Life in eighteenth century Pennsylvania was difficult, and this is illustrated very well through the tax records of my sixth great grandfather, George Cochran (1728-1786). The son of immigrants from Northern Ireland, he was trained as a blacksmith and lived the majority of his life close to where he was born in West Fallowfield, Chester County. I thoroughly enjoyed tracing his life through the tax records, as it game me a more complete picture of what his life was like.
George was born in Chester County, Pennsylvania to James Cochran (1698-1766) and his wife Isabella Cochran (1699-1760). James and Isabel were descendants of James Cochran and Janet Burns, making them third cousins. The Cochrans were originally from Paisley, Scotland, and the family immigrated to Northern Ireland in 1570. James (1699-1760) married Isabella in 1723, most likely in or around Londonderry, Ireland, where Isabel’s father was living. In about 1723 or 1724, James, Isabella, Isabella’s father Robert, and Isabella’s mother Jean immigrated to Chester County, Pennsylvania. James and his father-in-law both paid taxes in Chester County for the first time in 1724/25 as landholders in the towns of Sadsbury and Fallowfield. Robert only paid twice more (based on the extant records) in 1730 and 1735/36, before his death in 1740.
James continued to pay taxes, buy land, and apply for tavern licenses for many years. Consistently, he was one of the wealthiest men in the community, often paying more than a pound in taxes each year. James and Isabella had seven children, of which George was the third. George married Nancy Henry, the sister of Reverend Hugh Henry, in 1751. Nancy’s family was from Maryland, and from all evidence, it seems that George and Nancy made their home in Maryland during the early years of their marriage. George is completely absent from tax records in Chester County from the year he came of age until 1765 when he was 37 years old. Unfortunately, Maryland’s tax records are not in the best shape, so I have been unable to locate him between 1749 and 1764.
For the first time in Chester County, George appears in tax records for 1765 living in London Grove, close to where he grew up in West Fallowfield. The assessment, taken between December 10, 1764 and January 4, 1765, recorded George Cochran as a blacksmith who owned a dwelling house and 1 lot valued at 8 pounds, 1 cow, and 1 horse. That year, he paid 9 shillings and 6 pence in taxes.
The following year, George seems to have fallen on hard times. He is again listed as a blacksmith living in London Grove, but he no longer has a dwelling or a lot. He was supposed to pay taxes on 2 horses and 1 cow, for a total of 4 shillings. That year, he was given a tax discount because he was “poor” and paid only 1 shilling.
1766 through 1769 seem to have been difficult ones for George. Not only was he struggling financially, but his father James died. George did receive “one full and equal fourth part” of the earnings that should arise from the sale of the remainder of James’s personal and real estate not otherwise devised following his decease. It wasn’t very much, as the bulk of James’s land went to one of George’s brothers. Three years later, George’s wife died, and he decided to send his youngest child, Ann (and my ancestor), to live with his older sister in Lancaster County.
The next extant tax return is for the year 1771. By now, George had improved his circumstances. He had purchased 180 acres in West Fallowfield and had improved it with buildings. It shows that he had a tavern on his property, but this may be a mistake by the tax assessor. George did not petition for a tavern license in that year, but his brother Stephen, who was still running their father’s old tavern, did. George paid 16 shillings 3 pence for his property that was valued at 18 pounds per acre.
Over the next few years, George’s property fluctuated. In 1774, George only owned 45 acres valued at 3 pounds per acre, as well as 1 horse and 1 cow. He paid 4 shillings in tax. The following year, George had purchased 55 additional acres, valued at 6 pounds per acre, and he had purchased an additional cow. Although the 1776 tax returns no longer exist, George was responsible to recording the assessments for that year, and he was paid accordingly.
By the 1781 tax returns, George had purchased the 186 acres that he would hold until the end of his life. He also paid tax on 1 horse and 2 horned cattle. His taxable property was valued at 308 pounds 10 shillings, and he paid 3 pounds 17 shillings 1 1/2 pence.
The last assessment in which George appears is 1785, taken between July 22 through August 18, 1785. He owned 190 acres, 2 horses, and 2 cows, with a total property value of 322 pounds, for which he paid 1 pound 10 shillings in taxes.
George died on 23 March 1786 at the age of 57, a few months before the next tax assessment. He wrote his will a mere eight days before his death, but he did try to leave equal amounts of property to his children. To Ann, he left a “Young colt and the colt the bay mare is with one bed and furniture, likewise a cow and calf.” He desired that the rest of his personal and real estate to be sold, and after his executors paid his funeral expenses and debts, the profit should be divided among his five children, with his four daughters receiving equal shares, and John receiving double the amount of each sister.
I really enjoyed combing through the taxes in search of George as they really illuminated the hardships and successes of his life (materialistically speaking). He worked hard, but he didn’t achieve financial stability until the end of his life, which was probably a constant worry for him. One of the most telling pieces of evidence of his struggle was that he was forced to send his youngest daughter away to be raised by more wealthy relatives until 1775 when he was able to support her again. George’s life as a blacksmith and a small scale farmer was completely different than that of his father and his two brothers Stephen and John. His father was well-off, owned property, ran a tavern, served as an elder in multiple churches, and helped found a school. Stephen ran the tavern, became a wealthy farmer, and served in the Pennsylvania legislature. John was a physician, became the Surgeon General of the Continental Army, and married into one of New York’s oldest families.
But money isn’t everything, and it makes me wonder what kind of a person George really was. Was he a kind person? A good father? And in the end, he was able to leave his children a small inheritance, which was particularly important for his daughters. That is one of the most frustrating but intriguing aspects of genealogy; research always brings up more questions than answers!