Was My Black Ancestor Named After a Confederate General?

Tracing Your Roots: A reader wonders if her great-grandfather’s name points to a connection in slavery.

Wade Hampton III, between 1865 and 1880
Wade Hampton III, between 1865 and 1880 Library of Congress via Wikimedia

Dear Professor Gates:

I visited Charleston, S.C., last week and walked past a statue of Wade Hampton III and stopped dead in my tracks. You see, my great-grandfather’s name was Wade Hampton Shields.

Wade Hampton III was a Confederate general, U.S. senator and governor of South Carolina. He was one of the largest enslavers of people in the South and one of the largest landowners in South Carolina. Can you help me determine the connection between my great-grandfather and the Hampton family? Was my ancestor a slave on Gov. Hampton’s plantation?

My grandmother was Lucille Shields McKnight, and she was born in Sumter County, S.C., on Dec. 28, 1913. Wade Hampton Shields was her father. —Yvette McKnight Johnson

It is certainly plausible that your great-grandfather was given the first and middle names Wade Hampton because of a historical connection between the Shields and the Hamptons. Keep in mind, it’s also possible that he was named after a historical figure the family somehow admired or believed had a prestigious name.

As you noted, Hampton was a Confederate general. In the Reconstruction era and beyond, he had a second career in public life, serving as governor and U.S. senator of the Palmetto State, then as U.S. commissioner of railroads. A quick search of the 1870 United States federal census for the name Wade Hampton without a surname returns a number of results across the country, suggesting that this may have also been a popular combination at the time.  Nevertheless, we focused our search on finding out whether the Hamptons could have enslaved members of the Shields family.

After surrendering to the Union Army in Durham, N.C., Confederate Gen. Wade Hampton III discovered “his childhood home was destroyed during Sherman’s March to the Sea and all of his slaves were freed,” according to the National Park Service. Before the war, in 1860, Wade Hampton III was residing in Richland, S.C. He was still residing there in 1880 following the Civil War, so it is likely that his slaves would have been freed in Richland County. Sumter County, where your Wade Hampton Shields originated, borders Richland County, so it is well within reason that there could be a connection. 

The slave schedules from 1850 reflect that Wade Hampton III owned a large number of slaves, though with the schedules only recording these individuals by age, sex and race, it would be impossible to connect the ancestors of your Wade Hampton Shields to Wade Hampton III using the slave schedules alone.

Tracing the Shields Family Back in Time

Your best option is to work backward from your Wade Hampton Shields to see if you can determine the identity of his former slave owners. The 1920 U.S. census was the first to enumerate your grandmother, Lucille Shields, in Shiloh, Sumter, S.C., in the household of her father, recorded here as Hampton Shields. In 1930 his name was recorded in the census as Wade H. Shields, which matches what you know about him, and he was still residing in Shiloh at age 54. It seemed likely that he remained in Sumter County until his death, so we searched for his death certificate to see if it named his parents.

According to Hampton Shields’ death record (note that his name was transcribed incorrectly in the database as Hamilton Shields), his parents were Spencer Shields and Caroline Gibbs, both of Sumter County. The death certificate also tells you that he was born about 1876. With this information, we located him in 1880, at 2 years of age, residing in the household of his father, Spencer Shields, and his mother, Caroline, in Shiloh. This record gives us an approximate birth date for Spencer in 1830 and Caroline in 1845. We noted the oldest children in their household, since they are likely to appear on the 1870 census: Fanny, born about 1864; Mary, born about 1867; and Jim, born about 1870. We also noted the names of Spencer’s other children for comparison with other records, namely, Elly, Ladson and Dozin.

We initially had difficulty locating the family in 1870. But when we searched just for women named Caroline born about 1845 residing in Sumter County, we located the family under the name “McLeod” in the household of Lewis and Amery McLeod. “Shields McLeod” (who we assume to be your Spencer Shields), Caroline, Fanny and Mary all appear in the household and are of the right ages to be a match, though their relationship to Lewis McLeod is unclear. This record places the family in Shiloh at a time close to abolition, suggesting that they may have resided in the county prior to the end of slavery.