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“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!

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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.

Another source of information can be historic newspapers, which would often feature articles and advertisements on the plantation owners in the South. Of course, among the best sources showing slave-owning families in a specific region are the 1850 and 1860 federal slave schedules already mentioned above. On the subscription site Ancestry.com, you can search these collections using just the surname, county and state to give you a general idea of where your family’s name may have originated.

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If you do find that there is a slave-owning family in the region that uses the same surname as your own, you will then want to find records of the landowners or of the plantation approximately when your ancestors would have been there (likely before the Civil War).

Once you have this information, you can begin to search through wills and probate records. Probate records often include an inventory of the entire estate of the person who died, and for those who owned slaves, this will include a list of the slaves, an approximate value and sometimes even a basic physical description detailing age and gender.

The site FamilySearch.org has some wills for various counties in South Carolina digitized. Although you cannot search these collections by using a text search, you can browse the digital images online as you would the bound volumes that are held at the courthouses. Some counties have a master index for all will and probate documents, while others just have an index at the front of the book. Given this, knowing the approximate year that the plantation's owner died and where they lived at the time of death will be helpful for finding relevant documents.

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If you are unable to find any connection between your family’s name and any of the nearby slave-owning families in the region, you may want to expand your search to see if there are any other possible origins for the family’s name. You could look at the records of the plantation and slave-holding families in the geographic region where your ancestor came from, even if the surnames do not match. Occasionally, slave’s surnames were written out in records such as probate inventories or runaway advertisements.

Finding the Origin of the Mungin Surname

We did our own search to see if we could determine where the Mungin surname came from. First, we searched for Herbert Mungin, who was born circa 1924 in South Carolina. In our search, we only found one result for a Herbert Mungin, born circa 1924, in both the 1930 and 1940 Census records. These records show that he was the son of James Mungin, born in South Carolina, circa 1895.

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Using census records again, we found that James was the son of James Mungin Sr., born in 1855. Since this James Mungin Sr. would have been alive in 1870, we then searched for a record of him in the 1870 Census. Most of the records we have found for the family, thus far, show that they were living in Hampton County, S.C., so we focused our search in that geographical region.

We were unable to find a record of a 15-year-old James Mungin in the 1870 Census; however, we did find a record of a 12-year-old boy named Jim Mongin living in St. Peter’s Parish, Beaufort County, S.C., with his mother, 40-year-old Tena Mongin. St. Peter’s Parish was located in the Western portion of what is today known as Hampton County. In our search, we also found a death record for James Mungin Sr., which showed that he was the son of Tena and James Monday Mungin, who were both born in Hampton County.

To help determine whether or not the 1870 Census record of the Mongin family is in fact a record of your ancestors, we researched the Mungin and Mongin names around Hampton County. First, we did a search of the 1860 Slave Schedules to see if there were any slave-owning families with these surnames near Hampton County. In our search, the only entries for the Mungin surname showed that there was a John D. Mungin, a planter in Chatham County, Ga., who owned many slaves. We also found that there was a planter, Isabella Mongin, who owned 40 slaves in St. Lukes Parish, Beaufort County.

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Today, Beaufort County is adjacent to Hampton County. It is important to keep in mind that before the Civil War, South Carolina was divided by parishes rather than counties, and St. Luke’s Parish was generally in the area today known as Hilton Head Island.

Since Hampton County is not too far from Hilton Head, we then researched Isabella Mongin and her plantation using records on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. We found that she was the widow of William Henry Mongin, who died in Savannah, Ga., in September of 1851. William was a descendant of David John Mongin, who was born in England and immigrated to South Carolina in the mid-18th century. The family eventually settled in Beaufort County and Savannah.

Since we know that William died in 1851 in Savannah, we searched the Chatham County Probate records for any will or probate documents. In our search, we found his will, which lists all of the slaves he had working on his rice plantation, called Bloody Point, on Daufuskie Island in Beaufort County.

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This list included a female slave named Tena! Since James Mungin Sr.’s death record listed his mother as Tena, and the 1870 Census shows that James and Tena Mongin were living together, it seems likely that your ancestors were slaves at the Bloody Point Plantation owned by the Mongin family.

We also searched for an inventory of William Mongin’s estate to see if it listed Tena’s age. We did not find any additional description of her, but it did list a male slave named Jimmy, who was not listed in William’s will. Perhaps this is the same James Monday Mungin, who was the father of James Mungin born in 1855. More research on the Bloody Point Plantation and in William and Isabella Mongin’s probate documents could help confirm this.

This now raises the question as to why the name changed for Mongin to Mungin over time. Although we can never know for sure, it is possible that Mungin is a phonetic spelling of the surname Mongin, or perhaps the family wanted to differentiate themselves from their former owners. Regardless of the reason why the name changed, it seems possible that other African Americans with the Mungin surname today may have a connection with your family, or at least a connection Mongin family of the South.

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If you want to determine if you are related to this slave owner, you should track down his descendants, and ask one or two to take a DNA test to compare your autosomal DNA to theirs. If you are related, you will share long identical segments of autosomal DNA. Several companies offer this test, including Ancestry DNA, Family Tree DNA and 23andMe.

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 the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

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This answer was provided in consultation with Kristin Britanik, a researcher from New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country's leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, 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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