Numerous historical sources confirm that enslaved people had surnames that they used among themselves and in many cases were known by their slaveholder.
However, the common practice by slaveholders was to only use the given names of enslaved people in documents such as estate papers, court and deed records.
This causes many researchers to wrongly conclude that enslaved people did not have surnames until after emancipation, which was not the case.
There was often a fluidity to the surnames that enslaved people had. If we consider the diverse circumstances that the tragedy of slavery created, we can understand the reasons why.
Enslaved people suffered constant sale, where children were frequently torn away from parents at young ages and spouses were often separated.
Enslaved women were raped, creating children with white fathers who in most cases did not claim them and even sold them away.
Lastly, emancipation itself often provoked many to choose new surnames, one of the few actual freedoms freedmen had.
Runaway ads illustrate how many slaveholders knew the surnames of their slaves.
I find it interesting that they often used the strange phrase “he calls himself” in the ads, as if having a given name and a surname was silly:
“Ran away from the subscriber on the 25th of October, a well set dark mulattoe man named Jem, but calls himself James Ferguson….”
You can find many more examples of the above in my post, The Mind of the Slaveowner.
Surnames from Parents
The most common origin for surnames is that enslaved people initially used the surname of either their mother or their father, if they knew what those names were.
Now, that parent’s surname could very well be the surname of the most recent slaveholder or an earlier slaveholder.
And even though slave marriages were not legal, many enslaved people followed the practice of the wife taking her husband’s surname:
“My mother was named Mary Bradley and my father was named Hilliard Bradley. Bradley was the last man owned ’em. Of course my mother wasn’t a Bradley ‘fore she married. She was a Murphy.”
There are a wide array of sources that provide us with slave surnames, from the slave narratives and interviews, to freedman’s bank cards, runaway ads and Southern Claims Commission records.
Civil War Pensions
One of the largest sources are the Civil War pension records of the almost 200,000 black men who served in the US Army and Navy.
Proving their identity as former soldiers often revealed some of the most detailed explanations for former slaves’ choice of surnames.
Because I like to let formerly enslaved people speak for themselves, here are several examples of freedmen and women discussing their surnames.
Some of these examples come from the wonderful book, Voices of Emancipation:
“I served [in the War] as Henry Lock, the Lock being my old Massa’s name but since the War I have taken name of Rollie.”
“[Edward] was owned by Drury Stovall and went by the name of Edward Stovall. He was sold to my master William Orr and he always went by the name Edward Orr after that.”
“My father’s name was Gilbert Jackson, and after I was set free I took the name of my father, and have been known by the name Smith Jackson.
I took the name of Jackson for the reason that I preferred to go by my father’s name, rather than the name of my last owner.”
“I was born…the child of Phillis Houston, slave of Sol Smith. When I was born my mother was known as Phillis Smith and I took the name of Smith too.
I was called mostly Lewis Smith till after the war, although I was named Dick Lewis Smith… After the War, I was wearing the name Lewis Smith, but I found the negroes were taking the names of their fathers, like the white folks.
My mother then told me my father’s name was John Barnett, a white man, and I took up the name Barnett.”
“My mother’s name was Jane and she was called Jane Nunn because she belonged to the Nunns. My father’s name was John Crosby and he lived in the town of Geneva, Alabama…
I had two brothers and one sister. They were Nelson Nunn and George Nunn and they may have changed their names to Crosby too because they were my father’s children.”
And this example from another pension file shows how even the given name of this enslaved woman was held under little regard:
Testimony of Mollie Russell (widow of Phillip Fry), September 19, 1911:
Q. Tell me the name you were called before you met Phillip Fry?
A. Lottie Smith was my name and what they called me before I met Phillip and was married to him.
Q. Who called you by that name and where was it done?
A. I was first called by that name in the family of Col. Morrow in whose service I was in Louisville, Ky., just after the war. I worked for him as nurse for his children, and my full and correct name was OCTAVIA, but the family could not “catch on” to that long name and called me “LOTTIE” for short.
LOTTIE had been the name of the nurse before me and so they just continued that same name. I was called by that name all the time I was with the Morrows. . . .
Q. Besides the Morrows, whom else did you live with in Louisville?
A. Mr. Thomas Jefferson of Louisville, bought me when I was three years of age from Mr. Dearing. I belonged to him until emancipation. They called me “OCK”. They cut it off from OCTAVIA. It was after emancipation on that I went back to work for Col. Morrow and where I got the name “Lottie,” as already explained. I liked the name better than Octavia, and so I took it with me to Danville, and was never called anything else there than that name. . . .
Q. Where did you get the maiden name of Smith from?
A. My mother’s name was Octavia Smith and it was from her that I got it but where the name came from to her I never knew. I was only three years old when she died. No, I don’t know to whom she belonged before she was brought from Virginia to Kentucky.
