Valley of the Shadow
The Eve of War
Fall 1859–Spring 1861

Tax Records

The Chambersburg and Staunton City Tax Records

Virginia and Pennsylvania both levied taxes on real estate and personal property, providing the states with annual revenue and historians with valuable information. Each year, state tax assessors recorded the values of real estate (land and buildings) and personal property (such as watches, horses, wagons—and, in Virginia, slaves).

Pennsylvania separated its taxpayers into three categories: “freeholders,” who owned land outright; “tenants,” who rented their land from others; and “single men.” Pennsylvania assessors also listed the occupation of each taxpayer, assigning that occupation a taxable value, whereas Virginia simply taxed all free males over sixteen. Both states levied local and state taxes, while Pennsylvania also collected a “military fine.” Tax rates were universally low for all forms of property: under 1 percent in both states.

While the tax collector visited every home in the county, we have chosen to include only the records from the two county seats—Staunton, Virginia, and Chambersburg, Pennsylvania—and only for the year 1860.

Search the Records

Using the Real Estate Tax Records

Assessors in both states assigned collective values to “lots” of varying sizes held by individuals within the city limits. Pennsylvania distinguished between “seated” and “unseated” town lots, with seated ones containing buildings. Virginia did not make this distinction, but did separate building value from total value of the lot (including buildings), in separate columns. Both lists include undivided land apparently within city limits, in Chambersburg called “lands” and given a separate column, and in Staunton called “out lots” and listed along with other surveyed lots. Finally, Virginia recorded the place of residence of the landowner, whether in Staunton, in Augusta County, or in another county or state.

Staunton’s tax assessor carefully noted the location of each piece of property. The town’s lettered and numbered tax grid grew with the town, and was never fully systematized. The letters correspond to the sections of town as added in the eighteenth century: “O” for Old Town, “N” for New Town, “B” for Beverley’s Addition, and “S” for Stuart’s Addition. Most people owned only part, or several surveyed parts (lots), of a block, thus the designation “B 2 pts 7” would mean 2 parts of block B-7. Some also owned “out lots,” lots not on the tax grid but apparently within the city limits. Chambersburg’s assessor divided the town into two sections, North and South, probably along Main Street, but did not always record this information on the tax list.

The land tax records can give you a quick idea of an individual town-dweller’s wealth. Search for Michael G. Harman in Staunton, for example, and you’ll see a varied profile of landholdings, from his $5,000 residence ($7,000 including the land) to a small vacant lot worth only $50. His counterpart in Chambersburg seems to have been A. J. Eyster, a merchant holding a similar portfolio of real estate. Or look for Robert Campbell of Staunton, whose lots and buildings totaled over $3,000. Campbell, a free man of color, stood as the exception to prove the rule, as the vast majority of free black men and women—North or South—did not own any property at all.

Other fields give more information about the property. The “Estate” field for Staunton tells whether the lot was owned outright (“in fee simple”) or in trust for someone else. Chambersburg’s list is only for “freeholders,” who by definition held their property in fee simple.

“Note” fields include various information, either about co-owners, trustors, or the transfer of the property. Rev. Joseph Clark of Chambersburg, for example, sold his $100 unseated town lot to J. B. Miller; Michael Oates of Staunton similarly transferred “part of” his $1,100 lot to J. Rohr. Staunton’s “Note” fields sometimes designate certain buildings, like law offices, a residence, or the American Hotel.

You might also compare Chambersburg’s overall landholdings to Staunton’s, searching, for example, for all seated town lots worth more than $1,000 (in Staunton, search on the column marked “Value of lot, including buildings”). In Chambersburg, this will retrieve 142 individual records, or 16 percent of the total, as indicated in the “Statistics for This Search.” (Note that several landholders have two or more records, each representing one or more lots.) In Staunton, notice the difference: the 208 individuals holding $1,000 or more constituted 44 percent of the records. There are several possible ways to explain the difference. First, Staunton city limits may have been drawn to include only the most valuable land; indeed, city limits were tightly drawn until after 1860, when they were greatly expanded. Second, it appears a larger number of people shared the landed wealth in Staunton than in Chambersburg; but look again. Note in Staunton that the total value of lots including buildings for those 208 records was $709,423. This represented over 85 percent of the total value of all town lots and buildings (which was $834,193, as indicated in the statistics box). So 44 percent of the records represented 85 percent of the landed wealth in Staunton. You might perform a similar search on less valuable lands, say, those worth less than $100. Be cautioned, however, that such a search will not necessarily show you the poorest people in town; it will only show you the least valuable property, which may have been owned by wealthy landholders like Harman or Eyster.

Using the Personal Property Tax Records (Pennsylvania only)

Personal property records are more straightforward than real estate. In addition to the tax on occupation values, Pennsylvania taxed horses, cattle, money invested for interest, furniture, watches, and carriages. Virginia proved more diligent, taxing 22 different categories of property or persons. White males and free Negro males over 16 paid a tax for themselves and on their slaves aged 12 years or over. They also paid tax on horses and mules; two-wheel and four-wheel “pleasure carriages”; stages; carryalls; watches; clocks; pianos; harps; and plate worth over $50. Income taxed included interest on loans, dividends on state or corporation bonds, and fees of office over $400. Certain occupations were taxed specially, including physicians, attorneys, and bridge- and ferry-operators. As with the land tax books, you can search for individual or family names and get a quick look at some of their more valuable property.