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UMass Amherst Libraries

Researching the Early History of Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley

Introduction

Tax records are available at both the state and local levels; in addition to the Massachusetts State Library, they can often be found in the town hall or local library, and sometimes have been transferred to a local historical society (for example, the Stone House Museum in Belchertown possesses early tax records for that town). These resources help identify residency and frequently include the names of heads of households, ages, relationships, occupations, the presence of enslaved people, wealth, personal property, livestock, assessed valuations, acreage, and property locations.These records more commonly document the lives of property owners and enslavers, but can be used to find evidence of enslaved persons and follow their stories. Often, enslaved people were documented only when they came into contact with the legal structures of early American life. As such, these records are important resources for African American history. 

Since tax records list the heads of households in particular areas at specific times, they often serve as substitutes for lost census records. Tax records are usually very complete resources because they include eligible voters and every owner, male and female, of real estate and taxable personal property. 

The 1771 Massachusetts Tax Inventory compiled the property of individuals in many towns (though not all towns’ records survive). One type of taxed property was “Servants for Life,” or slaves. In some cases “Slaves” were listed in a separate column for taxable income. In cases where tax lists are organized in this fashion, it can be used to easily determine which families enslaved people in an area.

Selected Materials in the W.E.B. DuBois Library Collection