The quote below, from a Southern Claims Commission file, is one of the most powerful and one of my favorites to use in lectures:
“ I enlisted under Ross because that was my father’s name. I am generally called Cap Sherrod but I was married under Cap Ross and have voted under the name Ross…
A good many people call me Cap Sherrod because I belonged to Sherrod but I calls myself Cap Ross.”
Cap’s statement implies that choosing his own surname was a part of exercising his newfound freedom.
He decided that he didn’t want to be known as Cap Sherrod and that he would vote and marry under his choice of names. For him, this meant claiming his new identity as a freedman and a citizen.
One thing we should keep in mind is that the practice of referring to enslaved people by a given name only was a part of the attempt of the system of slavery to dehumanize them..to “other” them.
You’ll often see the word “degraded” used in the academic references; these were all attempts at “degradation.” I have found only one very rare example of a slaveholder’s inventory, that lists the slaves along with their surnames.
What remains utterly amazing to me is that in the worst of circumstances, and in spite of every attempt to crush any idea that slaves were anything other than commodities, slaveholders did not succeed.
Enslaved people resisted in ways large and small. They ran away, fought back, feigned illness, destroyed tools, and clung to their families.
When they were sold away they remembered their loved ones and they created extended kinship networks.
They established and held on to their own cultural traditions in the small spaces that slavery afforded them.
I hope this post also helps us to think about how the surnames former slaves had were connected to their experiences in slavery.
An enslaved child sold away from their parents at a young age to the Deep South would probably have a different sense of naming than enslaved children who were able to grow up in the presence of their parents and extended family.
Please share, in the comments below, examples you have come across of the surnames of enslaved people, especially if it was different from their last slaveholder.
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.
I am researching the surname Culbert worldwide, and the data can be found at: culbert.one-name.net There are a growing number of African Americans with this surname, which I believe originates in Scotland. So far I’ve found no one who can give me any information about how these people assumed the Culbert surname. In my research so far, I have found very little evidence of white Culbert slaveholders – only three cases so far. Surely the hundreds of black Culbert people living today cannot all be connected to those three cases. I would appreciate any constructive comments on this question, which can be posted to me via my website address above.
Thank you for posing your question. i did a simple search of the 1860 slave schedule using the name “Culbert” and came up with slaveholders in MS,VA,NC,AL,GA and SC holding 17 enslaved people. However, a small change to searching on “C?lbert,” which accounts for the variations in spelling expands that initial list to 877 enslaved people owned by people with those names. I did not even check the 1850 slave schedule. This suggests most of those African-Americans probably did come about that name from prior slaveholders (since we know they likely weren’t from Scotland;):) I think you just have to include all the variations of “Culbert” to see how that could be the case.
Feel free to contact me directly if you have more questions or need some assistance.
This topic interests me greatly and I’d like to do more research. Can you steer me in the right direction?
I did a post sometime ago about Slavery Studies, where I named some of the top books on the subject. I would still recommend all of these books, except the first one listed for obvious reasons. Almost every major tome on slavery discusses slave naming practices in some form or fashion. For example, Roll, Jordan,Roll has an entire chapter called “The Naming of Cats,” discussing slave names and “The Slave Community” has a very good chapter called “The Slave Family.” Two other books I like are “Been In The Storm So Long” by Leon Litwick (pgs 247-248)and “Joining PLaces: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South” by Anthony Kaye. I focused on surnames but many of these books also discuss first names.
One thing for sure, historians are always expanding our knowledge on this topic.BTW, I am a big fan of your website and your work in the field!
Thanks for your comment,
Wonderful to have first hand account that help shine light on the attitudes of our ancestors. My great grandfather Wilson Percival was born in South Carolina and I believe he took his surname from last slave owners family. I have been unable to trace several of his siblings and now wonder if it might be because others did not take that name. He identified father, mother and siblings in a Freedman’s bank deposit in 1873, when he was already in New York City. On another branch, members of the Griffin family from around Campbell County VA all stuck together and are believed to have kept family bonds & name of their father after Emancipation. There’s always more to learn!
How lucky you were to find that Freedmans Bank document! It is certainly possible that Wilson’s siblings could have been sold away or owned by others. The surname issue really presents huge challenges for those of us doign this research, but you soulnd as though you are making headway.
Thanks for commenting and continued luck in your research,
Robyn, you’ve done it again! This is such a well-written and informative post – one that I know will open many eyes to the complexity of slave surnames, as well as many other aspects of the lives of the enslaved.
