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Stamford Grand Lists

Physical Description of Tax Records
List of Records
Support for the Church
Support for the Schools

Taxation in Stamford, CT from 1641 to the Code of 1821

by Robert D. Towne
Library Committee
Stamford Historical Society
July, 1994

Introduction: The Grand List

There are many differences between early Colonial taxation and today's. Support for village, country (commonwealth or state), and the church were all included. School costs were only partly covered. Major building projects and wars were handled by special levies. Costs for routine public works were virtually nil, and the colonists' strong work ethic and family-oriented conservatism shielded them from large debt and welfare costs.

Stamford, under the jurisdiction of the New Haven Colony, was subject to the “Fundamental Orders” of 1639. Taxes were codified a few years later, combining a “poll” or “head” tax on every male over 16 with a general tax based on ability to pay, the latter measured by land and property owned as recorded each year in a “Grand List.” The concept of the “grand list” extends away back to English practice. Rates for village, church, and commonwealth, and levies for major projects and apportionment of country funds for schools were all based on property owned. This was felt to be equally fair to town and taxpayer.

The arrival of the new Connecticut Charter in 1662, placing Stamford under the jurisdiction of Hartford rather than New Haven did not change things, The tax codes in both jurisdictions were quite similar. However, as Stamford and other towns matured, injustices developed and objectives changed. Tax laws changed to cope, but the Grand List remains today at the heart of the structure.

The poll tax was written into Connecticut's 1650 code as a flat tax, not part of the grand list, levied on all men 16 or over. Ministers, disabled men and some members of government and others were exempt. In 1737 the flat tax was converted to an amount added to each individual's list of property. The polls became part of the grand list. The rate set was £18 per adult and £9 for youths under 21. Servants and children earning wages paid their own tax, otherwise parents, or in the case of apprentices, their masters paid.

The first “charge” in Connecticut was levied in 1637 by the Colony of Connecticut to pay for the Pequot War. It was payable in corn. The first charge in Stamford came only weeks after the settlers arrived in 1641 when a town meeting ordered a grist mill and dam to be built on the Rippowam River. The building was erected by a contractor and “other parts by those of the town fit to do the work.” The rate was said to be 5 shillings an acre of land for the mill, and 12 shillings a home lot plus 5 shillings an acre for the dam. Land ownership was proportioned largely on the sums each family had contributed to the purchase of Rippowam Plantation, thus the contributors' list was, in effect, Stamford's first “Grand List.”

The Connecticut Colony required every male to submit his own list of real estate and personal property. Each town chose three or four “listers” to monitor and process the lists. Warnings were posted on the town bulletin board. If a man failed to include an item it was forfeited, though in 1703 this was eased by merely including the “forgotten” item at four times its value (four-folding). Each man's list was sent to Hartford's General Court in October. The Court rebelled at the time required to examine them all, so after 1706 each town sent only summary lists to Hartford. The totals from all towns were added together in establishing the tax rate needed to meet Commonwealth needs, and its subsequent apportionment among the towns. Each town collected the “country” taxes from its residents and forwarded the sum to Hartford.

The Sweat Tax: Extremely important to the first two hundred years of Stamford history were the laws requiring each man to give time each year building roads, fences and gates, clearing and maintaining common lands, etc. In its first year, Stamford laid down these laws, appointed “fence viewers” and set a penalty of five shillings for failure. In 1642 every man had to contribute to the building of a house/fort for Captain John Underhill and a landing on the river. The code of 1650 ordered each able-bodied man to supply a team of horses and labor for two days a year, a rule that lasted until the Revolution, though wealthy persons could pay a fine to be used for hiring substitutes. [Stamford now spends more than 15% of its budget on such items; the colonists' “sweat tax” side-stepped this cost.]

Similarly, the men of the town were ordered to acquire muskets and powder, to organize train bands (militia) and take turns manning the palisade around the meeting house, Stamford's fort. Townsmen also were required to provide wood for the minister, (a good oxload apiece ca. 1695), but this was so hard to police it was replaced by raising the minister's salary, increasing taxes by 15 to 20 pounds annually. Many needs, such as firefighting, were volunteer.

Tax evasion was not a serious problem. In a small community, everyone knew his neighbor's holdings; nothing could be concealed, though it was claimed some farmers would send livestock to friends over the state line while making up their lists. There also were complaints (in later years) of counterfeit money.

