A Sweet Substitute


I returned in one piece from my "across the pond" hike from Oklahoma to Arkansas and though genealogical discoveries were subtle, I do feel tickled with my results. Not laugh-out-loud tickled.

Just tickled.

My frustration with researching my illusory ancestor from Arkansas is not from my ancestor himself. Rather, I discovered I am dealing with a state whose county lines waxed, waned and evolved for a good part of the 19th century. An ancestor can live in one county one year and a different one the next without moving an inch.

Family research within states such as Arkansas make traditional on-line genealogy frustrating. Tracking ancestors by US Census records is no longer quick and easy, so in order to move forward, a family historian has to think outside the box. And I am pleased to say, my Arkansas box is holding an item not previously found:

A poll tax.

Poll taxes have been instituted within countries for centuries but with each country, the purpose of the tax has varied. In general, the poll tax is an across the board capitation tax of a fixed amount applied to the head of a household. And in the United States, the 19th century poll tax was a requirement for voting.

The US poll tax provided an unfair advantage to those who could afford the tax, ultimately reducing minorities the right to vote, which is why the tax was declared unconstitutional by the mid 20th century*. But to the delight of researchers such as you and I, the little known tax can provide a wealth of genealogical dividends.

Wading my way through the archived court records in Arkansas, I spied my ancestor's name on a poll tax for 1861. My heart flip-flopped when I made the discovery, placing my ancestor within a county when his 1860 Census record could not be found. The poll tax is a sweet little substitute when every other record is void.

And what was the significance of my ancestor's 1861 poll tax? It enabled him to vote in the election for or against Arkansas's vote for secession: A passionate die-hard Union loyalist eager to pay his tax in order to exercise his right to vote.

Poll taxes will most likely not be found on Ancestry.com or other on-line genealogical sites. I suggest researching within the holdings of your local genealogy library.

A subtle but sweet discovery for my illusory Arkansas ancestor that provides one more clue to his life and story.

Keep searching for answers,

(*Source: The Free Dictionary)