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Surnames for African-Americans - Former Slaves

SurnamesPrior to the emancipation of the American slaves in 1863, those African-Americans held in bondage had usually just one or two given names. One given name the child’s family selected and kept secret and one the child was known by given by the slave owner. If a surname was needed, the slave owner’s family name might be used. Once the slaves were freed they found they did need another name besides a given name. Most did not want to use their former owner’s surname, even through about 20% did use the slave owner’s name. Instead a wide variety of surnames came about that would be the family name for future generations.

New surnames were created from a local region’s name such as ‘Smithfield’ the name taken might be ‘Smith’ or ‘Field’. Many took the surname of famous or celebrated people; such as ‘Lincoln’, ‘Grant’, and ‘Washington’ was very popular. Names from the Bible were another common practice, for given and surnames. If the former slave had been befriended or assisted in getting established after the Civil War, they might have taken that person’s name. Another common practice was to select a surname that fit the personality of an individual, such as ‘Hardy’ or ‘Rambler’. One’s occupation also set the naming method, such as ‘Sheperd’, ‘Cooper’, or ‘Smith’. One name you find frequently used was ‘Freeman’ or ‘Freedmen’ to declare their new freedom. Even many given names of ancestors eventually became a surname, such as ‘Todd’ or ‘William’.

In the early years, especially between the 1860 and 1880s, families even changed a surname several times until they settled on a certain one. That alone can make if difficult to research an African- American family during those years.

So just a few things to be aware of when researching any African-American ancestors. It can be a difficult path, but just might be reachable.

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