Management of Negroes Upon Southern Estates

Where did slaves' surnames come from?

George and Eliza Harris Slaves George and Eliza Harris, pictured free in Canada, were given the surname of George's owner in Uncle Tom's Cabin, but Tom is only Tom. Source.

September 21, 2015

By Toussaint Heywood Share on Facebook Share this on Twitter

The usual wisdom is that enslaved people had no last names and that, upon freedom, they typically chose the last name of their master.

Researchers at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's plantation, acknowledge both the usual wisdom, and show it did not apply there: "It is often stated that American slaves had no surnames until after the Civil War and Emancipation, and that they then usually took the last names of their masters. The evidence about the Monticello enslaved community contradicts this stereotype. We believe that most, if not all, of the Monticello enslaved families bore surnames, which preserved family ties and memories from the generations that came before. We have learned of several -- Hern, Granger, Hughes, and Smith, for instance."

Yet the assumption that slaves took their masters' last names is not a new one. Enslaved people apparently told it to whites themselves: "A full-blooded African, who was taken prisoner on the steamer Lewis, on which he is now employed as a cook, in the service of the United States, was encountered one evening by the surgeon of one of the naval ships, who asked him his name. 'Nathaniel,' replied the negro. 'Any other name?' said the doctor; to which Sambo replied: 'Why, de last name is always de massa's name—Massa Johnson.'"

Enslaved people over 100 years old were supposed to have their names recorded on the 1860 census. Their names bear out the cliche: most are listed only by first name, and many of those with a last name have the same last name as their currect owner.

Logically, it makes sense, because such surnames would occur organically, the same way whites' last names originaly occurred. "Who are you?" "John." "Which John?" "John who lives on the hill." And he would become known as John Hill. "Which John?" "The one that belongs to Mr. Smith." And he would become known as John Smith when he needed a distinct last name. On an individual plantation, descriptors were more often used to separate people with the same first name: Old John, Big John, etc.

A Georgia diary speaks of the time just after emancipation:

[W]hen I stepped into the back porch to get some water, she stopped in the midst of it to tell me that she now had two names, like white folks.

"Oh," said I, laughing, "what is your new name?"

"Tatom; I'se Mrs. Tatom now, and Hamp is Mr. Sam Ampey Tatom."

It sounded so like "amputation" that I could hardly keep a straight face.

"And how did Hamp get all that name?" I asked.

"His grandfather used to belong to a Mr. Tatom," she answered, "so he took his name for his entitles. Dr. French tole us we mus' all have surnames now, an' call our childern by 'em, an' drop nicknames."

I notice that the negroes seldom or never take the names of their present owners in adopting their " entitles," as they call their surnames, but always that of some former master, and they go as far back as possible. It was the name of the actual owner that distinguished them in slavery, and I suppose they wish to throw off that badge of servitude. Then, too, they have their notions of family pride.

This explains why enslaved people known to have belonged to a certain master didn't necessarily take his last name when they were freed. But the problem goes deeper.

The majority of enslaved people had last names.

How do we know? From the records of slave ships traveling down the coast, working for interstate slave traders. The majority of their manifests record both first and last name of the enslaved people being shipped.

manifest 1838 ship's manifest listing enslaved people being taken south for sale. Source is Ancestry.

Below is an example of a manifest, and further below, a partial list of names from it is enlarged. This manifest is for the ship Uncas, going from Alexandria, Virginia to New Orleans in 1838.

names Names enlarged from the manifest above.
There is no apparent reason for shippers to assign last names, when the slaves were also identified by height, age and color. It seems the shippers asked the enslaved people their names, measured them, asked or estimated their age, and wrote it all down. But where did these last names come from? They seem typical American names. Does this mean the majority of enslaved people knew their last names and used them among themselves, even if owners did not know or use such names? There are more questions than answers.

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