What’s in a Name?

Depiction of the role of the Freedman’s Bureau, Harper’s Weekly, July 25, 1868.

Depiction of the role of the Freedman’s Bureau, Harper’s Weekly, July 25, 1868.

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.


19 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. What a great post, on an important subject. It’s something I’ve been curious about. In my own researching on African Americans who attended Confederate reunions, I’ve found two — Steve Perry of Dublin, Georgia and Crock Davis of Hillsboro, Texas — who used their former masters’ surnames at reunions, but an entirely different surname for other purposes, including for the census and various legal documents. It’s almost as if they used their masters’ surnames as a sort of stage name — certainly that seems to be the case of Perry, widely known in the 1920s and 1930s through the South as “Uncle Steve Eberhart.” It seems pretty obvious that the notion that most former slaves took their masters’ surnames after emancipation is another facet reinforcing the “faithful slave” meme that is so central to Lost Cause orthodoxy.

    Well done, Mr. Smith!

    • Steve Perry, in particular, was explicitly a performer at Confederate reunions, complete with an outlandish “forager” outfit and live chickens. The local UCV camp described him as their “mascot.” In his public role as “Uncle Steve Ebehart,” Perry told (or had told about him) all sorts of stories that both contradict the historical record, and sometimes contradict each other. Why Perry took on the “Uncle Steve Eberhart” shtick, we can only guess at, but it does seem clear that he himself saw it as a role, separate and apart from the identity of Steve Perry.

  2. Russ, thank you for this important commentary.

    Here at Petersburg National Battlefield we protect a portion of the Eppes family’s plantation (noted in the war as being where Lt. General Grant made his headquarters from June 1864-spring 1865). In the surviving pre-Civil War records of Dr. Richard Eppes (1824-1896) we see the enslaved men, women, and children range in age by 1860 from 79 to newborn children. There are 24 surnames on the plantation, none of them have anything to do with the Eppes family or their extended family. None of them appear to have anything to do with other James River and Appomattox River plantation owners (such as the Carters of Shirley, the Harrison of Berkeley, Brandon, and Upper Brandon Plantations, the Tylers of Sherwood Forest, etc.).

    This has been a subject that has long bothered me and I am glad you have illustrated some of this in the Freedmen’s Bureau records for Caroline County, Virginia.

    • Thanks for the info, Pat. I think that’s where the answer lies: in the scattered documents and personal papers of different families.

    • Thanks, Emmanuel. It would great to have the time to trace down all the individual sources. I hope somebody takes it on to some extent.

  3. It has also been my observation that slaves did not adopt the names of their last owners. The slaves who escaped in 1862 from Greenfield plantation–my family’s farm in Spotsylvania–had their first and last names listed on a runaway notice written by my great grandmother. Those names–Upshur, Taliaferro, Right and Brown–had no connection to my family.

      • Hi Aurora,

        The name, Taliaferro is not that uncommon in Virginia. It is pronounced “Tolliver.” In the Caroline County Freedman’s Bureau records the name “Tolliver” appears thirty times, once spelled Toliver. The name seems about evenly split between former owners and freedmen.

  4. This topic is one I cover in my book on black Civil War veterans. The short version is that most black vets chose a last name they associated with their father after the Civil War. This proved a problem for many of them when they applied for a federal pension because they had served in the army under a different name, often their owner’s last name. Which caused the U.S. Pension Bureau to investigate and produced a lot of insight into this issue in Civil War pension files. Please see: Donald R. Shaffer, _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), 100-101.

    • When Josiah Carter escaped to the Monitor in 1862 he apparently saw real advantages to being a “Shirley Carter.” He never used his father’s name, Hewlitt, even after marrying another ex-Shirley slave who refused to take his “slave name.” It became a running joke among their acquaintances up to the day he died in 1892. She got the last word by recording his death certificate for “Josiah Hewlitt.” When she took the paperwork to get his pension, it required about a dozen depositions to set the record straight – providing priceless details that would have otherwise disappeared.

  5. In my experience with Confederate records, those African Americans listed with a surname, as opposed to only a given name, are decidedly in the minority. Any thoughts on this?

    • Hi Mike,

      It’s great to hear from you. I haven’t had enough experience with African Americans in Confederate records to have an opinion. I’m sure you would know better than me from your work at the Archives.

  6. Great post. I have been researching my own African-American ancestors and others for about 15 years. I also teach the subject. I have found, firstly, that the great majority of enslaved people had surnames that were not recorded by the white population. We can read slave narratives, civil war pensions, southern claims, and many other records and find the surnames recounted. I have found by and large, they took the surname of their father or mother. Of course, that parent may have the surname of the most recent slaveowner (1865) or a prior slaveowner. Mr. Shaffer’s book illustrates this beautifully. Or they may choose an entirely different name after emancipation. We sometimes see the same family in 1870 using a different surname by the 1880 census. I seem to see differences based on the location. But I think the key is understanding that the surnames existed, and even if it happened to be the last or former slaveowner, its usually because it was their mother or father’s surname. It’s the family tie that is important, not necessarily the slaveowner. I have a theory about the Upper South, where I see wildly different surnames (indicating in my mind the longer bloodlines) and I see that slaves moving with slaveowners pushing south and west often had that owners surname. I think its a great subject that I would liek to see academic historians study more closely. I did a post on this subject a few years ago is anyone is interested: http://msualumni.wordpress.com/2009/06/25/slave-surnames-where-are-they-from/

  7. My family was from Louisa County and Goochland County in Virginia. Several Dickinson family bibles, donated to the Alderman Library at UVA, contain slave genealogies beginning in the late 1700s. As the entries approach 1860 there is more detail and evidence of slave marriages, ie. “Buck, husband of Hannah” and births into family units, “Lucy, dau. of Buck and Hannah.” The last entry is a little girl born 1864. In the 1870 Census for Goochland and Louisa many of the slave names in the bible now have the family name “Dickinson” as the surname. The same is true for the Woodson branch, there are many black Woodsons in Goochland County.

  8. This was interesting. In west Alabama where I grew up, most African-Americans bore surnames of antebellum slaveholders. I can see now that the assumption that they “took” that surname of their last master might be somewhat unfounded, that more complex relationships might well be involved. In Greene County, Alabama, the earliest documentation of freedmen with surnames, as far as I can find, is the 1867 Oath of Alligence ledger, which might be compared with the Nineth (1870) Census. The 1866 Alabama state census enumerated freedmen living on a (white) property owner’s premises, not recording names or surmanes of African Americans I have never seen documentation where freedman and former (last) owner are presented. For some Alabama counties the “Colored” schedule for 1866 has not survived.

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