Lost Slave Ancestors Found

Tracing Your Roots: Researchers followed the trail of a unique surname. Here’s how you can do the same.


“Our last name is odd. We get it from my mother’s father, Herbert Mungin, who was born in 1924, somewhere in the American South—South Carolina, we think. I know that last names were picked up in various ways in the late 1800s, but I’ve actually never met a white person who shares this last name. There is only one family other than my own in New York, who has this last name, to whom we are vaguely related. All the other people that I find on Facebook with this name—all black—are settled in the South, and I believe wholeheartedly that there is some shared lineage. Where did our name come from?” —Zoe Mungin

The Origins of African-American Surnames

This is a classic example of finding both the origins of your surname and also your oldest slave ancestor. After a little digging, we did turn up quite a few clues for the origins of your surname, but more about those shortly. First, some general advice for tracking down the roots of a family name:

Your family’s name could have several possible origins. With the abolition of slavery, many black people had the opportunity to start their life anew and choose their own surname. While it is true that some adopted the name of their former owners, this was not always the case. For example, some chose surnames based on their occupation, while others used names of prominent local and national figures. Other surnames were based on family members’ given names, or even the name of a nearby town or place.

How to Research the Origin of Your Family’s Name

The best first step is to trace your ancestors as far back as possible using census records. Finding them in the 1870 U.S. Federal Census will be especially useful, if possible, because you can determine approximately where they were living and what surname they used just after the abolition of slavery. As mentioned in previous columns, finding records of enslaved ancestors before emancipation can be a challenge, because they were rarely listed by name. Our advice for consulting slave schedules in the 1850 and 1860 census enumerations might help in your search, however.

In our experience tracing the ancestry of the guests in Finding Your Roots, almost all of the African-American ancestors took the surnames of their owners during slavery. The reason that it is crucial to find your ancestor in the 1870 Census is that it opens the possibility of finding the name of the person who owned them, simply by looking at the 1860 Slave Schedule for a slave owner with that surname, then searching through their estate records for the name of your black ancestor. And this is what we did in this instance!

If you are unable to find definitive census records for your family, look for birth, marriage and death records to find more details about where your ancestors were living and when. Also, as we detailed in a previous Tracing Your Roots question, always be aware that the spelling of surnames can vary from document to document.

Your next step is to research the use of your family name in the city or county where your ancestors lived before and after emancipation to see if there were known slaveholders or large plantations associated with the name. There are many ways you can research the use of the family name in a particular geographic region. For example, you may just start with typing the family name and geographic region into an Internet search engine, or you may want to contact the local historical society or library to see if they have any files or information on the family name.