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
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 feist, 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
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.