Goldberger Blog Post 2 – 1875 Durham Tax Records

Through these tax records, we can learn about the general work culture and positions of wealth in Durham in 1875. There are many categories included in this list that that allow the archivist to understand the working conditions during this era. A majority of the recorded data refers to the number of animals owned by each person. Instead of having a more general category that covers all animals owned, the tax record makes a deliberate effort to specify which animals are owned. This directly relates to an agriculture-based economy in Durham during these times. While discussing the ownership of animals by each recorded person, it is also important to acknowledge that a large majority of those who were able to own animals are men. This era strictly followed gender stereotypes, and this extends itself into the ability to act as an owner of property and material goods. Women are seldom recorded on this list, and I would infer that this would only result from a situation where she was a widow.

This record displays the varying level of socioeconomic status of Durham citizens in 1875. It is very apparent who was wealthy and who was not. This can be understood by analyzing the data from the chart. Someone like John M. Smith would be considered wealthy due to the 70 acres of land in his possession along with three horses. However, on the same page, P. Sonitho owns no property, placing him in a poorer category. In those days, wealthy was measured primarily through the land and animals one owned. Today, we could equate this to owning a number of houses around the world or having successful investments in a variety of companies. Also, the amount of tax dollars collected during these days is fascinating to analyze. For example, Jefoe Miller paid a total of $5.27 of county taxes which would convert to about $110 today ( It would be interesting to research if there were descriptions as to what percentage of the taxes went to which specific funds (education, infrastructure, etc) in 1875 to compare how the money was dispersed back then and where our tax dollars go today. Since analyzing this document, I have asked many more questions about the Durham culture in 1875 that I would like to explore in further depth. Understanding the emphasis on property and money during this era also allows us to analyze the types of jobs and environment that people experienced in Durham during this time.

While I know this archival document speaks volumes to the everyday life of an agrarian-based society in Durham, I am mostly curious about the way this information was recorded. Our discussion in class of Friday has challenged me to ask questions about what exactly gets preserved and how we choose to preserve it. Obviously there were no computers and smartphones during the late 19th century, so collecting this information through a handwritten document makes the most sense. However, I wonder how Durham chose who would have the opportunity to write the notes. Did they require everyone in Durham to go to the town hall to make sure this information was recorded? Were censuses dropped off at every house? I noticed that within this extensive tax record, the town of Hillsborough is spelled both “Hillsborough” and “Hillsboro.” The handwriting stays consistent throughout, but there are multiple versions of spelling this town. I would infer that these handwritten records took days to complete and that every sheet required attention and patience. I am wondering what would make the scribe vary in his/her spelling of this local town.

One last observation surrounds the process of analyzing these tax records. Seeing how pristine the primary source was in person made looking at the tax records digitally more difficult. I am not an expert at reading cursive anyways, but having to zoom in and out of the images to read names and numbers made this process much more frustrating than expected. Also, having two scanned pages for every person was difficult because I could not analyze the second page based on a specific person. It was too hard to count lines and ensure that I was reading the correct information regarding the correct person. The ability to scan this type of document and make it publicly accessible is an incredible resource, but I also think it is important to recognize the pros and cons of this type of research. I am now much more excited to see more documents in person so I can really spend time connecting with them!

One Reply to “Goldberger Blog Post 2 – 1875 Durham Tax Records”

  1. Tyler, I really like how you offer a historical reading of Durham via 1875 tax records. You raise important questions regarding the process of archiving itself, and you nicely reflect on your own process of reading the document. I encourage you to continue with your interest in wealth distribution and employment which were highly race and gender-based.

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