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Historical Tidbit
Taken from Michael Upchurch 1624-1681, page 60.
 
 

Tithes and Tithables of the 1600s
by Mae Davenport Cox

Americans have always been the subject of taxes, and that goes back to the earliest days of settlement by the English on this continent. The subject of taxes will be further discussed in upcoming pages, but here we’ll take a look at how colonists were assessed with Tithes.

One would think perhaps this related to the religious act of tithing a tenth of one’s income to the church, but the tithes in Virginia were of a different nature:

Tithe also had a more general meaning — any levy, tax, or tribute of one tenth... As early as the 1620s in Virginia, the term tithable meant liable to pay taxes or one subject to payment of taxes… In Virginia any person legally subject to a poll tax was tithable, that is taxable.1

Poll taxes were levies assessed per tithable (taxable person) and were divided into three different categories. Those were Public levies, County and Parish levy. Paul Drake,2 an accomplished author, gave a wonderful description of these:

The tithes you find in county records were and are secular in nature and served whatever duties the counties had that were not those of the churches. We have the idea that life, law and the church were but minor and incidental to life then; Wrong.

Taxes were complex and in some way affected every person living here who was considered to be of English extraction, just as that or any other tax had been viewed in England for millennia.

Whether viewed as a "tithe", a "head tax" or a "poll tax", by 1623, tithes were imposed on every "planter" above eighteen years of age…3

The term "planter" was nearly synonymous with "landowner". Shortly thereafter, that age require-ment was changed to those males over sixteen.

The tithables consisted of all male natives of the country and imported free persons above sixteen; and all male white servants and all female white servants who worked in the ground, and all male and female Negro and Indian servants whether above or under sixteen.4

So it is that White females and children under sixteen weren’t counted as tithable; caveat: White females who owned land or who had inherited their husband’s real property were responsible to report any tithables living on, or working on that land.

In the early-to-mid 1600s, the list of tithables was taken on June 10th each year. Each county appointed "able and discreet persons"5 to compile the list of those living within that county. Once the justices deemed those lists to be accurate, the names were forwarded to the office of the Secretary at Jamestown, who then submitted those to the legislature. By this method Burgesses were kept informed of each county’s taxables.

Throughout the seventeenth century, the law was amended, yet the definition of tithables remained quite the same. There were some exceptions for those who otherwise would have been taxed. Those exceptions, each requiring approval by the court (occasionally by some higher officer or panel), were those truly destitute and without real property, those who were physically or mentally disabled and depended on the parish or church for sustenance, and those who were incarcerated or otherwise legally exempt.

By June 10th of each year, to gain approval of all matters affecting tithes (except parish levies), the master of the household was required to report the names of the tithables for whom he was responsible. Undoubtedly, the colonists looked forward to June 10th about the way today we enjoy April 15th.

Fraud must have been an issue during this era as in 1663 penalties were outlined:

An act to discover concealed tithables was passed in the House of Burgesses session of September 1663 … Masters 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.6

Another source suggested that masters concealing tithables were fined ‘thrice" (three times) what the individual tithe amount was that year. Either way, it was a large enough penalty that most likely not many of the lists contained errors. Still, one way to avoid at least some small sum of taxation was to lie about the ages of children or servants. For that and other reasons courts were occasionally called upon to decide the "age", especially concerning Black and Indian youth and children of servants.

During the 1600s, the amount of taxes paid varied with the needs of the county or state. Burgesses determined what amounts would be needed in the months ahead, and the number of tithables was divided into that amount for each of them to pay.

Tithes were assessed and collected in pounds of tobacco instead of cash. Tobacco was basically the monetary system in the colonies; cash was a rarity.

Except for the exceptions mentioned, everyone paid the same amount. There was no leniency for any class of persons. Rich or poor, for each tithe you paid the same number of pounds of tobacco to the colony. Farmers struggling to make a living and wealthy landowners with numerous slaves paid the same amount per tithable.

But these taxes were not considered unjust, for a man’s wealth was most often measured by this count of family members, dependents, and slaves.

Just as now, during this era, the lists of tithes provided means to establish the county population and its various parishes. The population was estimated at four times the number of tithables.


1 Church and State in Colonial Virginia, Freeing Religion Resource Book, 1998, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

2 Paul Drake has a degree in history and has been a non-practicing lawyer (JD) since law school. A historian, his research has been, for the most part, in the Southern States and Ohio. Now retired, he is an avid genealogist and teacher and continues his passion for history. Paul has also written many "How To" books for genealogists and historians. His books are listed at www.drakesbooks.com

3 Institutional History of Virginia in the 17th Century by Philip Alexander Bruce; page 548.

4 William and Mary College Quarterly, Historical Magazine, Volume VIII., page 160.

5 Institutional History of Virginia in the 17th Century by Philip Alexander Bruce; page 550

6 http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/guides/rn17_tithables.htm
 

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