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Tax Time

By Daniel Hubbard | March 25, 2012

A tax list entry for a carriage maker, 1865

Like so many others in the U.S. I’ve been working on my taxes. It is that time of year. As a family historian, my mind naturally drifts to a time before TurboTax, stacks of receipts even before real tax forms.

When Congress approved the first ever income tax during the American Civil War, it was not done with future genealogists in mind or even with the idea that it could be used to make a genealogical point. Shocking as this may be, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a genealogical point to be made.

Itemizing Hypotheses

Sometimes when we research, we find ourselves with many, many possibilities. We know that only one of them could be correct. It can take a lot of investigation to check each possibility. If there is no obvious match between a hypothesis and what is already known, then eliminating each option in turn can be a way of attacking a problem. There is another way. Scrutinize any assumptions you may have made to come up with your possibilities.

Trees are clearly the official plant of genealogy and I’m going to use a tree analogy but not the normal one. Think of the tree’s roots as everything that feeds into the connection you are trying to find. They are all those little facts and important discoveries that are input to your problem. The branches are all the possible solutions. The trunk is the critical thing. All the roots gather there. All the branches look like they might connect there, even if only one can remain when all is said and done. In the end of the process, your imaginary tree will look like it has suffered some extreme storm damage with its one and only one remaining branch, if that.

You can carefully examine each branch. Prune the ones that are clearly rotten—get rid of the poor hypotheses. Then try to save each one that looks like it might be a good branch. That is one way to attack the problem.

Sometimes there is another way—adding to what is already known. Try to disprove the critical part where one good branch might connect to the roots. Instead of pruning the tree one branch at a time, see if you might not be able to chop the whole tree down.

A Tax Exclusion

Now, back to those Civil War income tax records. What if you have gathered information about an ancestor and you are trying to find a record of his Civil War service. If he had a common enough name you might have many soldiers that could be your ancestor. What if none of them were? What if your ancestor was one of the many men who kept the home front going? What if instead of checking many soldiers that could be him you found a record that was clearly him that showed that none of the soldiers was right? That would bring you many steps closer to reality.

A remark in from an 1863 draft register that clears up any questions about later service

There are often many records that can disprove hypotheses far faster than any hypothesis could be proven. Those Civil War tax records can show who was not a soldier when they were made. I also like to show a Civil War draft register where in the remarks for one man it reads, “one eye out.” He, most likely, did not become a soldier.

So try taking a step back and check to see if you have any implicit assumptions that you might be able to disprove and chop down a whole tree of hypotheses.

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