J. Elliott Russo, Ph.D.
The Somerset tax lists are the surviving record of the poll tax levied on free males over the age of fifteen and slaves of both sexes over fifteen. During the colonial period officials for each Maryland county collected taxes to cover the costs of provincial government and the established church as well as the various county expenses (e.g., maintenance of indigent residents, payment of jurymen, and per diem expenses for justices). For most counties just scattered lists have survived; only for Somerset County is a series of annual lists extant.
At the fall court session justices calculated expenses for the past year. Division of this figure by the total number of taxables present in the county determined the amount of tax due for each taxable person. The head of every household was responsible for his own levy and for the taxes due for his dependents. As each constable made the rounds of his hundred [geographic subdivision of the county] he kept a list, organized by household, of the people who were taxed. Because the courts fined household heads if they did not inform the constable of every dependent, these lists presumably provide an accurate record of the taxable population for each year.
Tables 1 and 2 demonstrate that although the tax lists are not available for every year, coverage is adequate for nearly forty years. For most years, the lists are both complete and legible. For those years in which lists are missing or worm-eaten, however, a significant portion of household information is lost. In 1722, for example, lists for four of the nine hundreds are missing. In 1728, the list for one hundred is missing entirely and three more survive only in fragments. The quality of the lists generally improves across the period (although the same cannot be said for the handwriting of the constables). Only two hundreds are missing from otherwise extant lists for the years after 1730 (Manokin in 1737 and Pocomoke in 1752).
Legibility is a distinct issue from completeness. For some lists, such as the Nanticoke list for 1725, the parchment survives intact, but the ink is so faded that the text is barely discernible. Other lists are marred by large water stains or particularly cramped handwriting. Yet over the period as a whole, only a tiny percentage of individuals are lost to illegibility. For the free population, less than 1 percent of names are completely illegible. On many lists constables included only the total number of enslaved persons in a household, not their names, but for the lists in which slave names are given, barely 0.5 percent are illegible.
Whether the lists are truly accurate depends not so much on their physical condition as on the competence and diligence of individual constables, sheriffs, and justices. The taxation process involved several stages. Sometime during the summer months the constables would assemble their lists of households, at times evidently with the aid of a copy of the previous year's list. [ 1 ] The preamble on many lists suggests that information was gathered on a single day. Thus the preamble of one Monie list reads: "A list of [the] taxable persons in munny hun[dre]d tak[en] p. Francis White Constable of said hundred this 28th day of June anno Dom. 1730." [ 2 ] Yet it appears unlikely that as the population of the county grew constables could continue to make their rounds in a single day. Having assembled their lists for the year, the constables returned them to the justices at the August court session. The clerk of the court generally noted the return of the lists in the judicial record, as in 1737 when Thomas Hayward recorded that "the severall constables of the severall hundreds within the county of Somerset returns to the court their severall lists of taxables for this year." [ 3 ] The justices then appointed one of themselves to meet with the sheriff to inspect the lists.[ 4 ] In addition to examination by the court and the sheriff, the lists were made available for inspection by county residents, who could verify both their own taxables and those of their neighbors. Once the lists had been checked, the population totaled, and the taxes due per capita calculated, the constables or the sheriff returned to each household to collect the tax or some assurance of its future payment. [ 5 ] Some lists bear evidence to this second pass through the hundred with such notations as "Pd." [paid] or "Rd." [received] next to each household. The movement of households into the county or among hundreds during the interval between making the list and collecting the taxes occasionally caused difficulty for constables. Thus in 1739 Smith Horsey appended to his list for Manokin hundred "an account of Taxbells taken that was not in place at ye time of taking ye List." [ 6 ]
Although the system seems to have functioned well in general, there are instances of incompetence on the part of the constables and fraud on the part of householders. In 1708, for example, the county justices noted that the sheriff had to collect additional taxes from heads of household who "by neglect of ye constables was not in ye oridgenall list." [ 7 ] Householders who misrepresented their taxables occasionally appeared in court, as did John Roberts in 1735. The court charged that Roberts "did not write down or mention or cause to be written down or mentioned" his son Rencher Roberts; a jury found Roberts guilty of concealing a taxable and the justices fined him 500 pounds of tobacco. [ 8 ]
