From Russ Smith:
A commonly held belief, one that has been challenged recently, is that newly freed slaves, having no surnames of their own, adopted the surnames of their final master. One explanation given in the classroom and elsewhere is that “Carter’s William” easily became “William Carter.” luckily, there are now some local records easily accessible on-line to test whether slaves in one area actually did adopt their final master’s name.
On March 19, 1866 Col. Orlando Brown, the assistant commissioner in Virginia of what is commonly called the Freedman’s Bureau, ordered that a register be created of the names of freedmen “cohabitating together as man and wife.” The register contains not only the surnames of each individual, but also the names of the former masters of each. There are some 1,756 freedmen’s names (if I counted correctly.)
The results of reviewing the names in the register were revealing. Not only did freedmen not usually take the name of their former master, they almost never did. Of the 1,756 names reviewed, only 27 or 1.5% are the same as the final master. If some of the matches are only coincidental, that lowers the number further yet.
This raises the question that, if the names didn’t come from the final master, where did they come from? A great number of the freemen’s names are the same as those of local white residents. Did the freemen choose these names when they became free or are these surnames that they carried before freedom came? Although official records seem to have only recognized one name for slaves, did they actually have first and last names? This practice is not unknown and may have been more common than we assume. Only further research will tell.
Note: The volume relating to Caroline County survives in the archives of the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center. That part of the register relating to couples is entitled: Register of Colored Persons of Caroline County, State of Virginia, cohabitating together and husband and wife on 27th February, 1866. A transcription of the register is available on the University of Mary Washington’s Department of Historic Preservation’s excellent website.