Early tax lists in Pennsylvania

The earliest tax list in Pennsylvania was made at Penn’s request so that he would know what quitrents he was entitled to. People who bought or rented land from him were obligated to pay a certain amount per year, depending on how many acres they had and the terms of their purchase. First Purchasers paid a shilling for every hundred acres; servants paid more (but got their 50 acres for free); people who got extra land for bringing servants paid even more. Before Penn’s arrival the Swedes had been accustomed to paying their rents in produce such as bushels of wheat, but Penn insisted on payment in currency. Currency was scarce in early times and this caused some resentment. 1 Penn complained in 1686 that he received none of his rents.

To remedy this, in 1689 he appointed John Blackwell, who had stepped down as deputy governor, as the receiver general. Blackwell was supposed to direct the sheriffs to collect the taxes in their counties, but soon found that there was no accounting system set up for this. He started by making a rent-roll, the first list of who lived in each county and how much land they owned. His list has survived for Chester County and Philadelphia County (and city), but not Bucks County. 2

Blackwell’s list is organized by block (in the city) and township (in the counties). Each entry includes the name, status (such as Old or Purchaser,), the quitrent, and the number of years the rent was due. Because Blackwell listed the people who were actually living on the land, as opposed to absentee owners, it is a good indication of who emigrated. However it does not include laborers, servants or others who were not responsible for the rent.

The earliest true tax was levied in 1693, controversial because it was partly intended to pay for the expenses of New York in defense against the French. For the Quakers of Pennsylvania paying for war in any form was against their pacifist principles, but the Assembly finally approved the tax under the bland rationale of “support for the government”.  3 The amount levied was one penny per pound of assessed value of real and personal estate, or six shillings for freemen (non-servants) who did not own real estate. People were not to be taxed if they had “a great charge of children” or were indigent.

The lists made by the Collectors and Assessors have survived and are available in various places. The list for Philadelphia city and county was published in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, volume 8. The list for Chester County was published in Futhey and Cope’s History of Chester County, while Bucks County was published in McNealy and Waite, Bucks County Tax Records 1693-1778. The original lists are in the manuscript holdings of the Pennsylvania Historical Society.

These lists are valuable for several reasons. They show who was living in a particular place in 1693. They show how much land they owned. And most important they give a picture of the wealth of time. You can look at the list and see the richest men in each county or the five richest men in the city. For the family historian or economic historian these are a valuable data source to be mined.

  1. Donna Munger, Pennsylvania Land Records, p. 34.
  2. Hannah Benner Roach published the list for the city; it is included in Colonial Philadelphians. Mary Maples Dunn and Richard Dunn published the full list in their Papers of William Penn, volume 3.
  3. William Rawle, Introduction to “The First Tax List for Philadelphia County”,  PA Mag of History & Biography, vol. 8.

Early probate records in Pennsylvania

When a man died in early Pennsylvania, most of the time his death set off a chain of legal events. Following procedures that were familiar from England, the survivors, whether Quaker or not, knew what they had to do. Within a few days of the death, an inventory was taken of his possessions: cash on hand, clothing, household goods and furniture, tools or farm equipment, livestock, grain growing in his fields. The men who took the inventory appraised the value of each item, and totaled up the worth of estate (not including the land).

In his will, if he left one, he named executors who were responsible for paying his debts and burial expenses, collecting debts owed to him, selling property if needed to cover the debts, making a distribution to the heirs, and making an account of the estate, starting with the assessed value of the inventory. They were supposed to file the account within a year after the death. In the case of a larger, more complex estate, it might take longer, and occasionally more than one account was necessarily filed.

If he did not leave a will, the administrators had the same responsibility as the executors. A surviving wife, if there was one, was usually the administrator, often assisted by a relative or friend. Sometimes in the will a Friend would specify that the monthly meeting should assist her.

Women did not usually make wills in the early years, and their estates did not go through this probate process. Her family would take care of her possessions and any debts, without any legal notice taken. There are some early exceptions. When the widow Agnes Crosdale died in 9th month of 1686, her sons William and John, along with Nicholas Waln and Robert Heaton, served as joint administrators, signing a bond to Phineas Pemberton the Deputy Register, and an inventory was taken of her estate.  1

The death of a husband could be devastating to a woman. By law she was entitled to one-third of the estate, both land and personal goods (one-half if there were no children). This was called the “widow’s third”. If he left a will that gave her less than a third, she could reject it and claim her portion. However, if he left debts, the creditors had a claim to the estate that took priority over her claim. If the estate had to be sold to satisfy the debts, she might be left with nothing. 2

In practice many poor people did not leave a will. When there is one, it is valuable for the genealogist, since it usually tells the names of spouses and children and the residence when the will was written. It is equally valuable to the historian, as it gives proof that someone emigrated, tells whether the wife was entrusted with the estate, and occasionally tells stories. For example Robert Jeffs in his will proved 2nd month 1688 asked William Penn to take note of unfair treatment by Thomas Fairman over a leased farm. John Tathum cut his disobedient daughter Dorothy out of his estate because he disapproved of her clandestine marriage.

