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Colonial Tithables

Guide to colonial-era tithable lists in Virginia

Legislative History

In March 1657/8, an act passed in the House of Burgesses declared that all African Americans and Indigenous people (both male and female) over sixteen years of age were to be placed on the tithable lists. Between the first and last of June, heads of households were required to return a list of all tithables to the clerk of the county court to be recorded (Hening, 1:454–455).

In an attempt to stop fraud among sheriffs bringing in tithable lists, the House of Burgesses passed an act in March 1660 requiring that each county be divided into four precincts. A commissioner was appointed in each precinct. The constable alerted the county’s inhabitants to bring tithable lists to their commissioner by June 10 (Hening, 2:19). According to an act passed in the House of Burgesses on March 14, 1661/2, the commissioners, who were appointed by the court, were to post a notice on the door of the church notifying the public when the tithables would be received before the June deadline. At August court, the commissioners delivered an account of the tithables to the county court clerk, who then returned a list to the clerk of the House of Burgesses (Hening, 2:83–84). By an act passed in December 1662, all female servants who worked a crop were to be considered tithable and levies were paid for them (Hening, 2:170).

An act to discover concealed tithables was passed in the House of Burgesses session of September 1663. Every year, heads of households were to give an exact account of tithables (with names) by June 10 to the magistrate appointed to receive the list. Heads of households concealing tithables forfeited a servant to the informer. If the concealed person was a freeman or a servant with less than a year to serve, one thousand pounds of tobacco was forfeited for each person concealed. Women servants were exempted from this act (Hening, 2:187.)

In its continuing efforts to discover concealed tithables, the colonial government passed an act in October 1670 requiring tithable lists to be made public. At the court held after the June deadline, justices delivered the tithables to the county clerk, who made a copy and put it on the courthouse door where it remained all day. This procedure allowed persons living near those who were concealing tithes to discover and report the fraud. Penalties for fraud were the same as those passed in the act of 1663 (Hening, 2:280.)

In the House of Burgesses session of September 1672, an act was passed “concerning tythables borne in the country.” Those persons appointed by the court to take tithables were also charged with taking an account of “all negro, mulatto, and Indian children.” The enslavers of these children attested to their age. This act also required the employers or enslavers of African American children born in Virginia to register their births within twelve months in the parish register. Those who failed to register children paid a levy on them that year and every year until the child was registered. All African American women born in Virginia were accounted tithable at age sixteen (Hening, 2:296.)

An act for “assertaining the time when Negro Children shall be tythable” was passed in the House of Burgesses session of June 1680. This act required that all Black children imported within three months of the act were to be brought into court and their ages adjudged by the justices and recorded. Black children were not considered tithable until twelve years of age. Christian servants imported into Virginia were not tithable until age fourteen (Hening, 2:479–480.) In the House of Burgesses session of November 1682, an act declared that all Indian women were tithable and charged with the same taxes as Black women brought into Virginia (Hening, 2:497.)

A more complete law concerning tithables was passed in the House of Burgesses session of October 1705. All male persons sixteen years of age and over, as well as all Black, biracial, and Indigenous women sixteen years and over, were declared tithable. The age of all children imported was adjudged by the county court and entered into the records of the court. (This type of record is generally found in the county court order book.) The court of each county divided the county into precincts and annually appointed a justice for each district. Each justice took a list of tithables for his precinct. Before June 10, the justice gave notice in writing (on the door of the church) where he would receive the lists of tithables. Lists were delivered to the justice on June 10.

In August court, the justice delivered his list of tithables to the county clerk, who posted the lists at the courthouse for public inspection. Heads of households that concealed tithables or justices returning inaccurate lists were fined. If an individual failed to deliver the tithables to the justice by June 10 as a result of illness or “ignorance,” the list could be taken to the justice’s house between the tenth and the last day of June without penalty. The governor and his family and beneficed ministers were exempt from the tithable lists (Hening, 3:258–261.)

In 1723, the House of Burgesses passed two acts expanding the definition of a tithable. As a result, those subject to the tax included all free Black people, biracial, and Indigenous people (except tributary Indigenous tribes) above age sixteen and their wives (Hening, 4:133.) In addition to their tithable lists, all heads of households were required to list the names of every person between the ages of ten and sixteen “for whom any benefit of tending Tobacco is allowed by this Act.” In tithable lists, heads of households were required to distinguish which persons were primarily employed in the cultivation of tobacco. Those who violated the law were fined. Justices appointed to take the tithable lists compiled a separate list of persons between the ages of ten and sixteen, and returned these lists with the tithables (Waverley K. Winfree, ed., The Laws of Virginia; Being A Supplement To Hening’s The Statutes At Large, 1700–1750 [1971], 251.)

In an attempt to avoid paying levies, some heads of households removed their tithables from the parish or county before June 9. In the House of Burgesses session of November 1738, an act was passed that declared such activities illegal; as a result, any person engaging in this type of activity was fined. The act also stated that mariners and “seafaring persons,” not being freeholders, were exempt from being listed as tithables (Hening, 5:35–36.)

In the October 1748, the House of Burgesses passed an act exempting sheriffs and the "president, masters, scholars, and domestick servants" of the College of William and Mary from the tithable lists. The act also required justices to deliver vouchers, as well as tithables, to the clerk of the county court in August. The term “voucher” likely refers to the original list of tithes each head of household wrote down on a scrap of paper and gave to the justice. If an overseer failed to turn in a list of tithables, the enslaver was held responsible (Hening, 6:40–44).

Frequently researchers attempt to use tithable lists to establish an exact age for an individual. When free males appeared for the first time in the household of an individual having their surname, they were at least sixteen years of age. When a free male appeared under his own name rather than in the household of another, he was probably twenty-one years of age. Tithable lists, however, should not be used to establish the exact year when someone was born. Because the lists record only the taxable work force, they may not serve as an accurate indication of all enslaved individuals within a household. Researchers must look for a will, appraisal, or inventory for a more complete picture.

After the establishment of the personal property tax in 1782 (see Using Personal Property Tax Records in the Archives at the Library of Virginia), tithables continued to be one of the taxable categories. In some instances, the Library of Virginia has both tithable and personal property tax lists for a county. In some cases, the names on the tithable lists may not completely match the names on the personal property taxes, so researchers may benefit from examining both records.