Colonial Tithables (Research Notes Number 17)


Legislative History | Case Study

In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Virginia, the term “tithable” referred to a person who paid (or for whom someone else paid) one of the taxes imposed by the General Assembly for the support of civil government in the colony. In colonial Virginia, a poll tax or capitation tax was assessed on free white males, African American slaves, and Native American servants (both male and female), all age sixteen or older. Owners and masters paid the taxes levied on their slaves and servants. Few tithable lists are extant. The Library of Virginia holds full or partial lists for about three dozen counties. A detailed guide to manuscript, microfilmed, and printed tithables is available in the Archives Research Room. See also the VA-NOTES entries on Colonial Taxes and on Tithables for a list of documents in the archival records in the Library of Virginia containing the names of people who paid the tax on tithables.

Tithable lists do not enumerate anyone under the age of sixteen or any adult white woman (unless she was the head of household). Laws published in Hening’s Statutes at Large may assist the researcher in understanding who was considered tithable and how tithable lists were taken. In an attempt to stop fraud concerning the “yearly importation of people into the collonie,” an act was passed in the House of Burgesses in 1649 requiring that all male servants imported into Virginia (“of what age soever”) be placed on the tithable lists. Natives of the colony and those imported free who were under the age of sixteen were exempt. (William W. Hening, ed. The Statutes at Large: Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619…[1809–1823], 1:361–362.)

Legislative History

In March 1657–8, an act passed in the House of Burgesses declared that all African Americans and Indians (both male and female) over sixteen years of age were to be placed on the tithable lists. Between the first and last of June, masters were required to return a list of all tithables to the clerk of the county court to be recorded (Hening, 1:454–455.)

In an attempt to stop fraud among sheriffs bringing in tithable lists, the House of Burgesses passed an act in March 1660 requiring that each county be divided into four precincts. A commissioner was appointed in each precinct. The constable alerted the county’s inhabitants to bring tithable lists to their commissioner by 10 June (Hening, 2:19.) According to an act passed in the House of Burgesses on 14 March 1661–2, the commissioners, who were appointed by the court, were to post a notice on the door of the church notifying the public when the tithables would be received before the June deadline. At August court, the commissioners delivered an account of the tithables to the county court clerk, who then returned a list to the clerk of the House of Burgesses (Hening, 2:83–84.) By an act passed in December 1662, all female servants who worked a crop were to be considered tithable and levies were paid for them (Hening, 2:170.)

An act to discover concealed tithables was passed in the House of Burgesses session of September 1663. Every year, masters were to give an exact account of tithables (with names) by 10 June to the magistrate appointed to receive the list. Masters concealing tithables forfeited a servant to the informer. If the concealed person was a freeman or a servant with less than a year to serve, one thousand pounds of tobacco was forfeited for each person concealed. Women servants were exempted from this act (Hening, 2:187.)

In its continuing efforts to discover concealed tithables, the colonial government passed an act in October 1670 requiring tithable lists to be made public. At the court held after the June deadline, justices delivered the tithables to the county clerk, who made a copy and put it on the courthouse door where it remained all day. This procedure allowed persons living near those who were concealing tithes to discover and report the fraud. Penalties for fraud were the same as those passed in the act of 1663 (Hening, 2:280.)

In the House of Burgesses session of September 1672, an act was passed “concerning tythables borne in the country.” Those persons appointed by the court to take tithables were also charged with taking an account of all negro, mulatto, and Indian children. The masters or owners of these children attested to their age. This act also required the masters or owners of African American children and slaves born in Virginia to register their births within twelve months in the parish register. Those who failed to register children paid a levy on them that year and every year until the child was registered. All African American women born in Virginia were accounted tithable at age sixteen (Hening, 2:296.)

An act for “assertaining the time when Negro Children shall be tythable” was passed in the House of Burgesses session of June 1680. This act required that all negro children imported within three months of the act were to be brought into court and their ages adjudged by the justices and recorded. Negro children were not considered tithable until twelve years of age. Christian servants imported into Virginia were not tithable until age fourteen (Hening, 2:479–480.) In the House of Burgesses session of November 1682, an act declared that all Indian women were tithable and charged with the same taxes as African American women brought into Virginia (Hening, 2:497.)

A more complete law concerning tithables was passed in the House of Burgesses session of October 1705. All male persons sixteen years of age and over, as well as all negro, mulatto, and Indian woman sixteen years and over, were declared tithable. The age of all children imported was adjudged by the county court and entered into the records of the court. (This type of record is generally found in the county court order book.) The court of each county divided the county into precincts and annually appointed a justice for each district. Each justice took a list of tithables for his precinct. Before 10 June, the justice gave notice in writing (on the door of the church) where he would receive the lists of tithables. Lists were delivered to the justice on 10 June.

In August court, the justice delivered his list of tithables to the county clerk, who posted the lists at the courthouse for public inspection. Masters who concealed tithables or justices returning inaccurate lists were fined. If an individual failed to deliver the tithables to the justice by 10 June as a result of illness or “ignorance,” the list could be taken to the justice’s house between the tenth and the last day of June without penalty. The governor and his family and beneficed ministers were exempt from the tithable lists (Hening, 3:258–261.)

