John M. Smith case study #14

Tax Records of Mercer County

While in Mercer County, we still need to cover one more big record group. Tax records. I know you’re thinking, “BORING!”, but when you are studying people named John Smith, you can’t just stick with the “fun records” because then you’ll lose some potential clues.

I often say that tax records are my favorite and here are a few reasons why:

  • The tax lists are like an annual census
  • They can help you to figure out when a young man comes of age, helping to zero in on an approximate date of birth
  • The way the names are grouped together can help to show you family groups
  • Significant changes in the number of acres owned can signal a deed that you haven’t found yet
  • Seeing a woman’s name in the tax list usually means that her spouse has passed away allowing you to search for probate records
    • A woman had one year to go through the sadness of her widowhood, then had to start paying taxes. However, sometimes she had someone else in the family or a neighbor pay those taxes. You will find the entry under the name of the person paying, but it will state who the taxes were being paid for.

The tax lists change quite a lot over time. I read through a resource[1] written by Kandie Adkinson years ago detailing how to use tax and land records. I tried to pull out specifics that are helpful for me. This is a list of changes specific to Kentucky that I keep nearby while looking through the lists:

  • 1792 – Kentucky became a state. Tax lists before this date will be found in Virginia. All free males above the age of 21 to be included in the lists.
  • 1793 – Landowners were now allowed to pay their taxes in the county in which they lived, even if they owned land in other counties. (But the counties in which the land could be found were noted in the lists.)
    • If there are multiple tracts of land listed, I believe the line with the numbers (tithes, horses, etc.) shows which tract the person lived on (but that’s just my theory).
  • 1794 – A standard form was designed for the Tax Commissioner. Now included: watercourse.
    • This is a great help for telling apart men with the same name with land in different areas.
  • 1795 – The tax lists added columns for the name of the person who originally entered the land, had the land surveyed and who had the land patented. More hints for previous deed records.
    • A lot of these records include a small map showing the shape of your ancestor’s land.
    • If the name is not the same as the taxpayer’s name, then they purchased or inherited the land.
  • 1797 – “all male persons of the age of 16 and upward” were considered “tithables”. The tax commissioner now had to keep a written list of all tithables in the family.
    • In my experience, the tax lists always seem to have a column for Tithes above 21 as well.
  • 1804 – a two-year grace period was given for the payment of delinquent taxes.
    • If your ancestor was missing from the list, check the court records for entries showing when he may have come to court to pay the overdue taxes.
  • 1810 – Tax commissioners were selected “in the bounds of each militia company” to take in all lists of taxable property “within the same”.
    • Taxpayers had to travel to the militia company’s place of muster and file their tax lists between the months of April and June. This was not an indication of military service.
  • 1811 – The above was amended. Taxpayers weren’t bound to participate in the muster.
  • 1821 – An additional column added to show the number of children in each school district between the ages of 4 and 14. (But it doesn’t appear that it was consistently recorded.)
    • In 1840, this changed to number of children between 7 and 17.
  • 1840 – The columns for Entered, Surveyed and Patented were removed.

Additional hints:

  • Ditto marks were used to indicate the information remained the same horizontally, not from the row above.
  • Persons may not have owned land, but if they were over 21 and if they owned a horse they should be included in the tax lists.

Let me show you a few examples of the kinds of hints you can find.

