Finding Slave Ancestors

By Barnetta McGhee White

Most African Americans can diagram or outline a rather complete genealogy using 20th and 21st century public records. Going further back in time to discover those ancestors who were born and died in the late 19th century becomes more problematical and to uncover those who were enslaved prior to 1865 can be daunting indeed because they were identified in the records by enumeration or by first name only.

There have been many opinions as to the origin of the surnames used in the 1870 Census yet if one looks carefully and deeply into the research that has been done on the origin of surnames one is hard pressed to find a definitive answer that fits all situations. Strongly held beliefs are difficult to dislodge and the reasons behind the adoption of one surname or the other varies from one locale to another. Misunderstanding is generated by not being aware of the difference between slaves adopting the surname of the “last” slaveholder rather than a “former or prior” slaveholder. A last slaveholder is a former slaveholder, but a former or prior slaveholder is not necessarily the last, but rather could be one dating back to the 16th and 15th century.

African names were stripped from a people when they reached these shores. It is logical to begin the search for African American ancestors who were enslaved by using the surname given in the 1870 Census as a beginning point to reach further back in time. What follows is a sample based upon my 30 years of researching this topic and is best expressed by this quote, author unknown: “Responsible genealogy does not form a thesis first and then find evidence to support it – - – it looks at the evidence and forms a conclusion based on facts.”

Fact #1: My grandmother, Rose (1852-1943), told me that her maiden name was”NORMAN” and her death certificate of 1943 also showed that maiden name.

Fact #2: Many decades later I discovered an original document evidencing a division of slaves into lots from an estate when she, less than one year old, went to a person named Richard TAYLOR.

Fact #3: She said that her master was named Armistead BURWELL and she was on his plantation when the Yankees came to town.(Last slaveholder?)

Fact #4 Rose’s marriage license of 1871 named her mother, “Lucinda NORMAN” (1827-1915), and Lucinda’s death certificate named Creasy NORMAN as her mother.

Fact #5. Rose said her grandmother was named “Creasy NORMAN’ (1795-1879)and she was listed on the Mortality Schedule of 1879 with that same surname. That same Mortality Schedule listed Creasy’s birthplace as VA as well as the birthplace of her mother and her father.

Fact #6 Both Lucinda and Creasy were alive for the 1870 census and both were listed with the surname”NORMAN’

Final Fact – Much, much later, and after many more hours of research I found the slaveholder, THOMAS NORMAN, who had migrated down to NC from VA in the early 1800s with many slaves among whom was the 5 year old Creasy. Most of the supporting documentation was found in his estate papers housed in the NC State Archives.

Was the LAST slaveholder’ surname the one used by Rose ? Certainly (fact) the court document showed her last legal slaveholder was Richard TAYOR, and possibly Armistead BURWELL, but certainly a NORMAN was a prior, or former, slaveholder of this family. Did these two men (Taylor and Burwell) lay claim to Rose? Further research showed that they had each married a daughter of THOMAS NORMAN, and this fact certainly supports the idea that it is necessary to plot the genealogy of the slaveholder to learn all of the various surnames that were in the slaveholder’s genealogy. There is no doubt that after the war when slaves had to provide surnames for the records many, if not most, used the surname of a former slaveholder or his relatives. It is also possible that some made up a surname, but I believe that was rare.