Neither pervasive incompetence nor deliberate fraud appears to have plagued the taxation system or to render the lists inaccurate. A more persistent problem lies in the varying degree to which constables (and justices and sheriffs) understood just who counted as a taxable and who did not. Several petitions to the county court indicate that taxable persons had to have resided in the county for the majority of the year and show some likelihood of continuing to reside there. While this stipulation did not affect the taxable status of most Somerset inhabitants, lack of attention to these criteria did result in the inconsistent inclusion of such transient men as mariners, traders, and merchants. In 1707 John McAlly, a merchant, informed the court that he "designs to depart the province this shipping but [is] listed as tithable in Wicomico [Hundred]." The court granted that he would be tax free if he "depart out of the province this year" but stipulated that Charles Ballard would be responsible for McAlly's taxes if McAlly did not leave. [ 9 ] In 1716 Thomas Murray and Abraham Lockwood also argued that they should not be taxed, noting that
whereas the cunstable of Manokin hundred having taken accot of our names in order to make us pay taxes wch. with submition to your worshipps we looke upon as a great hardship for yt neither of us are likely to continue in these parts twelvemonth nor have been amongst yow [sic] above four . . . .Murray and Lockwood clarified that "as foreigners coming here on account of trade [we] do presume we may be reasonably excluded[,] the like impositions being never offerd to us in any place we have been in." [ 10 ] The court agreed and discharged them from paying the taxes. These examples indicate, however, that if constables or inhabitants were uncertain about the rules, individuals could be included in the lists who technically should not be.
Changing perceptions about the status of women, especially mulatto and black women, also affected the accuracy of the tax lists and the comparability of the taxable population at the beginning of the period with that at mid-century. According to custom, the taxable population excluded free women. Yet free women do occasionally slip into lists, apparently because individual constables decided that free women who worked in the fields constituted taxable labor. In particular, free mulatto and black women appear in the lists with increasing frequency despite their status as free women. The inclusion of these women did not pass uncontested, which indicates that case-by-case decisions dictated whether free women were included in the lists, rather than directives from the county court or the Provincial Assembly. Two examples illustrate differences in perception about the status of women of color. In 1713 the court received a petition from "Sambo negroe" who informed the court that "yr petitioner hath been sett free by his master Mr. Peter Dowty ? his wife being sett free [also] craves yr worships [for her] to be tax free as being now a free woman." [ 11 ] The court recognized this change of status and ordered that Sambo's wife be tax free for the future. But by the 1740s, at least in some cases, constables regarded free mulattoes and African Americans as taxable regardless of gender. In 1743, for example, George McKean, the constable of Nanticoke hundred, noted at the bottom of his list that
there is two wemon of a dark complection lives at the head of Tipquin [Creek] that will not [give themselves in;] they are full as dark as most mallatos[;] they are of the breed of old Fortune[;] and Robt. Game never gave his wife to me since I have been constable she being dark skyned too.A subsequent note clarifies that "the two wemon [sic] above named refuse to give themselfs in for taxables" and presumably did not pay to McKean the appointed tax. [ 12 ] Apparently, for McKean, the relevant criteria for the taxation of women was skin color, not enslavement.
While free women occasionally slip into the taxable population, free males and slaves regularly slip out of it. Constables routinely left individuals off the tax lists if, in the opinion of the county justices, their physical condition prohibited working and therefore they were not taxable labor. Arthur Davis, for example, was tax exempt in 1734 because "being Sick [he] has Lost ye Use of his Limbs." [ 13 ] Those who were too old to labor or too poor to pay the levy also could be exempt either for several years or for the remainder of their lives. In 1739 Thomas Bazwell,
being seventy one years old forty three of which he hath payed taxes in this province and being reduced to great poverty by reason of his great age and infirmity of body it being with great difficulty he can even procure bread for himself and aged wife humbly pray[ed] . . . that he may be sett tax free. [ 14 ]Petitioners often played to the emotions of the court with descriptions of their past service to the community and their current troubles. In 1729 Daniel Munroe told the court that he
is now sixty five years of age and a cripple by a wound that I received in King Williams wars in whose services was seven years and have paid my levies in this county thirty one years but am now become feeble by the hurts I have formerly received and old age which makes me uncapable to labour as I have done[;] my wife is dead about twelve months ago and [I have] two small children left to take care of . . . [ 15 ]Slaveowners frequently petitioned for relief from paying taxes for their slaves who were "past labour" or disabled. Thus David Johnson petitioned in 1734 for relief from paying taxes for