In my own family history, on my Yarborough side, I believe I have uncovered a pattern that my formerly-enslaved great-grandparents, Calvin and Precilla YARBOROUGH may have used in naming their children. I truly believe they used surnames of each of their former owners for some of their children’s middle names. You can read about this in the following two posts on my blog.
I first wrote about this in this 2009 post: http://justthinking130.blogspot.com/2009/09/calvin-r-yarborough-where-it-all-began.html
And,then, more recently in 2013, here: http://justthinking130.blogspot.com/2013/11/many-rivers-to-cross-my-priscilla.html
I hope you don’t mind my sharing those posts. Thanks for all you to do keeps us all so enlightened!
Your insight is always welcome and I am glad you shared these posts for other readers to see.
My Louisiana Creole ancestors who were free persons of color and former slaves practiced a unique naming tradition I think comes from Latin cultures. Many of the former slaves and some free people of color took the first name of their father, mother and sometimes former slaveowner as their last. That is why you will find a lot of families in Louisiana with surnames like Baptiste, Narcisse, Jean-Louis, Nanette-Louise, Rene, Jacques etc… I’ve come across very few former slaves and fpoc using the surnames of their former owner. If the slaveholder or another free white man was their father, many Creoles did use either is first or last name as a surname. A small number of creoles in Louisiana also acquired surnames derived from ethnic identities in Senegal. For example, I know of one Louisiana family whose surname of “Poulard” evolved from a ancestor of the Poular nation(aka Fulani).
Another interesting fact is that Creole surname use also evolved over time and varied from record to record with the same person. One ancestor was known as “Baber Masse”, Elizabeth SENET” and Elisabeth L’eveille” in different documents. Each name was a clue to her origins.
My surname of “SAM” originated from Sem or Sam FUSELIER, a free man of color who freed my ancestor,Jean-Louis, out of slavery in 1811. In freedom, Jean-Louis was known as Louis SEM or Louis FUSELIER until finally using “SAM”.
You already know the rich historical terrain of FPOC in Louisiana, what terrific grounds for family research. I’m jealous;) The common names there (Marie, Louise, etc) would test anyones genealogical skills, so I take my hat off to you. I am awar eof the different naming traditions practiced in that area and I thank you for sharing them here for my readers. I would also recommend Elizabeth Shown Mills’ various case studies on enslaved people in Louisiana, which you can find at her website at https://www.historicpathways.com/articles.html. I especially recommend “Mother, Thy Name is Mystery! Finding the Slave Who Bore Philomene Daurat.” There is also another historian, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall who did work on African ethnicities in Louisiana, you can read more of that here if you havent seen that yet: http://whitneyplantation.com/the-louisiana-slave-database.html
Again, I applaud you for doing the research on the history of the areas where your ancestors lived–many researchers don’t realize how crucial that understanding is. But I tell you, trying to document that all those names refer to the same person is hard, hard work! I love how you have documented the history of your own surname. And you get to tell the story of Jean-Louis’s life in slavery and also in freedom. One thing I envy about the Catholic church is the baptisms available for even the enslaved people there.
Thank you for commenting, and continued luck to you in your research.
Unraveling the origins of FPOC and slaves in Francophone Louisiana takes some thinking outside the fact, meticulous research ,familiarity with the local culture, history and a bit of serendipity on your side. Fortunately, the French and Latin were excellent record keepers and the Catholics were obsessed with knowing the kinship of everyone. I’m very familiar with the work of Gwendolyn Hall and Elizabeth Shown Mills. Both are excellent researchers and historians. I communicate with them on Facebook
Just from the detail in your first comment, I knew there was a good chance you were already familiar with those authors. Have you visited the Whitney Plantation yet? That’s high on my “to do” list.
My maternal grandmother was an Auber. A krio from.Freetown Sierra Leone. The name.Auber.is also.in.Haiti and.is of.French orign. I want.to.know.where we (who are.descendants.of.freed.people.who.got sent.back.to Sierra Leone.from.maybe Nova Scotia.) Got.the name.Auber..
Unfortunately, I am not knowledgeable enough about African and Caribbean research in the areas you name. But, my mtdna also said I share ancestry with the Kru people of Liberia and the Mende from Sierra Leonne! Best of luck to you,
My father once told me his grandfather ran away from the Carrington place and changed his name to Williams. My maiden surname is Williams. i have no way to confirm this. My father would be 105 if he were alive.
