Friday, September 21, 2018

Following Clues in Land Tax Records

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Being a genealogist is a lot like being a private investigator. We start with a mystery and a person and then we dive into all of the possible sources that might solve the riddle. We leave no stone unturned, no matter how unlikely it might initially seem to us. And as we collect data, we hope to be able to follow the many bits of information as a path that takes us to a solution to our mystery. We sure do hope for that solution, don't we!?

My person - my brick wall ancestor - that I'm seeking out as a genealogical "private investigator" is my own Joseph Williams. Last time, we dove into land deeds, chancery records, and order books to narrow down his date of death. But mysteries still abound with Joseph. Where was he born? Who were his parents? Where was he in 1850 when he disappears from the census?

To work on answering some of these questions about Joseph Williams, I took a look at land tax records to see what answers they might give. As always, I will show how I work with these land tax records in collaboration with other record types. So let's see what these records have for us about Joseph Williams!

1. Probing Land Tax Records

The Library of Virginia has a list of all of the land tax records available for the state of Virginia. The LVA has also provided a helpful resource to learn about the content and use of land tax records for the state. I decided to look for all possible years that Joseph Williams was listed as a land owner in Powhatan County, Virginia. This way, I could get a sense of the record set as well as have sources that bookend his life in the county.

Since I have already determined that Joseph died between 9 May 1889 and 4 March 1895, I started with 1892 to see if I'd find him there. I anticipated to find him through 1895. So what did I find? I found him listed in 1892, 1893, and 1895. Oddly enough, he is still listed in 1896 but not in 1897. I know that he had passed by 4 March 1895, so my assumption right now is that he was listed through 1896 because his property hadn't been divided yet.

Next, I went to see the earliest records that listed Joseph Williams in Powhatan. The earliest two record sets for Powhatan are 1782-1820 (Reel 249) and 1821-1850 (Reel 250). Since Joseph was born about 1817, I decided to begin with the 1821-1850 reel. I hoped to find him in Powhatan by 1839 because he married Ona Ann Adams on 30 Mar 1838.

I also took note of any surnames I recognized during this search to use in further research. I noticed, for example, that Joseph Williams' father-in-law William Adams is first listed in 1828 with 168 1/2 acres of land. His property is listed as "H. W. Watkins Est." and was acquired "by deed from Edward Haskins." William Adams is listed again each year from 1828 through 1844. In 1845, William Adams' property is then listed as "William Adams' estate" as it remains through 1860. William Adams' wife Mary Adams is listed as well beginning in 1855. But what about Joseph?

1828 Land Tax record for Powhatan County, Virginia

Joseph Williams first shows up in 1842 with 90 1/4 acres. I didn't find him in 1839 as I had assumed I would. I knew already that he ought to appear by 1841 or 1842 because these are years he appears in land deeds for Powhatan County. But then he disappears from the land tax records until 1861 when he is listed with 22 acres. This may reflect a land deed that involves Joseph Williams from 21 May 1860. At this point, these land tax records just seem to add more questions rather than solving the ones I already had! Let's see how we can connect these bits of confusing facts, shall we?

2. Connecting the dots

When looking at land tax records, I discovered I had a lot of disconnected dots of information. For example, I have Joseph Williams in the 1840 census for Powhatan but he isn't in land tax records until 1842. I cannot find Joseph Williams or his mother-in-law Mary Adams in the 1850 census, and Joseph Williams isn't in any land tax records until 1861. But, Joseph Williams is in the 1860 census for Powhatan County. So where was this family in 1850?

There is an 1854 chancery record related to William Adams out of Powhatan. Additionally, there is a longer chancery record from 1860 that gives more records related to that earlier more abbreviated 1854 record. In it, we discover that William Adams died about 1843. We know his will was written on 3 Jan 1843 and - according to the information recorded with the will - that he had passed away by 1 Apr 1844. The 1854 chancery record confirms that William Adams passed away about 1843. But where did Joseph Williams go from 1842 until 1861 if we know that - for at least some of that time - he was in Powhatan? Some further clues lie in this 1854 chancery record.

Excerpt from page 1 of 1854-003 chancery record, Powhatan County, VA

The chancery record reads, "That by the said will after dividing the payments of his debts he directs all the balance of his estate to be kept together for 10 years, and that at the expiration of that time all his estate should be divided among his children." The 1860 chancery record outlines all of the later division of the land, which also explains the eventual appearance of Mary Adams (his widow) beginning in the 1855 land tax list. In the 1860 census, the widowed Mary Adams is living with her daughter Ona Ann and her husband Joseph Williams. My assumption is that Joseph Williams was living on the property of the deceased William Adams during 1850. This doesn't explain why he isn't in the census, but it might explain why he wasn't paying land taxes during the period of time William Adams' estate was being kept together.


The beauty of genealogy is that there is simply no end to what we might discover. Contrary to what some say - one's genealogy is never ever complete. We must always be willing to have our preconceptions and earlier conclusions questioned and possibly confirmed or proven wrong as new information presents itself. In my case with Joseph Williams, land tax records have not solved any mysteries but they have certainly fleshed out his story a little bit more.

Looking at land tax records also shows us that we must be open to finding records about other ancestors while we are searching for one particular individual. Some of these side cases often help us inadvertently on the mission we have at hand. I now have more information on William Adams to look into that might later write some of his story. His land came from the estate of a certain H. W. Watkins and William Adams came by the land from Edward Haskins. I'll need to look for this deed and see if I can find a will for H. W. Watkins. Who knows, maybe William Adams or his wife Mary are related to the Watkins family! I won't know until I look deeper, and I wouldn't have had this clue if I hadn't looked at land tax records.

Have you looked for your ancestors in land tax records? What mysteries have they solved for you, or perhaps what clues did they lead you to next?

Next time, we'll see what we can find out about other Williamses living in the vicinity of Joseph Williams. Until then, keep on following those clues as you encounter your ancestors through family history, remembering the past made present.

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