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Tracing freed slaves' surnames

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Most genealogists once believed nearly all African-Americans who were enslaved adopted the surnames of their last slave owners after Emancipation. Most assumed that those who adopted other surnames were the exception rather than the rule.

Today, as increasing numbers of family historians research African-American ancestors back into the late 1800s and earlier years, that belief is dying. In some corners, however, it is dying slowly and impeding the progress of genealogical research.

It's critical for everyone researching African-Americans to be open to other possibilities.

That's because when family historians have traced those ancestors back beyond the Civil War, they no longer are recorded in government, bank, church and other papers with last names. Any mention of enslaved ancestors in public records or private manuscripts in that period will be in association with a slave owner's name.

So, researchers who hold onto the assumption that their families adopted the name of the slave owners from which they were emancipated could be doomed to fail. It won't be too long before they conclude their ancestors can't be found and give up the search.

It's reasonable to consider whether whites who lived in areas where enslaved ancestors came from, have the same or similar surnames and are listed as slave owners in the 1860 or 1850 federal census slave schedules might have enslaved those ancestors. But it's not gospel.

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The number of freed slaves who used the name of their last slave owner is unknown. It varies from one state to another and perhaps even from one county to another. Estimates can range from 25 percent to 75 percent.

Surnames chosen by emancipated ancestors could be the name of someone they admired. It might be the given name of a parent or grandparent. It could reflect trade or geographic area. It might even be the name of the first slave owner. Each surname used in a freed family could have come from different slave owners, who may or may not be related. And names taken in freedom sometimes change once or twice before 1900.

Experienced genealogists know to search for people, not simply names and dates. That means search for ancestors using everything you know about them. That will include given names; approximate ages; children, parents and spouses; occupations; personality traits; unique experiences. Such information is necessary to identify those ancestors in papers before freedom.

If you have found slave owners with the same or similar surname as the African-American ancestors you are searching for, and scoured their records, but have not found those ancestors, move on. If you have studied the ancestors thoroughly in their own 20th-century, late-19th-century and Reconstruction-era records, you'll have a firm foundation for figuring out which slave owners's records you should investigate next.

Reach Wevonneda Minis at 937-5705 or wminis@postandcourier.com.

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