Peter Ashenfelter- 1798 Taxation

Tax list for Peter Ashenfelter in York Co., Pennsylvania, 1798. Via
Tax list for Peter Ashenfelter in York Co., Pennsylvania, 1798. Via Note that in Colonial times, an ‘f” was often used for ‘s’ in writing/printing, especially if the word contained a double ‘s.’ (Click to enlarge.)

Beerbower Family (Click for Family Tree)

If you are a Beerbower descendant, you may have never heard of Peter Ashenfelter. You likely know your relationship to Anna Mae Beerbower Helbling, the wife of G.W. Helbling, however. Peter was her 3rd great-grandfather; that is five generations. Now add how many generations you are from Anna Mae, and you will see how far back this line goes. Well, actually we know Peter’s father, too: Philip Jacob Eschenfelter (German spelling), born in 1716 in Germany, so that is six generations from Anna Mae to our immigrant ancestor.

Family history and stories only tend to last 2-3 generations, so we are pretty far removed. But the documents created when our ancestors were alive can help us make them more than just names and dates- they can help to tell their stories.

In July of 1798, the Federal Government of our new country was concerned about an impending war with France due to treaty negotiations gone awry and the famous “X,Y, Z Affair” in which France tried to extort money as a bribe from the Americans. Congress therefore passed a bill in which lands and dwelling houses would be assessed a value, and slaves enumerated; that act was followed by another to collect a direct tax on citizens to generate funds for war, based on the valuations.

The tax had to be fair- it needed to be an across-the-board tax; that requirement was foremost in the minds of Congress. They had enacted the distilled spirits tax back in 1791, but it affected mostly farmers and distillers. That group in Western Pennsylvania rebelled against the tax in 1794 and the Whiskey Rebellion had to be put down by US Marshals plus the threat of a militia with President George Washington at the head, prepared to put down the rebellion. (The rebels fled as the army approached.) We had Scots-Irish ancestors in Western PA at this time- wonder if they were involved in the Rebellion? Another HeritageRambling, another research project…

Back to Peter Ashenfelter.

The 1798 House Direct Tax had three lists:

dwelling houses above the value of $100 and all their out houses (outbuildings, not the little house with the crescent moon on the door)

land lots


Owners were to provide information- there were up to 10 forms per owner!-  that was current as of 01 Oct 1798. If an owner was not at home, a message would be left to provide the list within 10 days; if the owner refused to provide information, they were fined $100 plus court costs, and the assessor was allowed to enter their premises to make his own list. The information would be compiled and posted publicly in at least four places per district; individuals had 15 days to appeal. Needless to say, the populace was not happy with this tax, nor the invasion of their privacy and recording of their assets.

This 1798 tax was also known as the “Window Tax” or “Glass Tax.” Because glass in a home was one of the most expensive building materials back in 1798, the number of windows were counted and the number of ‘lights’ or individual panes of glass were listed on the tax form. The material used to build the house and the size of the dwelling were also recorded, as they all affected the valuation of a house.

The tax rate for a dwelling house with out houses and land less than two acres was taxed at .02% for valuations between $100 and $499, and .03% for >$500 and <$1,000; for those with valuations greater than $30,000, the tax rate was 1%. The owners of slaves were taxed 50 cents for each slave.

Our ancestor, Peter Ashenfelter and his family of ten, had a home that was one story and made of stone. It was 36 x 24 feet- just 828 sq. ft. of living space, half the size of a small house today, with ten people in it vs. today’s average of 2.63 persons. The house did have 7 windows, though, and a total of 84 ‘lights’- that would make an average of 12 panes per window. Peter owned 2 acres of land, and thus the Assistant Assessor calculated a valuation of $434, which would incur 9 cents tax. The Principal Assessor, however, calculated $578, so the tax rate was increased and would be 17 cents. We are still looking for more documentation of what Peter actually paid.

The Glass Tax was repealed one year later, when relations with France had calmed down and there was no anticipated need to fund a war. It was also repealed because the German-Americans of Pennsylvania vigorously opposed the law because they did not view it as fair, and it probably wasn’t fair for most northerners- because Pennsylvania had few slaves, there was increased taxation on homes and lands, and thus small farmers paid more than they would have in states with large slave populations. The tax resisters marched, protested, refused to pay, participated in armed rallies, and even captured assessors. Federal warrants were issued, the militia called out, and 30 men were arrested and put on trial. Three of these men, including John Fries, an auctioneer who traveled the state and stirred up the rebellion, were accused of treason,  convicted, and sentenced to hang. President John Adams pardoned them, stating that the true definition of treason was narrower, and that those who resisted the tax were, “as ignorant of our language as they were of our laws.” Adams felt the German-Americans were being used by the the opposition party who incited the rebellion, making his Federalist party unpopular, and indeed that was the end result of “Fries Rebellion”, AKA the House Tax Rebellion; it was called the “Heesses-Wasser Uffschtand” by the Pennsylvania Dutch.

Learning more about the politics of the time helps us to have a better understanding of how our German-American ancestors lived. Adams’ quote tells us that our German ancestors probably spoke mostly German in their communities, and likely were not very educated. Germans were looked down upon at the time, especially since the memories of the horrible Hessian troops were still fresh in the minds of many English-turned-American citizens. It would be interesting to know if Peter Eschenfelter/Ashenfelter participated in this rebellion, and what he actually paid in taxes. We may never know, but it is interesting to realize that our nation was divided and in chaos at times even at the beginning, but we have survived united, somehow.


Notes, Sources, and References: 

1) “The Massachusetts and Maine 1798 Direct Tax” by Michael J. Leclerc. New England Ancestors. Boston, MA: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2000-2009. (Online database. New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2009.) (Volume 4.2, Spring 2003, pages 13-17.)

2) “Taxing Window Glass in 1798” by Stephen H. Smith, 10 Aug 2012, on York’s Past  website-

3) Interesting background information-’s_Rebellion

4) Average number of persons per household in 2009-2013:


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