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Property Tax Rolls and Assessment Lists

Tax rolls and assessment lists are among the best sources for determining the age of a historic building. They are also useful for determining chain of ownership of a property and for plotting the development of an area or neighborhood. In Wisconsin, these records exist for most counties and municipalities; very often they are more or less complete dating back to within a dozen or so years of when the area was settled.

Finding Tax Rolls
Ordinarily the assessor of a township or municipality produced three copies of the property assessments for a given year: an assessment list, which was subject to correction, and then two tax rolls. The tax rolls and the corrected assessment list are substantially identical. Normally

a copy of the tax roll became part of the county clerk or treasurer's records and was stored in the appropriate vault. The other copy and or the assessment list remains in the township or municipality. For the past twenty or more years the Society has been gathering local governmental records, among them tax rolls and assessment lists, for archival preservation in the Society's Area Research Centers (ARCs). To date, tax records have been thus collected for roughly a third of the state. The ARCs normally keep a complete run of the records up to 1900 and a five-year periodic sample for the twentieth century (e.g. 1898, 1899, 1900; 1905, 1910, 1915...). Thus, you should first look for tax rolls at the ARC serving the location being studied.

Should the tax records not be at the ARC, the next place to look is the county courthouse. Most often the county clerk has charge of maintaining the records, and they are usually stored in the clerk's vault. Unfortunately, courthouse staffs are not always aware that they have these records dating back very far. This is understandable because the staff have little occasion to use these records and thus sometimes tell researchers that the old records have been lost or disposed of. However, since the Society has been designated the repository of government archives in Wisconsin, local governments have been prohibited by law from disposing of their records without first offering them to the Society. Therefore, you should be slow to be discouraged when looking for these records. Polite persistence very often bears results, particularly if you can convince the clerk to take you into the vault to look for the records. Remember that the records are public information. But also remember that courthouse staffs have the responsibility to maintain the records in good order; this responsibility sometimes causes them to appear restrictive in allowing their use, and you are obliged to abide by whatever rules have been established.

If the records are not available at the courthouse, your next step should be the town, village, or city clerk's office in the locale you are researching. Many of these local offices maintain tax rolls or assessment lists dating back to the organization of the township or municipality. In small villages and townships the office of clerk is often a part time position, and therefore you may sometimes have to do some tracking down to get in touch with the clerk and the records.

Before you use a tax roll, you will need a property description
Once you've located the tax rolls for the area you are interested in, you will need to do a little background investigation to get ready to collect your data. The first thing you need to know is the legal description of the parcel you are interested in. For a parcel in a municipality you will need to know the block numbers and the name of the appropriate plat or subdivision. If the building you are researching predates the platting or subdividing of the municipality, you will also need to know the geographic description of the parcel: its town, range, section, and quarter section. If the parcel does not lie in a municipality, the town, range, section and quarter section will suffice. Your abstract should provide you with this information. If you do not have an abstract, consult the Register of Deeds office in the courthouse.

Next, select a time frame for your research. The time frame you choose should be broad enough to include any remotely possible date of construction for your building. It usually is advisable to begin the time frame with the earliest available tax roll and to extend it for twenty or more years after the suspected time of construction. This will allow you to spot whatever development may have occurred on the site in the years prior to the construction of the building, and also give you a reasonable certainty of finding construction within the time frame. If, while you are collecting your data, you do not find the expected jump, you should then extend the time frame until you do.

What do tax rolls tell me about a property?

Gather and Analyze data to learn what a tax roll can tell you about a property.
Now you are ready to collect your data. Beginning with the earliest usable tax roll, find the assessment for the parcel you are researching. This sometimes takes a bit of scanning through the list because different assessors organized the lists differently. Occasionally an area was laid out in government lots prior to subdivision, and you may have to determine which government lot the parcel was in. If such is the case, check with the Register of Deeds.

Record the acreage, the assessed valuation, the name of the owner, and the name of the person who paid the tax for each year within the time frame. If for a time the parcel was part of a larger piece of property or assessed in a combination with other parcels held by an individual, make a note of that fact, or of any other information you find which seems important.

Can you believe what a tax roll tells you about a property's value?
Property assessments are useful for dating old buildings because they reflect capital improvements to a parcel of land. Most often a substantial jump in the value of a parcel from one year to the next indicates that construction has occurred. Further, tax rolls and assessment lists name the owner of a parcel and/or the person who paid the tax on it in a particular year. Taken over a succession of years, this information can be used to establish a chain of ownership. Finally, assessments over time for a number of neighboring parcels can be studied to determine the pattern of development for an entire area or neighborhood.

Although analysis of tax records is essentially straightforward, there are potential pitfalls to be aware of. First, the change in property assessments over time actually indicates a couple of things in addition to property improvement. General economic trends of inflation and recession drive the assessed valuation of real estate up and down. Periodic reassessments revise assessments which then, barring any capital improvements, remain stable until the next periodic assessment. Therefore, when analyzing assessment data it is advisable to keep an eye on the economic trends operating in the area. This will prevent your being misled by a rise in valuation attributable to something other than capital improvement. You can accomplish this simply by observing the assessments on a parcel which you are certain was not improved during the period under examination and which is located near the parcel you are studying. Valuations of the two parcels should fluctuate similarly, in parallel fashion, until improvement occurs on the parcel you are interested in. Then the value of the improved parcel should jump while the value of the unimproved parcel should remain relatively stable. This technique will be discussed in depth in a later section.

Second, when using tax rolls to determine chain of ownership, be aware that the owner of record is not always the person who pays the tax on it. Sometimes knowing that an individual who did not hold title to a parcel was paying tax on it can lead to some interesting speculations, although it would be impossible to draw conclusions from such information without other evidence.


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