an negro lad about sixteen years old who has been troubled with fitts ever since he was five years old and by an accident in one of his fitts fell into the fire and has burnt both his hands so that he has lost severall of his fingers and thereby is disabled so that he is unable of doing your petitioner any or but little service . . . . [ 16 ]In nearly every instance, the court responded to petitions by granting tax free status for at least one year, and usually for the future or "until such time as [the petitioner] shall be restored to his ability of body to labour." [ 17 ]
Those who obtained tax free status from the court did not always disappear from the lists as they should. As a result of considerable turnover of constables and sheriffs, officials were not always aware of past decisions of the court. Consider for example the case of William Bowen. According to his petition to the court in 1735, Bowen had been omitted from the lists for several years because of illness, but "not having any note to shew" could not persuade the constable to leave him off that year's list of taxables. The court again discharged Bowen from paying taxes; presumably this time Bowen secured a note to show future constables.[ 18 ]
The accuracy of the tax lists is further undermined by enumeration errors. Several types of enumeration error could result in the omission of taxable individuals in the tax lists. For example, individuals may have been overlooked by the constable as he made his rounds through the hundred. The tax lists contain many examples of additions, as in the Bogerternorton list for 1735, when the constable appended the names of six men "not found in the list." [ 19 ] Alternatively, the constables could have mistakenly included one individual twice. [ 20 ] Confusion about hundred boundaries could result either in omissions or duplications. Families that lived along the boundaries between two hundreds could be omitted if each constable assumed that these households were enumerated in the other hundred. Duplications were more likely to be corrected, as householders would naturally resist being taxed twice. In 1747, for instance, Thomas Moore, the constable of Nanticoke hundred, included a memorandum "to take Ewd. Corby and Covington Mezick out of this list being Entred in Wiccomico List as [they] should be." [ 21 ] Other constables were less certain. Joseph Gray noted at the end of his list of taxables in Baltimore hundred in 1739 "yt there is one Wm Robison ? Robt Engrom Living near Broad Creek Brige, I know not if they be Given to yt
Despite the pitfalls, the Somerset tax lists constitute a remarkable
series of documents. Transcribed, they yield over sixty-two thousand records
for free adult men, over thirty-two thousand records for adult slaves,
and over forty-one thousand records for households. The quality of the
lists is generally very good and the population enumerated is largely consistent
over time. Although such problems as enumeration errors, shifting definitions
of taxable status, and illegibility occur, they affect only a very small
percentage of the labor population. For the free taxable population overall,
the lists provide reliable information about its size and structure as
well as comprehensive residential histories.
For the purposes of transcription I have assigned sequential numbers
to households; these numbers do not appear in the original lists. The numbering,
beginning with the household in the upper left hand corner of each document,
follows the column format used by the constables. Every effort has been
made to provide a verbatim transcription of the tax lists. Technical considerations,
however, necessitated limiting the size of the name field to 25 characters;
as a result, some of the descriptive notations have been abbreviated or
truncated. The transcription includes a field for standardized names that
group phonetically similar entries. Please note that I have not yet attempted
to standardize names for the enslaved population. At present, individuals
who appear without a surname are presumed to be enslaved, although in a
very small percentage of cases men and women without surnames could be
mulattoes or free black servants; when prosopographic work with the Somerset
records permits me to link individual people of color across the lists
I will update the transcriptions accordingly. Standardized names for heads
of household and free dependents are intended to facilitate locating individuals
in the lists; they are not offered as "correct" or "official" spellings.
I tried to retain the spelling used most commonly by the constables across
the county and across the time period. In some cases I used contemporary
spellings (such as Montgomery rather than Mungumry) when the eighteenth-century
spellings were sufficiently different that researchers might not locate
relevant entries. Abbreviations of given names in the name field are those
used by the constables; in the standardized field I expanded the names.
Constables occasionally used the same abbreviations for different but related
given names (e.g., Jos. for Joseph, Joshua, and Josiah; Matt. for Matthew
and Matthias). Where possible I used lists for surrounding years to determine
the appropriate expanded name, but in the absence of supporting information
I consistently expanded such abbreviations to the most commonly used name
(e.g., Joseph for Jos., Matthew for Matt.). For those sections of the lists
where worm holes, fading, or poor handwriting create ellipses, I have tried
to reconstruct incomplete names and/or households; these reconstructions
appear in brackets and only include inserted material of which I am quite