A common misconception holds that slaves did not have surnames until after emancipation and that the names they took after the Civil War were those of their former owners. The truth is that many slaves, if not a majority, were using surnames by the beginning of the 19th century and that in some families surnames may have been passed down for generations before that time. A striking example is provided by Shirley plantation slave John Roc, who was enrolled as a member of Charles City Baptist Church before 1810. His namesake, another John Roc was an Englishman indentured to Col. Edward Hill on the same plantation in the 1670’s – a hundred and thirty years before.
Pictured to the right: Agness Spurlock Hilton as sketched by Catherine Douthat. Agness Hilton’s father, Robin Spurlock, was given as a wedding present to Chief Justice John Marshall. Agness served five generations of the Marshall-Douthat family.
Just as certainly as slaves claimed and used surnames, official and plantation records denied them. The denial of surnames was an essential feature of an institution that regarded slaves as property and not as persons. The silence of the records presents a formidable – but not always impenetrable – obstacle to those seeking to trace ancestors. Some names did slip through and when one surname is used in conjunction with other records an entire family may emerge from obscurity. In other cases, post war freedmen’s records lend clues sufficient to tie a freedman to a former owner and family members together. This data base is an attempt to gather the names that “slipped through.” It is a work in progress, so please check back periodically for updates.
Slave Ancestor File Info:
# of records - 707
Last update - Dec 2006
“It was the custom that all the slaves were called after their master, although the slaves themselves often called themselves after what they believed to be their true family names.” Mary Patterson affidavit Siah Hulett Carter pension file.