Slavery and Finding an Ancestral Name

Tracing Your Roots: It's not easy to locate the surname of an enslaved ancestor, but it can be done.

Shackles for slave children on display at the New-York Historical Society (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Shackles for slave children on display at the New-York Historical Society (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

(The Root) — The search for African-American ancestors can be complicated by the fact that some of our slave ancestors took as their last names the surnames of their masters when they were freed in 1865, but not all did, and over time, the spellings of these names changed phonetically. In fact, some informally inherited and kept the surnames of masters of their own ancestors who lived a long time before they were born, even though they were owned by other masters later. 

This is the case with some of my own family lines. For instance, we can’t find a master name “Gates,” although we know that Jane Gates was a slave until 1865, and hence was owned by another master. Similarly, my fourth great grandparents, Joe and Sarah Bruce, were owned by Abraham Van Meter, and freed in his will in 1823. We have no idea from where or why Jane Gates or the Bruces took their last names.

And some slave ancestors took new names upon emancipation, to signify a new start in their lives. Below, a reader is seeking advice on how to find an ancestor whose surname might have been different during slavery.

“I am researching a family with surname of Randall/Randell/Randle who lived in Smith County, Texas, during slavery. Both Austin Randle and his wife, Hannah, were born in Georgia and had at least two children born in Georgia prior to their move to Texas. The rest of the children were born in Texas.

My question: Since slaves frequently used their owners’ surnames, and since I cannot find any person with the last name of Randle, etc. on the 1870 Federal Census, how do I begin to trace my ancestors? I am totally clueless. Please help.” Bobbie Jeffrey-Moughon 

The best way to begin your research is by gathering as much information on Austin and Hannah Randall as possible. This would include locating death certificates for Austin and Hannah, death certificates for their children and birth records for any children born after the end of slavery.

Austin and Hannah’s death certificates should provide you with their places of birth, as well as the names and birthplaces of their parents. The Family History Library has digitized and indexed the death records for all of Texas for the years 1890-1976.

If you can locate a birth record for any of Austin and Hannah’s children, it may state where their parents were born. Again, the Family History Library has made available an index to birth records.

The database of birth records would only be useful if some of the children were born after the end of slavery; otherwise they most likely would not have been recorded in the county. We have seen instances in which the births were recorded in town records, but only first names were recorded.

The next step would be to search the 1870 census to locate Austin Randall/Randell/Randle and his family. In this census record, you should find the names of each family member. With a name like Randall, you need to search every spelling variation that may have been recorded. Just because the name is spelled a particular way now does not mean that it was recorded that way 150 years ago.

There are ways to search that do not require you to use every spelling variation of the name. Search using a wildcard or the soundex. If you used the “?” wildcard and searched using “Rand?l?,” you would get matches to Randell/Randoll/Randole/Randale. By removing the second “?” you would continue to find more variations such as Randol/Randal/Randel. This method allows for easier searching of all the different spelling variations of the surname.