Using Pennsylvania’s Real & Personal Property Tax Returns 1711-1913


Jack Landis, our April 2012 speaker, talked about using tax records and the genealogical information that can be found in those records. Pennsylvania tax records can be found in five places: local county government archives, local county historical societies, LDS Family History Centers, Pennsylvania State Archives, and the Pennsylvania Archives Third Series, Volumes 11-22 and Fourth Series Volume 7.

From 1683 to about 1711, the tax system was based on the English system and collected by sheriffs. Very few records exist from this time period. The Colonial system was from 1711 -1841. These records were hand written and standards varied; the only thing that mattered was that the tax had been correctly calculated. The Pre-Progessive System was from 1841-1913. The settling of Ohio caused Pennsylvania to improve its methods of finding taxable incomes. Records were standardized and on pre-printed from. The Progessive system is still in use today.

Mr. Landis said that each time period affected the records and their interpretations. He said that it was necessary to put oneself in the shoes of the tax collector and ask “what were they looking for at the time of the collection?” Tax lists depended on who was doing the collection – an assessor or a tax collector. People were not assessed on what they owned or possessed according to today’s standards, but on what the county needed in order to fill its tax requirements. Taxes were not based on the actual value of real estate.  For example – a farmer could have a large herd of cows but would only be taxed for the number of cows over a certain age – said age would vary from year to year.

Before 1840, there were three classes of tax payers:

freeholders … over 21 years of age and possesses land

inmates … over 21 years of age, living with a freeholder and owns no land

freemen … over 21 years of age, single, owns no property

A freeholder did not have to own personal property, an inmate could be taxed on personal property over a certain limit, and a freeman had no personal property over the limit.

After 1840, the three classes became:

owner … over 21 years of age, possesses real estate, and may or may not own personal property

tenant … over 21 years of age, lives on rented property, and owns taxable personal property

single person … over 21 years of age, single, living with an owner or tenant, owns no real property, and may own taxable personal property

Mr. Landis also talked about what property was considered taxable (land, horses, cows, stills, servants), non-taxable (chickens, goats, wagons) and exempt (soldiers, churches, schoolmasters). There were also three classes of taxable property: real (such as land), personal (such as watches, horses, pleasure carriages) and intangible (such as stocks, loans).

He also presented a case study using tax records to determine events such as marriage, age, death, and if there were minor children. The presentation had many commenting that they were going to have to go back and take a second look at the tax records they had copied many years ago and re-interpret the information on those records. 


written by  Becky Anstine



The Pennsylvania State Archives has the following tax records on microfilm …

Adams County Tax Records, 1798-1959 … 248 rolls (LC 15)

York County Tax Records, 1758-1772, 1774-1775, 1777-1789, 1792-1849 … 52 rolls. (LR 51, LR 146)