Times were tough in Texas after the Civil War. Unlike much of the South, the state had not been physically devastated by military action, but it had lost thousands of men to a lost cause and its economy was a wreck.
What went on in Wharton County in the first few years after the war is probably typical of what the state’s other organized counties experienced in the summer of 1865. Several Wharton County residents lost money and land on notes partially paid in suddenly worthless Confederate money. One man filed suit seeking gold coin in payment for several thousand acres of land for which he had received Confederate dollars. He got no gold and lost his land.
Some county residents, having lost fathers, brothers or sons in the war, were destitute. Compassionate county commissioners voted for the expenditure of $1,388.25 on July 15, 1865, to help local families. One old man was paid $109 “not as a matter of right but as a matter of charity.”
Beyond the urgent needs of its people, the county needed funding for the basics of local government. For instance, the county had a critical need for a new jail, the low bid on which was $3,075. The county managed to pay $1,200 down and agreed to pay the balance when the lockup was completed.
Considering these expenditures and others, the county treasury was virtually depleted. Nor was there any easy way to bring in revenue. With the slaves freed, Wharton County cotton growers could not — or would not — make a crop. No one had much money and the value of real property plummeted. That translated into a meager tax base.
The notion of levying a sales tax (which would only work if people had enough money to buy things) or an income tax would not gain traction until many decades in the future. In desperation, the county commissioners came up with an innovative if doubtless unpopular solution. They would tax one piece of property everyone still seemed to have — a dog.
The dog tax was approved by the court on July 6, 1868, two days after what probably was a particularly low key Fourth of July observance. All dogs in Wharton County were to be rendered and taxed at a rate of $1 each. Even worse from the perspective of dog lovers was the penalty for not paying the tax. It was far more severe than having to pay a fine, interest or even forfeiture.
Should a county dog owner not be willing to pay the tax, the animal would be shot by the tax assessor or his agent. A fee of 25 cents would be assessed the owner of the late animal, presumably to cover time, ammunition and disposal.
Unreported is how the citizens of Wharton County accepted the new tax. However, given the reaction that some of their ancestors had when the British levied a tea tax on American colonists less than a century before, it is hard to imagine that independently-minded Texans took well to the notion of having their pets and hunting dogs considered taxable property.
Onerous as it must have been to many, other Texas cities and counties also began levying a dog tax. Ten-plus years later, when the legislature passed a statute allowing a dog owner to turn in varmint scalps to his county tax collector rather than having to pay his dog tax, life got much more dangerous for raccoons, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, wolves, mountain lions and even bears. Given that removing a portion of a cougar or bear’s epidermis involved certain non-financial risks to citizens, Texas’s less Alpha mammals likely bore the brunt of this measure.
A dog tax was not unique to Texas. But in other states, where numerous local governments (especially in the North) required that dog owners pay the city or county for a tag to be worn on their pet’s collar was more a matter of animal control than revenue generation.
How long the doggoned dog law stayed on the books in Wharton and other counties is buried on the faded pages of commissioner’s court docket books, assuming those records were later lost in a courthouse fire. Surely the practice of taxing man’s best friend purely for revenue generation, or allowing for the depletion of wildlife as a way to avoid such a tax, did not stand long.
An award-winning author of more than 30 non-fiction books, Mike Cox is an elected member of the Texas Institute of Letters. A long-time freelance writer and public speaker, he lives near Wimberley in the Hill Country.
To read about more his work, visit his website at mikecoxauthor.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.