In 1723, the House of Burgesses passed two acts expanding the definition of a tithable. As a result, those subject to the tax included all free negroes, mulattos, and Indians (except tributary Indians) above age sixteen and their wives (Hening, 4:133.) In addition to their tithable lists, all masters were required to list the names of every person between the ages of ten and sixteen “for whom any benefit of tending Tobacco is allowed by this Act.” In tithable lists, masters were required to distinguish which persons were primarily employed in the cultivation of tobacco. Those who violated the law were fined. Justices appointed to take the tithable lists compiled a separate list of persons between the ages of ten and sixteen, and returned these lists with the tithables (Waverley K. Winfree, ed., The Laws of Virginia; Being A Supplement To Hening’s The Statutes At Large, 1700–1750 [1971], 251.)

In an attempt to avoid paying levies, some masters removed their tithables from the parish or county before 9 June. In the House of Burgesses session of November 1738, an act was passed which declared such activities illegal; as a result, any master engaging in this type of activity was fined. The act also stated that mariners and “seafaring persons,” not being freeholders, were exempt from being listed as tithables (Hening, 5:35–36.)

In the October 1748, the House of Burgesses passed an act exempting sheriffs and the president, masters, scholars, and domestic servants of the College of William and Mary from the tithable lists. The act also required justices to deliver vouchers, as well as tithables, to the clerk of the county court in August. The term “voucher” likely refers to the original list of tithes each master wrote down on a scrap of paper and gave to the justice. If an overseer failed to turn in a list of tithables, the owner was held responsible (Hening, 6:40–44).

Frequently researchers attempt to use tithable lists to establish an exact age for an individual. When free males appeared for the first time in the household of an individual having their surname, they were at least sixteen years of age. When a free male appeared in his own name rather than in the household of another, he was probably twenty-one years of age. Tithable lists, however, should not be used to establish the exact year when someone was born. Because the lists record only the taxable work force, they may not serve as an accurate indication of an individual’s complete slave holdings. Researchers must look for a will, appraisal, or inventory for a more complete picture of slave holdings.

After the establishment of the personal property tax in 1782 (see Research Note 3), tithables continued to be one of the taxable categories. In some instances, the Library of Virginia has both tithable and personal property tax lists for a county. In some cases, the names on the tithable lists may not completely match the names on the personal property taxes, so researchers may benefit from examining both records.

Case Study

The following situation shows the value of tithable lists for researchers. Zachariah Hendrick, of Cumberland County, died leaving a will recorded in 1783 (Cumberland County Will Book 2, p. 315.) Researchers attempting to identify Zachariah’s father should first examine Cumberland County wills and deeds for the name Hendrick. The examination of wills does not provide the name of Zachariah’s father, but it shows that he had a brother, Obadiah. The will of Obadiah Hendrick (Cumberland County Will Book 2, p. 434) mentions his brother, Zachariah, and another brother, Benjamin. In his will, Obadiah Hendrick freed the following slaves: Old Ben, Young Ben, Moses alias Bachus, Dansey, Martin, Will, Harry, Artimy, and Bess.

Examination of the Cumberland County deeds shows that when Zachariah Hendrick first purchased land in 1765, he was a resident of Amelia County (Cumberland County Deed Book 4, p. 60). Clayton Torrence’s Virginia Wills and Administrations, 1632–1800 lists several wills for individuals named Hendrick in Amelia County. The 1777 Amelia County will of Benjamin Hendrick mentions executors, named Obadiah and Benjamin Hendrick, and makes a bequest to his son, Bernard Hendrick. No Hendrick will in Amelia County, however, mentions a son named Zachariah.

Fortunately, Amelia County has a long run of tithable records. In the 1746 list, Benjamin Hendrick listed Zachariah Hendrick as a tithable. 1n 1748, Benjamin Hendrick listed Zachariah Hendrick and Benjamin Hendrick Jr. In 1752, Benjamin Hendrick listed Benjamin Hendrick Jr. and Obadiah Hendrick. In 1762, Benjamin Hendrick listed Bernard Hendrick. These tithable lists reveal that Zachariah, Benjamin Jr., Obadiah, and Bernard were at one time or another listed as tithables in the household of Benjamin Hendrick Sr. The inventory of Benjamin Hendrick Sr. lists the following slaves: Ben, Bess, Harry, Joe, Peter, Bachus, Marten, Bob, Amos, Sally, Fan, Betty, Abigail, Rainy, Jenny, Rachel, Phebe, Silla, and Stephen (Amelia County, Will Book 2, p. 247.) The will of Obadiah Hendrick mentions slaves named Ben, Bess, Harry, Bachus, and Martin, which further connects Zachariah and his brother, Obadiah, to their father, Benjamin Hendrick Sr., of Amelia County. Only by using the Amelia County tithables is the father of Zachariah Hendrick able to be identified.

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