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)

Once you locate Austin and his family, you can then search the 1860 slave schedule to find a slave owner with the same or a similar surname. I provided some tips about searching slave schedules in a previous column. Many slaves took the surname of their former master, but not all of them did. Although there are a few exceptions in the 1850 and 1860 censuses, most slave schedules do not list the individual slave by name and only identify them by gender and age. Depending on how many slaves the owner had, and how much information you have on Austin, it might be possible to locate a potential match based on said criteria.

Once a potential slave owner has been located, you would need to research them. Because slaves were considered property, their master may have recorded the purchase of Austin or Hannah in the deed books of Smith County, Texas. You would also need to research the extended family of the slave owner, as well, since slaves were property, and it was not uncommon for them to be passed onto children in probate records. If Austin and Hannah belonged to the slave owner’s father, for example, it is possible that he bequeathed them to members of his family in his will. If this is the case, then he would have listed them by name.

The Family History Library has digitized Texas probate records. You can browse through these online.

Another source for information on Austin Randall/Randel/Randle and the slave owner’s family would be the Texas Voter Registration Lists, 1867-1869. You can access this database through After the Civil War, Southern states were required to register men, black or white, who were at least 21 years old, so that they could vote. These records have the man’s name, age, residence, length of residence, nativity and race. By searching for Austin and the potential slave owner, it might be possible to determine when Austin Randall arrived in Smith County and where he might have come from.

If none of the potential slave owners can be connected to Georgia, it is possible that Austin and his family were sold at auction. To research this, you would need to search old newspapers for slave auctions. One website that has digitized images of Texas newspapers is It’s also be possible to contact the Smith County Texas Historical Society to see what records they have in their collections.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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This answer was provided in consultation with researchers from New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website,, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.

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