The other estate papers are valuable too, especially the inventories. These give a window into the homes and life of the people, listing how many beds they had, how many pots, how many barrels of food. They allow a historian to look at the wealth of the community: how evenly it was spread around, how it changed over generations, what form it took. Because the inventories are so detailed, they are a source of data that can be mined to answer many questions. How valuable were people’s clothes? How much cash did they keep on hand? How many cows did it take to feed a family? 3

It is easy to access short abstracts of the early wills. For Philadelphia, Chester, and Bucks County they are available on the USGenWeb Archive. Note that Chester County did not register its own wills until 1714; until then they were handled by Philadelphia County. Bucks County registered some early ones until about 1693, then for twenty years they were handled in Philadelphia, then in 1713 they were again registered in Bucks County.

The Bucks County courthouse in Doylestown has the original estate packets, consisting of the administrative bond or will, inventory, and accounting of the estate. Many estates are missing one or more of these pieces, but the surviving papers are there. They will eventually be digitized, but for now if you want to see the full will or the other papers, this is the only source. Ancestry has an index: the Index of Bucks County wills and administrations to 1850.

The office of wills in City Hall in Philadelphia holds the original documents administered in Philadelphia County. There are three ways to see them, depending on how much detail you want to see. The wills were copied into will books, which are in the office. They were microfilmed and you can read them there. You can request the full estate packets, usually on a day’s notice, which are the only source for the inventory and account. 4

For Philadelphia County, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania has some valuable holdings. The photostats of the early wills and inventories are in a set of 25 volumes, to about 1725. (Call numbers Ph 1A:1, Ph 1A:2, etc.) They have some overlapping coverage in other volumes (Ph 3A, Ph 4A …) and an index at Ph 13A.

For Chester County estate documents, you will need to go to the Chester County Archive in West Chester. There is an online index, and a guide to the documents, available on their website. Remember that they do not have any estate documents before 1714.

  1. Original estate papers at Bucks County Courthouse, number 114.
  2. Lisa Wilson, Life after Death, Widows in Pennsylvania 1750-1850.
  3. There was only one thing that was not included in the inventory—the personal apparel of the wife.
  4. You will need to provide the estate number, which is the same as the one on the USGenWeb Archive list.

Finding the early Quaker vital records at the Pennsylvania Historical Society

If you are able to visit the library of the Pennsylvania Historical Society in Philadelphia, you will find a wealth of early Quaker records. The shelves of their Pennsylvania room hold rows of church records, bound years ago in green and brown. These are not the fragile original records, but copies or in some cases photostats of the originals.

HSP Quaker records

The online catalog of the Society, called Discover, allows you to search for particular records. For example, you could enter Philadelphia monthly meeting in the search box, then click on the Find button.  To narrow down the results, you could filter for Church records and registers. The results do not always pin down the contents precisely. Here are some of the more useful records for the earliest Quaker meetings, with their call numbers.

Note that the records are currently being digitized and will eventually appear on the FamilySearch website.

In the table below, older handwriting refers to the 1700s, while later handwriting refers to the late 1800s when many records were copied by William J. Buck, Gilbert Cope, and others. The later handwriting is easier to read, while the earlier handwriting gives you a feel for the original work.

FallsAn old handwritten list in alphabetical order. Bu 7F:3.
A later copy. Bu 7F:2 and Bu 3F.
An old handwritten list, Bu 7F:3.
An old handwritten list, Bu 7F:3.
A later copy in alphabetical order, Bu 3F.
MiddletownA later copy in alphabetical order, Bu 3F.A later copy in alphabetical order, Bu 3F.An older handwritten list, along with Falls Meeting, Bu 1F:3.
A later copy in alphabetical order, Bu 3F.
PhiladelphiaA handwritten copy in alphabetical order, Ph 1F:4.
An 1877 copy, roughly chronological, Ph 1F:1
A handwritten copy in alphabetical order, Ph 1F:4.
An 1877 copy, roughly chronological, Ph 1F:1
Abstracts of marriage certificates, alphabetical order, Ph 15F.
Abstracts in chronological order, Ph 1F:3 (and Ph 1B:2).
Both of these sources have some witnesses listed, but not all. Get those on Ancestry.
AbingtonTyped copy, roughly chronological, Mo 1F:1.
Births of Byberry Meeting (part of Abington MM), Mo 1F:10.
Typed copy, roughly chronological, Mo 1F:1.
Byberry records, later copy, Mo 1F:10.
Typed copy, roughly chronological, with witnesses, Mo 1F:1
RadnorLater handwritten copy, chronological starting 1682, De 15F:2
Different late list, chronological order starting 1680, De 15F:1
Later handwritten copy starting 1686, De 15F:1Abstracts with witnesses, De 15F:1.
A bare list taken from the minutes, starting 1682, De 15F:2.
Later abstracts (by Gilbert Cope), with witnesses, closed stack, FC County De.
ChesterLater copy, alphabetical order, Ch 22F:2.
Chronological order starting 1677, De 2F:1
Later copy, roughly chronological starting 1682, De 2F:1Abstracts with witnesses, in roughly chronological order, De 2F:1
ConcordLater handwritten copy, roughly chronological, De 9F:2Later handwritten copy, De 9F:2Later handwritten copy, few witnesses, De 9F:2.
Certificates with witnesses, alphabetical order with index, De 9F:1
DarbyLater handwritten copy, alphabetical order, De 13F:1Later handwritten copy, alphabetical order, De 13F:1List of marriages from the minutes, no witnesses, De 13F:1.
Newark/KennettA chronological list, Ch 9F:1, plus a later copy at Ch 9F:2.A later copy at Ch 9F:2A later list, in alphabetical order, Ch 3F:2