Carolina Tithable Taxes

Unfortunately, nearly all the North Carolina General Assembly’s acts prior to 1715 are lost, but then so are all but a few of the very early tax lists.  It appears, though, that the compilation and composition of tithables lists closely paralleled Virginia’s.  North Carolina’s acts of 1715 and 1738 defined tithables in much the same way as Virginia’s act of 1705, with a few relatively minor exceptions.  One of these differences was that the effective date for determining ages of taxables was January 1 in North Carolina.  North Carolina also taxed mixed-bloods slightly differently.  The language used in the 1738 act was crystal clear:

…every white Person Male of the age of Sixteen Years and upwards all Negroes Mulattoes Mustees Male or female and all Persons of Mixt Blood to the fourth Generation Male and Female of the age of twelve years and upwards, and no other Persons whatsoever, shall be deem’d Tithables.

An act of 1749 repeated this definition, which did not change until 1777, when the new State experimented with several tax schemes, including the introduction of a property tax, finally settling in 1784 on taxing free and indentured males over 21, and slaves of both genders aged 12 to 50.  Age-related exemptions were left up to the counties until 1801, when the state established a ceiling of age 50 for both free men and slaves.

  1. There were occasional taxes on land or other property levied at the county level.  For example, North Carolina briefly levied a tax on property from 1715 to 1722 and Virginia levied a tax on livestock from 1646 to 1648. []
  2. Although the tithables lists themselves are lost for most counties and years, the surviving court records generally contain annual records of the amount of the tax (per tithable) as well as of the total amount collected. []
  3. The Statutes at Large: Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature…, William Waller Hening, ed., Vol. I, p128. []
  4. Hening., Vol. I, p143, p196, p229. []
  5. Hening., Vol. I, p242 []
  6. Hening, Vol. I, p361-2. []
  7. Hening, Vol. I, p454-5. []
  8. Hening, Vol. II, p84. []
  9. Hening, Vol. II, p19 []
  10. Hening, Vol. II, p170. []
  11. Hening, Vol. II, p187 []
  12. Hening, Vol. II, p296. []
  13. Hening, Vol. II, p479-80. []
  14. Hening, Vol. II. p492. []
  15. Hening, Vol. III, p258-61. []
  16. Hening, Vol. IV, p133. []
  17. Hening, Vol. X, p501. []
  18. Hening, Vol. XI, p196. []