  • In 1795, there are 5 men named John Smith. FIVE!
    • John Smith (Col.)
    • John Smith (Capt.)
    • John Smith (Taylor)
    • John Smith (Blacksmith)
    • John Smith (Son of James)
    • This is how the names appear – with the words in parentheses.
    • This particular tax list is for personal estate, not real estate, so there is no information to help divide the men based on the amount of land they owned. (I believe there is a tax list with real estate available through inter-library loan from the Library of Virginia, but I have never done that. Perhaps if I make it back another generation.)
      • Because I’ve taken a look at deeds and probate, we know who Captain John Smith and John Smith (Taylor) are. (I now believe “Taylor” is his occupation just like “Blacksmith”). John Smith “son of James” only shows up in 2 tax lists and has no land in either of them. And John Smith (Blacksmith) disappears after 1797. That doesn’t mean he isn’t there, it just means there is no John Smith labeled as a blacksmith. County boundaries were changing as Kentucky organized itself as a state and land was being granted to men who fought in the war, so he could be anywhere. But the hint we are following is that John M’s son, Elias, was born in the Danville area in 1810, so that does rule out a few of these men.
  • The following year, in 1796, we see
    • John Smith (son of James) – no land, but followed by James Smith with LOTS of land
    • John Smith (Taylor) with 232 acres
    • John Smith (Captain) with 700 acres (300 of which was in Bourbon County)
    • John Smith (Col.) with 200 acres in Mercer County and 5200 acres in various other counties
    • John Smith (Blacksmith) with 500 acres in Lincoln County, but listed in the Mercer County list.
  • By 1799,
    • John Smith (Col.) has 8950 acres, none of which appears to be in Mercer County. This is the last time he is listed in the Mercer County list. He appears in the 1800 list in Shelby County, Kentucky and his Findagrave entry says he died in Shelby County, Tennessee.
      • There is one 1802 deed in Mercer County[2] for John and Chenoe Smith selling 420 acres to Joseph Thomas. Doing a Google search for John and Chenoe Smith shows that this is Colonel John Smith. Chenoe was the first white child born in Kentucky and her name is the Native American word for “Kentucky”. You can see a brief biography at His Findagrave memorial is #8494261. The Findagrave information says that he was married to Chenoe Hart in 1797. While the marriage date and the amount of land and slaves would match the clues I collected from the Oscar Smith biography at the beginning of this study, he was not in the Danville around in 1810 when Elias Smith would have been born.
    • John Smith (Captain) still has 700 acres
    • John Smith (Taylor) has 230 acres
    • John Smith Jr. appears with no land
  • A last word about the tax lists. The Kentucky tax lists for many years asked in whose name the land was entered, surveyed, and patented. The earlier the tax records, the more likely a person was to remember the history of the land. If I see that a piece of land was entered in the name of Azor Reece, I’ve got a pretty good idea of who that tax entry matches. Land was not always entered, surveyed, and patented in the same name, so there are great additional leads in the tax lists – especially if you’re looking for a deed when the number of acres changes. I’m not going to go through my reasoning on all of the tax lists, but future charts will contain that information – but no endnotes. That’s just too many!

I originally wrote all of these John Smith blog posts months ago. As I prepare to move each chapter to the blog, I always re-read with fresh eyes and try to think of new avenues to research. What did I learn from these tax lists? By looking at the various tax lists and seeing the water courses and in whose name entered, I have been able to move a couple of things from the Captain John Smith chart to the Colonel John Smith chart. This will be an on-going process as things are analyzed. If I didn’t have these charts that allow me to quickly connect names from the various types of records, I would probably never be able to sort these records out. I need to really take some time to do more analysis. I will also be looking for deeds based on changes in the amount of land each man was paying taxes on. However, I know that deeds were not necessary if a landowner was giving land to a family member and sometimes, deeds were made, but not recorded. To try to track land in these circumstances, I would need to begin following tax records for every child. And that’s a topic for another post.

I AM interested in trying to figure out why the amount of land John Smith the Taylor was paying taxes on changed so much from 1803-1805 and what happened to the land after that. So far, I have no clues for that and therefore, I’m thinking he may have been giving land to his sons or sons-in-law.

The tax lists also help me to pinpoint where a specific person was living at a certain time. When a person disappears from the tax list, I know that I need to look for clues as to where they might have moved or begin to search probate records to see if they had died. If a person had more than one tract of land, the tax list tells the county that each tract was in. Colonel John Smith had land in many counties, so when he disappeared from the Mercer County tax list around 1800, the tax list gives clues of where to search next.

Colonel John Smith does not appear in any of my future research, so I’m going to go ahead and combine his 2 charts into one. He will remain in the “Scoreboard” and if I do come across any additional information that helps me assign specific records to a man, I’ll update his chart, but I won’t be referencing them in the blog. If I decide to move a record from one chart to another, I plan to include reasons in the chart so that I won’t be confusing myself. All updates will be made to his chart in Google Docs.

Next Monday – how does Barren County, Kentucky fit into this puzzle?


  1. John Smith & Elizabeth Arbuckle – (son of John Taylor Smith)
  2. John Smith & Sally McDaniel
  3. John Smith – Taylor – updated
  4. Captain John Smith(not the father of John M. Smith)updated
  5. John Smith (d. 1812) – (cannot be John M. Smith)
  6. John Smith (d. 1815) and Elizabeth (d. 1820) – (not John M. Smith, not John Smith and Elizabeth Arbuckle)
  7. Colonel John Smith & ___ Little – most likely a first marriage for Colonel John Smith below, so charts are being combined
  8. Colonel John Smith & Chenoe – updated


[2] Mercer County, Kentucky, Deed Book 5, p4, FamilySearch film #7896915, image 12.