A charge, especially a pecuniary burden which is imposed by authority; as (a) A levy of any kind made upon property for the support of a government. (b) Especially, the sum laid upon a specific thing, as upon polls, lands, houses, income, &c.; as, a land tax, a window tax, a tax on carriages, and the like. Taxes are annual or perpetual. (c) A sum imposed or levied upon the members of a society, to defray the expenses. — Webster, 1882
Americans believe in freedom, not in being taxed for their own good and bossed by bureaucrats. – Rose Wilder Lane
It’s not until the Ingalls family is living in De Smet, Dakota Territory, that the levying and payment of real and property taxes appears in the Little House books. Taxes are never mentioned in Pioneer Girl, with the first appearance in published By the Shores of Silver Lake (see Chapter 25, “Pa’s Bet”). Charles Ingalls has just returned from filing his Dakota homestead claim, and asks the girls if they will help him “win the bet” with Uncle Sam that Pa can stick it out on the homestead for five years and get title to his land. Caroline Ingalls says she is against gambling, and Pa replies that “nothing is certain but death and taxes.”
Nothing is certain / sure but death and taxes. Death is a certainty for all living things, just as in civilized society, the ownership of real or personal property is taxed in order to have funds with which to run the government. The saying is often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, Founding Father of the United States, in a November 1789 letter to his friend, the French physicist Jean-Baptiste Le Roy. (The saying had appeared in publication prior to this time, however.) In The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 10, collected and edited by Albert Henry Smyth (New York: Macmillion Co., 1907), the passage is translated as: Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. Franklin goes on to write about his heath, that he is getting thin and weak and can’t expect to live much longer. He died the following year.
Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t write about taxes in the first four Little House books, although as a property owner, Charles Ingalls paid real and/or personal property taxes when living in Concord, Pepin, Walnut Grove, Burr Oak, and De Smet. Real property means fixed property such as land and buildings, so homesteaders paid no property taxes on their land while living on it prior to final proof, but any land purchased outright from another owner or the government (such as a preemption) was subject to taxation. Personal property means the tangible, movable, or man-made items owned by an individual in the jurisdiction in which they live at the time of taxation. Studying tax records for a locality can tell you a lot about a person or family, because they can place a person in a specific location at the time of annual taxation. They can record which school district a family’s children were associated with. They can tell you the relative wealth of a person compared to those living nearby. They can tell you the numbers and kinds of livestock, farm machinery, jewelry, and musical instruments a person owned, plus their value. They can tell you the value and kinds of buildings standing on a person’s land. You can see see if a person paid their taxes on time or skipped out on them entirely.
Anyone who has turned to federal censuses to research Little House characters during the homesteading years can see the value of tax records, especially with the loss of most of the 1890 census; a lot can change in a family between 1880 and 1900! Tax records, combined with censuses and deed records give a more complete picture of someone in time, and all should three be used in your research when at all possible.
It’s interesting to look back at old tax records, although the old records can sometimes be tricky to find and be granted access to. Even though they are public record, you need to check the laws governing access in the states and counties in question. Check with the tax assessor’s office first. Records may have been lost or destroyed, they may be stored in a remote location (requiring time and advance notice to retrieve them), or they may have been turned over to a historical society, library, or archive facility for storage. These will have their own rules for access. If you’re able to research at a Family History Center, check their records for tax records that may have been microfilmed.
Just because you’re repeatedly told that certain old records don’t exist, you shouldn’t necessarily take that as the gospel. I’d been researching in De Smet for over a decade when, in 2010, I discovered 100 years of old tax record books (shown in the photo on the navigation button that brought you to this page) in a courthouse vault. They appeared to have been stacked up and rolled into the vault on a hand-truck and the books were 2-deep along the entire length of the vault, with other records lining the other side and on a shelf overhead. The unlocked vault had sets of double iron doors with a deep air space between them, which the janitor was using for mop and broom storage. With permission of the county commissioners, I spent weeks photographing each page of as many applicable record books as I could; luckily the oldest books had been placed in the vault last.
A bit of one of the pages is shown above. Do you recognize any names?
Tax collector. A tax collector is one who gathers and records the payment of compulsory government-levied tariffs. When fictional Mr. Edwards visits the Ingalls family during the Hard Winter, he tells them he is going west to avoid having to pay taxes. It is unclear where the character is supposed to have been living prior to meeting Pa in Brookings, but note that what he mentions paying taxes on (his horses, yoke of oxen, and cow) were personal property typically taxed.
Tax collectors are historically looked upon unkindly and are often depicted as evil characters in literature, as evidenced by Mr. Edwards’ statement that they would tax the lining out’n a man’s pockets to keep funding the town. His disgust is that every little thing seems taxable, and it’s true that no sooner did the pioneers start being the least bit prosperous, the government began separately taxing the very items they were then able to purchase, such as an organ or gold jewelry.
Early tax collectors in De Smet included Louis Whiting, Visscher Barnes, Warren Cooledge, and Charles Tinkham, who reported to the newspaper that people were avoiding him! It must be noted that late in life, when Caroline Ingalls was on a very limited income, her taxes were written off (ignored) by the kindly – not evil – tax collector, knowing how much of a struggle it was for her to pay them.
tax (TLW 11; LTP 4, 9)
collector (TLW 11)
“nothing is certain / sure but death and taxes” (SSL 25; TLW 17)
“tax the lining out’n a man’s pockets” (TLW 11)