Slavery and Finding an Ancestral Name

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
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.

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.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to


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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