Tax rolls offer glimpse into city’s past

This article is posted by permission of the Alexandria Gazette.

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Tax rolls offer glimpse into city’s past

April 28, 1994 By Pamela J. Cressey

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Alexandria tax assessment in 1810 shows who owned and occupied property in town. The notations are from the researcher coding each entry with census data and geographical location based upon the tax assessor route map.

Historical archaeology fascinates me because of the possibility of linking real people to particular artifacts with written records. In this way we can tell personal stories of the past, which are more evocative than a standard historical account. 

Historic documents are a necessity when archaeologists study cities. How would you ever know which artifacts and foundations were associated with different groups and individuals unless written records are examined?

We are fortunate in Alexandria to have one of the most complete sets of tax assessor rolls of any historic city in America. People come to study Alexandria, often because these tax records exist. You may not feel as if you are helping out an archaeologist 200 years in the future when you pay your real estate tax to the City of Alexandria. But you are! If we maintain our files as well as the tax assessors of the past, the information will assist in the study of your life.

The tax rolls of the 19th century were made geographically, with the assessor walking around each block and noting the value of the property, name of owner and occupant. This last fact is crucial for archaeological inquiry. We must link a particular person to a property at a specific time in order to cross-relate an individual with artifacts excavated from the ground. This is difficult, because addresses are not given. Dr. John Stephens decoded the tax assessor routes for a city archaeology survey, thereby opening these records for easy access.

The tax rolls provide a lot of information. They note whether someone died by the use of "Est" (estate) after the name. The assessed value of the property is written and can be studied to determine the relative value of a property. For instance in 1810, William Rhodes owned a House (H) and Lot (L) valued at $500 on the County Wharf. Samuel Henson (negro) rented the property. From the census we know that Henson was a free black laborer with 6 people in his household. Was this an expensive house in 1810? No, because Henson's home was valued in the bottom 10 percent of all residential real estate in town. The highest 10 percent started at $4500.

The county wharf must have been a busy place in the bustling commercial port at the beginning of the 19th century. The wharf jutted into the Potomac from Union Street between Princess and Queen streets, where Founders Park is today. Other small houses also were on the wharf occupied by Lenard King, a white laborer, and Susanah Green , a white seamstress. Their rental homes were valued at only $150, as one another vacant structure. Other larger buildings, probably warehouses associated with the Jammeson and Taylor families also stood on the wharf.

By following the tax assessor every year you can get a view of Alexandria unavailable from any other documents. We can be thankful that Alexandria has kept its records and made them available from researchers around the world.