When enslaved ancestors took a name other than the slaveholder

If you do not find your ancestor accounted for with a slaveholder (SH) who has the same last name, you have a steeper hill to climb. While surnames can be problematic – having been chosen arbitrarily and sometimes later changed without legal documentation – your hope lies in the given names.

Given names rarely changed and are the key to locating families, when surnames are not yielding answers. (See Herbert Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925.)

Step 1

Determine where your ancestor lived in 1870.

You already know the county, but try to determine what locality within the county was home to your ancestor as the 1870 census was taken. Many former EPs settled near their former SHs, some of them remaining on the original plantation property.

In the 1870 census, look for indications of the locale in the header on each page and sometimes in text written in the margin – at times the name of a road.

Step 2

Make note of those who live around your ancestor.

Next, make note of who was enumerated on either side of your ancestor – at least a page or two in each direction. There are several circumstances that could be of help in your search:

  • Make note of black families nearby that all have the same last name, but a different name than your ancestor. It is possible your ancestor lives clustered near people who were recently enslaved on the same property, and they took the SH’s last name.
  • Look for white families within 15 or 20 households of your ancestor – particularly property-owning families.

While you are in the 1870 census, also look for other black families with the same last name. Such families might be your ancestor’s genetic kin. Or they might help you to develop the cluster of given names that will be associated with the SH, when you locate him or her.

Step 3

Seek a matching person to any potential SHs you identified in Step 2.

If the exercise in Step 2 yields any potential SH names, go back to Research strategy for descendants of enslaved persons, and start again from Step 5.

Step 4

If you rule out the SHs you have examined, widen your search.

Work outward from your ancestor in the 1870 census, examining the potential SHs one by one. Move to adjacent communities and then, if necessary, to adjacent counties.

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For every soul a story, a family, a name