The costs of commonwealth government were not a great burden on Stamford taxpayers. Under New Haven jurisdiction in the years from 1654 to 1662 an average of only £21 was sent to New Haven, payable in good money, beaver, wheat, peas, rye, pork, or beef. Stamford paid from 10% to 13% of the total paid by all towns. The rate of increase in the grand lists throughout the colony was very small from 1651 until 1775; inflation was very small.

Each town used its own grand list for computing rates for its three taxes: church, school (Society), and town expenses, Marcuse, in “Local Public Finance…” stated that local taxes in peacetime were about four times as great as Colony taxes. The Church and related activities absorbed two-thirds to four-fifths of all local expenditure. The burden of taxation was light, though heavier than believed.

Early Stamford received income other than taxes from sources such as fines and rents. David Waterbury paid to mow hay on the Noroton Islands, but paid no rent in 1685 because the islands were unproductive.

Colonial Stamford expenses included many interesting items. The town owned all the bulls allowed in the settlement. In 1669 the town voted to keep a tavern for visitors and travelers, paying the keeper £5 per year. In the 1670's, the town started a stockade. In 1673, needing a town gunsmith, Nathaniel Cross was sent for and given a house and land provided he stayed seven years. Stray animals were a concern; men were appointed to catch wild horses. In 1684 the town paid 5 shillings each for wolves, a 3-penny bounty for gray squirrels and a one-penny bounty for blackbirds. Two tything men were paid to see that strict sabboth-day rules were followed. Payments to sheep masters were made until 1706. Until 1664, William Oliver, the town warner or drumbeater, was paid 16 shillings a year for calling the populace to meetings.

In the beginning, land was the primary item in the grand list. Ownership expanded slowly at first; only 960 acres had been cleared and plowed by 1650. By 1680 only about one-third of the town lands had been allocated, though within a few years about 40% would be split off to neighboring towns. In 1685, King James II appointed Sir Edmund Andros who ruthlessly took over many government functions in New England. Fearing the recapture of undistributed land by the king, about two-thirds of the land remaining in town hands was distributed to townsmen beginning in 1687 and culminating with the “long lots” distribution between 1697 and 1699. The tax lists were useful in apportioning these land rights to settlers; in fact, the lists of 1680 and 1686 were carefully drawn as guides. Every man with an estate of £8 could participate, The “long lots” in the northern part of town were distributed to 69 qualifying families on the basis of one acre per 40 shillings assessment on the grand list of 1687.

As Stamford moved into the early 1700s, it was recognized that a man with a profession, business, mill, or trade had higher income than average. The land he owned was no longer a good measure of his wealth. Therefore, an amount was added to his list for his “faculty” or “assessment” as it was commonly called. Faculties were first placed on Connecticut lists in 1737, though Stamford grand lists included faculties as early as 1714. The listers were able to set any amount they chose, but this led to favoritism and inequalities. In 1771 a schedule of minimum assessments was worked out in Hartford. It allowed listers to assess more than the minimum if a lawyer, doctor, tailor, mechanic, merchant, etc. had a highly lucrative business. This, too, led to abuses, so in 1804 the discretionary clause was tightened and maximum limits were set,

The range of properties subject to tax also was enlarging. Livestock, houses, some household goods, mills, ships, etc. were required to be listed. Items were rated by quality: houses by their “smokes” (fireplaces), clocks by brass or wood works, carriages by style, etc. Though in place earlier, the concept of listing all types of property was codified in 1771. It was fairer to farmers and others who had large tracts of land but low income.

The list of items taxed by Stamford in 1781 include

Polls 21-70 Polls under 21
Acres plough land Cows, steers 3 yrs and up
Acres upland, mowing, pasture Heifers, steers to 2 yrs.
Acres boggy meadow mowed Oxen 4 yrs & up
Acres salt & fresh meadow Horsekind (grades by age)
Acres bushy pasture Swine 1 yr & up
Acres unenclosed land, graded Tons of vessels
Smokes (fireplaces), graded Clocks (graded)
Chaises (graded) Watches, gold, silver
(Coaches, phaetons added 1796) Silver plate, ounces
Money on interest Fourfolds

Sheep-growers in Stamford were given a small tax abatement from 1787 to 1789, and again from 1801 to 1813, The latter period was clearly an inducement to the herders. Connecticut was importing merino sheep and building woolen mills.