There are certainly methods you can used to try to verify some of the story–you can look for Carrington and Williams slaveholders in the area in which your ancestor lived in the 1870 census. The existence of those surnames in the area would help to verify, but also, you are fortunate to have the important oral history of that name change in the first place, since so many of us don’t. I am sure your father would also be very proud of your interest in family history. Thank you for your comment,
In doing slave research in Barbados, I have found one group of enslaved Chase ancestors who were manumitted (freed) and given the last name of the former slave owner. In another case Sukey Ann and he 4 children were manumitted by their Ashby “owner” with only their first names. They are recorded with the Ashby surname on subsequent documents. On Anglican (Church of England) baptisms records the child legally and officially is documented with the surname of the mother if she and the father were not married. In many cases this is ignored and children use their father’s name! A 2nd great grandmother for example was baptised Sarah Charlotte Chase; her mother is recorded as being Ann Lewis Chase. The box for father states “unknown in law.” Her marriage record states her name is Sarah Charlotte Gale, her father being John Sinclair Gale! This phenomena makes research very complicated when you don’t know the mother’s surname.
Thank you, my dear friend, for adding this about enslaved people owned in the Caribbean is really important, as some of the customs were certainly different.
Great post Robyn and very useful!
Thanks LaBrenda! I also meant to email you and tell you how I enjoyed your article in the last NGSQ. That’s a goal that I am working towards.
A great and timely article. Through DNA matches, I believe I have recently found a brother of my mother’s great grandfather. Born in Union County, South Carolina, he was sold to his last enslaver in 1858 and then brought to Mississippi. In fact, the previous enslaver’ widow sold most of the slaves. This potential brother had been sold to a local and remained there in SC. He took his last enslaver’ surname. My great great grandfather in Mississippi took the surname of the previous SC enslaver, whose widow sold him away. In his pension file, my great great grandmother – his widow – expressed that he chose his former enslaver’ surname because his father had been enslaved by them, too. I don’t know what became of his parents. Nonetheless, this is a situation where two brothers selected different surnames. This is common. Thanks for writing this post!
Thanks for adding your very experienced voice to the conversation. There are so many examples of every kind of scenario, and I think it just speaks to the variety of experiences our ancestors had. I love that your example shows two brothers, who came to different conclusions about their surnames. I just cannot imagine (thankfully) the idea of my name being changed with every new owner, with not having any idea of what my parent’s surnames were, of having a white father but not being able to have a father/child relationship with him–and all the other myriad of circumstances that enslaved people faced. Part of what drives me in this research, I think, is the feeling that I am reclaiming their stories, their names, and their very being, even if what I uncover is just a tiny bit. Even that feels like something.
I have done quite a bit of genealogy for my own family, and it was difficult enough, but what you are doing, is incredible work. Even tiny steps are huge in someone’s life. My hat goes off to you and your passionate efforts. Thank you.
Thank you so much for your kind words. Genealogy becomes so much more than just names and dates, it really feels like a true passion indeed.
Best of luck to you in your research,
Thanks for this very thoughtful article. It helps me to understand the complexity of surname variation I have found in researching the ancestral patterns of an African-American cemetery in my local area. With your explanations in mind, I will go back over a couple of family groups and re-assess the surname ambiguousness I have in my notes.
Many of the graves are unmarked or the markers have been damaged, but many descendents still live around here, so we hope to identify as many of the possible graves as we can.
And again, as a white Southerner whose ancesters were NOT slaveowners, your blog is helping me to understand the real and horrible legacy of the “peculiar institution”. You should give a TED talk!
Thank you for your kind comment and I am glad my post helped some with the complicated reasons behind the surnames enslaved people had. And my goodness, how kind of you to suggest a TED talk, maybe one of these days;) Genealogy’s pull is what initially pulled me into studying slavery, and also introduced me to the new understanding that historians are uncovering. It’s knowledge that I think most Americans (not even just white Americans) don’t have and it is endlessly fascinating and sobering both at the same time. Just makes me sad for the human spirit that anyone, let alone hundreds of thousands of people could participate in it. I think mostly about family separation–as a mother now myself, the very idea that my dear child could be sold to who knows where, never to be seen again..just reduces me to tears anytime. Well, I’ve gone off on a tangent again;) But thank you again for writing and thank you for the cemetery work (especially trying to include African-Americans you are doing that will be of benefit to others.
Thank you — as always, your posts are so helpful. I am searching for information about a woman named Eliza Ellis, from Versailles KY or that area. I found in the Civil War registry, an enslaved man who enrolled in the infantry under the name of Wash Ellis. His slaveholder was named David Humphries. I am not able to find any slaveholders in the Versailes area by the name of Ellis. Perhaps Wash Ellis registered under the name of one of his parents.
Are you thinking this woman Eliza Ellis was married to Wash Ellis? Is this the same woman Eliza I see living with Thomas Crenshaw in 1880 and 1900? She served that family for a long time, perhaps more clues to her past lie in his family roots. I also see that in 1900 she is listed as widow with 1 child living, so you may have luck trying to find out who her child was. I presume no death certificate for her survives?