How Do I Trace an Ancestor Through a Name Change?

United States census, 1900, Shelby, Ala.
United States census, 1900, Shelby, Ala.

Dear Professor Gates:

The earliest record I have for my great-grandparents is a marriage license dated 1867. The marriage takes place in Shelby County, Ala. My great-grandmother Louvenia Pierce was born in Georgia. My great-grandfather Archie Brown was born in North Carolina. In 1900 they became Morrisons. I have used, FamilySearch, MyHeritage and Fold3. Is there some local Alabama record that might provide a clue as to their location prior to their arrival in Alabama and/or a reason for the name change? —Marvin Morrison


To our great surprise, we have discovered, when tracing the ancestry of black guests on the television series Finding Your Roots, that far more often than not—contrary to conventional wisdom—freed slaves seem to have taken their surnames from a family that owned them. Often, it was from the family that owned them when they were emancipated.   

What’s in a Surname?

Slaves, as chattel property, did not have legal surnames, even though they used first and last names among themselves. Masters and the law identified slaves by the first names they used (or names forced upon them by their owners) in order to distinguish them from other slaves in records such as wills and tax records. Finding such documents can be a boon in genealogical reclamation efforts of a black family’s slave ancestors. But surnames were not recognized by law, even if a slave family insisted upon using them.

Some African Americans, following the Civil War, quite understandably decided to declare themselves free citizens through the selection of a new surname—names such as “Freeman,” for instance—or simply by a name that they found meaningful for their own private reasons. As Booker T. Washington pointed out in Up From Slavery, changing a surname was an attempt by a former slave to gain some psychological distance from a harsh master, specifically, or from the harsh realities of the nightmare of slavery, more generally.

Too, taking a new name—a thoroughly American practice, by the way, in common with some European immigrant groups—reflects an attempt at self-fashioning or reinvention. Adopting a new name ostensibly erases the past and dramatically forges a completely new identity in this exciting new land of promise, as a new person, a free person.

(There are always exceptions to any rule, of course:  On one line in my father’s family, my fourth-great-grandparents, Joe and Sarah Bruce, were freed by their owner, Abraham Van Meter, in 1823 in his will. We speculate that my Bruce ancestors had been owned, perhaps generations before, by someone named Bruce, and they retained that name and passed it down orally, family member to family member, through the generations. But we can’t know this for sure.)

In any event, for family historians, a black person’s birth name and the surname of her or his owner are as important in tracing their deep roots as a post-slavery name change is to tracing their more recent roots. 


What About Archie Brown and Louvenia Pierce?

In this case, you know your great-grandfather had the surname Brown at the time of his marriage to Louvenia Pierce. Since in many instances, as we have seen, African Americans took up the surnames of their immediate owners, the name Brown will be important to your research.


We recommend starting from the earliest known record in order to pinpoint any identifiable locations where your ancestors lived. This would be the 1867 marriage record you located. Also important is to consider multiple variations of records for a single event. Sometimes, a transcription of a record will contain information not presented in other transcriptions. Once you locate a listing for an event in an index, you should always order the actual record. Mistakes have often been made in the transcription process.

In the index database Alabama, Select Marriages, 1816-1957, on (subscription required), we found a reference to the marriage of Archey Brown and Lavinnie Bryce which took place on Aug. 29, 1867, in Shelby County, Ala. The FHL film number is 1571844 IT 1-5.


In Alabama, Marriage Collection, 1800-1969, we located a second record for the marriage of Archey Brown, on the same date, same location, but this time, his spouse was listed as “L. Bryee.” The marriage was officiated by P.O. Lecroy, a justice of the peace. 

Knowing that your ancestors were married in Shelby County, Ala., in 1867, you should try to see if they lived in this county in 1860. If they were free (remember, about 488,000 black people were free in 1860, while 3.9 million were enslaved), they should be listed in the 1860 census, which is available on That enumeration listed free people regardless of their race. Try to locate any individuals in the 1860 United States census with the names Louvenia Pierce, Luvenia Pierce or Archie/Archey/Archibald Brown, or either first name with the surname Morrison. A helpful strategy is to search for any possible spelling variation of your ancestors’ given names, because census enumerators were notorious for their unique (mis)spellings. 


If you are not able to locate your ancestors in the 1860 census, your next course of action should be to search the 1850 and 1860 Slave Schedules on for similar locations. These slave schedules were part of the U.S. census and were arranged alphabetically, by the name of the slave owner, county by county. However, individual slaves were not listed by name but instead by age and gender under a heading of the slave owner’s name.  

