I’ve been having a wonderfully lively debate in recent weeks with another genealogist about ex-slaves’ surnames and how many used:
- the name of the last slaveowner
- the name of a previous/former slaveowner, or
- surname origins undetermined.
Most books and classes that teach how to discover the slaveowner (once you’re back to the 1870 census) teach the strategy of starting by looking for white slaveowners in the area with that surname. If that doesn’t work, then you move on to other research strategies.
Many researchers who have spent time with this subject have opinions one way or the other about which naming convention was more prevelent, which strategy is more likely to work, etc. etc. You can see well written points of view at my friend Michael’s site (as well as a more in-depth survey) and also Dr. Barnetta McGee discussed this in her blog some time ago. I simply say this: some slaves took the name of the last slaveowner. Some used a surname from a previous slaveowner. And some we’ll never know where the name came from.
I personally have seen all outcomes, so I don’t believe in ruling anything out. In my own family, out of 5 known slaveowners discovered, 4 of my ancestors took the last slaveowner’s surname and 1 did not. If you peruse the tabs of my family history above, you can find more details on those individuals if you are interested.
One thing I will say–most slaves seem to have had surnames they knew and were known by amongst other slaves. They were not names the larger white culture respected enough to record for the most part–but that does not mean that the use of surnames “started” when they were out of slavery. When you read the Slave Narratives, you really get a sense that the slaves had coherent family structures, surnames and all, even in the midst of slavery’s frantic desire to stomp them out. Boy, our ancestors were strong.
I was curious about what my fellow genealogists have discovered in this respect, so I put a call out on the Afrigeneas mailing list asking the question above. Here are my most recent results:
Out of 20 respondents quoting 65 enslaved ancestors:
- 57.0% took the name of the most recent slaveowner
- 26.1% took the name of a previous slaveowner
- 16.9% had a surname of unknown origin
Interesting. Let’s keep researching and Taking Back What WAs Once Lost.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.