The number of taxpayers on the grand list of 1680 was 61. This almost doubled in the next 20 years. In the next 35 years it rose to about 325, and by 1775 it had risen to about 640. In the same period estimated population grew from about 300 to about 3600. As a rough figure, about one out of five residents was a taxpayer through that century.

When the Revolution started, Stamford was 16th in size of Connecticut's 67 towns, but ranked higher in wealth with a Grand List of £34,078 8s.

In the spring of 1792, Connecticut artisans rebelled against faculty and poll taxes they felt were unfair. Tax listers assessed a minimum of £5 against anyone engaged in a mechanical art. The listers decided who qualified and how big the assessment. This was a hardship for young craftsmen. A 23-year old cordwainer who had just married and worked alone was assessed £20! The poll tax was also unfair. Males 16 to 21 were assessed at £9; those aged 22 to 70 at £18. Artisans were responsible for poll taxes for all apprentices they boarded. In Danbuy, artisans made up only 10% of the taxpayers, but paid 40% of the town's minor polls. Over 1400 men (298 of them from Stamford) signed a petition, but the Assembly simply let the storm blow over.

Also in the late 1700s, land values had appreciated, but towns were reluctant to re-evaluate. As a result small farmers and livestock owners unwillingly joined the poll-tax payers in carrying much more than their share of the tax load.

The Revolution did not change taxing procedures. Listers were required to post notices in every school district on July 1. Each taxpayer had to list all taxable items in his (or her) possession on August 20, and submit this list by September 20. The listers then added the “faculties” or “assessments” and examined the lists for accuracy, subject to “four-folding.” After compiling, the Stamford Grand List was sent to the State General Assembly (to the Controller after 1796.)

Lee Soltow, author of “Watches and Clocks...” makes some very interesting observations. In 1798, 6,551 watches and clocks were taxed in Connecticut, while 36,432 polls were listed. Gold watches were rated at $17; silver watches at $5; brass- or steel-wheeled clocks at $10, and wooden clocks at $3.34. Timepiece owners had twice as much wealth in acreage and farm animals as the average, and items such as silver plate and quality fireplaces, carriages and horses were overwhelmingly in homes of those with timepieces. Conclusion: Look to the grand list and judge a man's wealth by the watch he owns.

Beginning around 1800 a number of items were added to the taxable list. In 1804, stores were added, rated as one, two, or three stories high, at $10, 20, and $30, respectively. In 1804 bank stock, rapidly becoming a popular investment for wealthy people, was listed at 3% of value. Despite this, there was little increase in taxable property in Connecticut. The value was actually lower in 1818 than in 1796; possibly wealth was shifting into assets not yet taxed, suggests Henry F. Walradt in “The Financial History of Connecticut.”

At this time resistance to unfairness in Connecticut's taxes led the Toleration Party to campaign strongly in 1817 for reform. “No state,” it was said, “suffered from higher or more unequal taxes.” Land was still the chief taxable property; newer forms of wealth such as capital, stock, bank shares, etc. were not listed or if so, at a low rate. The farmer paid about three times his share: A $20 cow was taxed as high as $233 in bank stock. A $2,000 farm paid taxes as high as $50,000 in money or stock. A day laborer with no property paid a sixteenth of his income in taxes. The fireplace tax was unfair; the rich mansion might pay no more than the little house next door.

A study by the selectmen of 76 towns showed an average town budget of eight cents for every dollar in the grand list. Poll taxes amounting to 30% of the total tax were levied on rich and poor alike. Farmers' cattle paid in another 30%. The cattle were rated at 30% of true values silver plate at only 5% and bank stock at 6%. Carriages were entered at 20% and watches at 40%. Land was classed as meadow, plow, or pasture without regard to its real value. Thus unproductive lands far from a market were rated as high as, or even higher, than lands far more valuable. Listers frequently inflated the value of properties of families recently moved into town...“strangers,” they were called.

The ground-swell from these inequities, together with the approval of a new constitution in Connecticut in October, 1818 and the disestablishment of the Congregational Church, relieving Stamford and other towns from the burden of collecting church taxes, led to overall tax reforms culminating in a new code in 1821. The master table of assessments was simplified. Buildings and land were given overall assessments with no details, thinning out the plethora of classifications in the listings. Polls were reduced to $40 for adults. School funds were allocated according to the number of pupils instead of taxable wealth. New computations were introduced for non-resident property ownerb and ministers.

Once again taxes were equalized and fairly apportioned.

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