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Roots & Branches: Income tax records for genealogists

The date of “April 15” resonates with most folks as synonymous with the deadline for filing taxes – even if this year the federal deadline is Tuesday as a result of April 15 falling on a Sunday and April 16’s designation as “Emancipation Day” in the District of Columbia.

The subject of federal income tax is a good illustration to genealogists that one must be careful in concluding that what we “know” about a subject in the present day is correct for an earlier time period.

First of all, be aware that the tax deadline was March 15 in the 1950s and earlier (so much for the significance of “April 15”).

But, more importantly, while today’s income tax information is kept private as a matter of law (more on my view of privacy and what I call “faux privacy” later), that wasn’t always the case.

Congress enacted the first income tax in 1862 to fund the Civil War. Everyone received an exemption of the first $600 of their income, but those above that amount paid a 3 percent rate up to $10,000, with a higher rate of 5 percent applying after that. Rates and brackets were changed later in the war, too.

And of special interest to researchers, the records of this income tax were and are open to the public.

My interest was first piqued when another research made me aware that a long-gone newspaper called the Berks Schuylkill Journal had published the 1863 returns for Berks County on its front page! Several of my ancestors were listed, but those who made the $600

cut didn’t beat it by a whole lot.

The records are also available on microfilm from the National Archives on its website at the URL,

An article on the Civil War income tax can be found on the National Archives site at this URL,

So now back to privacy. This year so far has been a great year for the opening of records – the 1940 U.S. Census on the federal level and death certificates through 1962 on the state level.

This is balanced against current attacks on the availability of the Social Security Death Index. A couple of congressmen are trying to curb access to this wonderful research tool because some deceased children’s Social Security numbers were used by identity thieves – causing undoubted pain to the parents of those children.

However, the solution isn’t to cut off access to this death index but rather require its use by the folks issuing identification documents, credit cards and the like.

Cutting off access to research tools in the name of privacy is always the lazy way out, and often ineffective – which is why I call such attempts “faux privacy” since it’s just for show.

Beidler is a freelance writer and lecturer on genealogy whose column appears Mondays in the Lebanon Daily News.. Contact him either at Box 270, Lebanon, PA 17042; or by e-mail at

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