As we previously noted, slaves sometimes took the surname of their owner after becoming free. So, every African American searching for a slave ancestor should find him or her in a specific county in the 1870 census (when all black people were free), and then automatically look for the name of a woman or man by the same surname in the same county listed in the 1850 and 1860 Slave Schedules. If you get a hit, this person may be a potential owner of your ancestor, with the slaves in their household listed by age and gender. You should search these slave schedules for slaves who were the same age as Archie Brown and were owned by men whose surname was Brown.  


The 1900 census enumerated in Montevallo, Shelby County, Ala., lists Archie Morrison, age 60, born in January 1840 in North Carolina; Lurvenice, 49, born in Georgia; and their 10 children, born in Alabama. This record states that Archie’s parents were born in North Carolina. Lurvenice’s father was born in Georgia and her mother in Virginia. It is important to note that their oldest child recorded in this census is Pauline, who was born in Alabama in June 1876.

It is also important to note that this census record tells us that the couple had been married for 33 years, which places their marriage in 1867, which corresponds with the Aug. 29, 1867, marriage listed above. The 1900 census also states that Lurvenice had given birth to 13 children, and 12 were alive when the census was enumerated. Since there are 10 children in Archie’s house in 1900—the eldest named Pauline, whose age was 23—the missing two may be married and living elsewhere.


What Do We Know About the People Around Them?

While we did not locate another Morrison family living in Montevallo in 1900, we did locate Turner Brown, age 60, black, born in North Carolina, parents born in North Carolina; his wife, Martha, age 54, black, born in Alabama; and their son, Sam, age 19, born May 1881 in Alabama.  


You could trace Turner forward to see if you can locate a death record and obituary that might link him to Archie Brown Morrison. While this may or may not prove to be a relation to Archie, since Brown is a common name, this is another way to find one’s ancestors.

We found two slave owners in 1860, surnamed Brown, living in Shelby, Ala., about 40 miles from Montevallo, who had a male slave age 20 years. They were John A. Brown and David Brown.


You could search for female slaves born circa 1851 to slave owners surnamed Pierce/Bryce/Bryee in the area around Shelby County.

If you find a slave owner who you think may be connected to your ancestors, your next step would be to search Alabama probate records (available on FamilySearch) for this individual to see if he listed the first names for his slaves in any records, allowing you to confirm your findings. You should also search the various probate records available for Shelby County and surrounding counties, such as St. Clair (map), for these individuals depending upon where they were listed in 1850 or 1860.


What Other Records Can Help?

Another avenue to explore is war records. Given that he was born in 1840, it is possible that Archie Brown served in the Civil War. In order to determine whether Archie Brown served, you should search all of the available databases of service and pension records, including the following:

* United States Veterans Administration Pension Payment Cards, 1907-1933, on FamilySearch;
* U.S. Civil War Soldiers, 1861-1865, on;
* U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death File, 1850-2010, on;
* U.S. Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865, on, and;
* U.S. Civil War Draft Registrations Records, 1863-1865, on


In searching these databases, we found an Archibald D.A. Brown from Moore County, N.C., who enlisted June 3, 1861, at the age of 20. This individual is not listed as having served in the United States Colored Troops, and therefore we cannot determine his race.  

We also found an Archey S. Brown who served for the Confederacy out of North Carolina as part of the 1st Regiment of the North Carolina Infantry. This unit was obviously not part of the United States Colored Troops! While there were not any records of an Archie Brown in Alabama, a search of all known variations, including the surname Morrison, could yield results. 


Another source of information that could provide great assistance is the database Alabama, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872 on FamilySearch. This database contains records for the state of Alabama for freed people following the Civil War. We also recommend examining United States, Freedmen’s Bureau, Records of the Assistant Commissioner, 1865-1872. According to the National Archives, “Documents such as local census, marriage records and medical records provide freed people's full names and former masters.” A large collection of the records can be found at the Freedmen’s Bureau.

In regards to your ancestor’s name change, it is important to bear in mind that these changes were not always legal or permanent. Therefore, the record we located on for the death of an Archie Brown at Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Nov. 26, 1928, may, in fact, actually be your ancestor. This can be confirmed by examining newspapers for an obituary or death notice at databases such as, GenealogyBank and Google News Archives.


Given the scattered and sparse nature of records kept during this time period, finding documentation for former slaves can often be difficult. Nevertheless, with enough patience and diligence, our black ancestors, more often than not, can be found.

Good luck with your search, and keep us posted!

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also co-founder of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


Send your questions about tracing your own roots to

This answer was provided in consultation with Zachary Garceau, a researcher from the 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 about researching African-American roots.