Pay Your Taxes!

Week 15: #52Ancestors – Taxes

By Eilene Lyon

The moral of this story is written in the title – pay your taxes, or there will be consequences. In this case, I am referring to property taxes, and what could happen if you don’t pay them.

One of the more intriguing (and mysterious) people in my tree is Elias D. Pierce. I’ve written previously about how this (minor) historical person has been linked to Ireland, quite incorrectly. Part of the problem is that Pierce’s memoir begins when he is 20 years old and neglects to name anyone in his family whatsoever!

He begins the narrative with his leaving home, Harrison County, Virginia, in September 1844. First he goes to Pittsburgh, makes a friend, then journeys onward with his new pal, down the Ohio River. They disembark in Cincinnati and walk to east-central Indiana – Blackford County, to be precise.

Why on earth did he chose that particular place? He doesn’t say. One of his biographers mentioned that he owned land in Grant County (just west of Blackford) at some point, which was a subject of a lawsuit in the Indiana Supreme Court.

Pierce left Indiana during the Mexican War, came back briefly, then headed to California with the 49ers. He didn’t return to Indiana for a very long time. So when did he buy property in Grant County, and what happened to it?

Communication with the Grant County courthouse revealed that no property records exist prior to 1859, probably destroyed by fire. Dead end. Unlike every other county I’ve researched, Grant records deeds by towns and townships. In Family Search, even those records are incomplete; many townships are not listed in the records at all.

Next stop, the Indiana State Archives, where I found the Indiana Supreme Court case from 1850. The case has a most odd title: “Appeal Grant Circuit Court – John Doe on Demise of Elias D Pearse Appelant vs. James Sweetsers Appelee” [sic].

John Doe? Are you kidding me? And what is this about “on Demise of Elias D Pearse”?

Knowing that E. D. Pierce was in no way dead in 1850, I looked up the legal definition of “demise.” It turns out that it can actually mean just some transfer of property. Strange usage, if you ask me.

I’m still trying to decipher this case, but here are some of the facts, as presented to the court:

  • In the original case filed in Grant County, “John Doe” complains of “Richard Roe” (aka James Sweetser) taking custody of an 80 acre parcel of land, which Elias D. Pierce had “demised” to him.
  • The demise was created on January 1, 1846 and consisted of a 20-year lease on the land and all improvements thereon for the sum of $100.
  • Property taxes for 1843, 1844 and 1845 had not been paid.
  • Notice regarding the delinquent tax sale for 1845 was not posted in the time required by law.
  • The defendant (Sweetser) paid the taxes owed at the lien sales each year, and received a Sheriff’s tax deed on the property in 1847.

Among the documents presented in the case was – voilà – a transcription of the deed to Elias D. Pierce! The property had been sold to him by Eliot [sic] and Elizabeth Nixon on 18 April 1844. A search of the BLM land office records revealed that Nixon acquired the original patent on the land (as “Elliott Nickson” of Jay County, Indiana) on 20 Sep 1839.

Nickson Land Patent

The deed to Pierce is interesting, because it is dated five months before he left Harrison County, (West) Virginia. In other words, this is why he went to that part of Indiana in the first place. He owned land there!

The purchase price was $400 for the 80-acre parcel. It doesn’t necessarily mean that $400 cash changed hands. The deed may have been partial or full payment for Pierce’s labor on Nixon farm land.

The sale took place in (West) Virginia, but this copy of the deed says, inconsistently, that the buyer and seller live in Marion or Miami County, Virginia. There has never been a Miami County in Virginia, but Marion County was formed from Harrison County in 1842. Other records clearly indicate that both Nixon and Pierce lived in Harrison County (but likely in the portion that became Marion). The deed also incorrectly places the land in Blackford County, though it is actually 1.5 miles over the county line in Grant County.


Illustration of Monroe Township, Grant County, with arrow showing location of the 80-acre parcel E. D. Pierce purchased in April 1844.

I haven’t located any record to indicate that Pierce ever lived on the property. In fact, the assessor’s roll in 1843 indicates the property at that time had no improvements. The taxes that had not been paid on the property for those three years, 1843 – 1845 were $1.03 per year.

Yes, the land, for which Pierce had paid $400, was transferred by tax deed for non-payment of taxes of $1.03 a year, plus interest, for three years. Sweetser had acquired 80 acres of land for less than $5!

As is usually the case in such matters, the lawyers likely made out best of all.

Page_297 grant county James Sweetser

James Sweetser, Grant County merchant and banker. He purchased the tax liens on Pierce’s property and received a tax deed in 1847. The tenant, “John Doe,” sued for possession in the Grant Circuit Court and lost. His appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court overturned the Circuit Court verdict, based on the delinquent tax notice not being posted as required by law. The matter was returned to Grant for retrial. The outcome of the retrial is unknown at this time. (Image: History of Grant County, 1886, p. 297)

Feature image: Elias D. Pierce about the time he discovered gold in Idaho in 1860 (Idaho Historical Society).


BLM GLO Records:

Burcham, Ralph, Jr. 1950. Elias Davidson Pierce, Discoverer of Gold in Idaho: A Biographical Study. A Thesis. University of Idaho, Moscow.

Indiana State Archives. 1850. John Doe ex. demise Elias D. Pierce v. Sweetser.

Nixon, Elliot. Year: 1840; Census Place: Harrison, Virginia; Page: 11. 1840 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010.

Pierce, E. D. 1975. The Pierce Chronicle: Personal Reminiscenses [sic] of E. D. Pierce as transcribed by Lou A. Larrick. Edited by J. Gary Williams and Ronald W. Stark. Idaho Research Foundation, Inc. Moscow, ID.


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