Tracing Your Roots: Is My Ancestor’s Surname From Slavery or Marriage?

Letter from Frank Nowlin, 1867 (Freedmen’s Bureau)
Letter from Frank Nowlin, 1867 (Freedmen’s Bureau)

The origins of the surname of a great-great-grandmother who was born into slavery are shrouded in mystery and require creative sleuthing.


Dear Professor Gates:

I am trying to map out my father’s side of the family tree. He passed away a few years ago and I never met his side of the family. I’ve been able to find my great-grandfather James Nowlin and great-great-grandmother Jane Alexander [Nowlin] in the 1880 Campbell County, Va., census. Jane is listed as black, but her children James and Lucy Nowlin are listed as mulatto. I have not been able to find their father. Is there a reason for the name change? I’ve looked at the neighbors, and none of them have the last name Nowlin, and I can’t find any slave owners with that surname, either. Do you have any suggestions on how I can proceed? —Brittany Pinson

In 1880 Jane Nowlin was residing in Rustburg, Campbell, Va. She was born about 1860 and had two children recorded in the census with her: James Nowlin, born about 1877; and Lucy Nowlin, who was born in May 1880. Her marital status was single. Also recorded in her household was her mother, Critty Alexander, who was born about 1810. Jane Nowlin is described as a farm laborer in the census record, and there’s a good chance she worked in the tobacco industry, which, along with iron manufacturing, dominated the region at the time.

According to the 1880 census, all the members of the household were born in Virginia, as was the father of Jane’s two children. Since you are having difficulty locating more information about Jane Nowlin, it may prove helpful to investigate Critty Alexander further, since records for her may lead you to more information regarding Jane.

Tracing Kin to Learn More About Jane Nowlin 

In 1900 Critty Alexander was living in the household of her son William Alexander in Rustburg, Campbell, Va. According to this record, William Alexander was born in May 1855 in Virginia, and he married his wife, Margaret, about 1872. There are also three children in the household who are recorded as William’s grandchildren. If the census records are correct and Critty Alexander was the mother of both William Alexander and your Jane Nowlin, it means that William and Jane are siblings. This gives you one more person to research to try to learn more about Jane.

We searched for earlier records of William and located him residing in Rustburg in 1880. William was recorded as black, and his wife and children were all recorded as mulatto. Directly next door was a Samuel Alexander, who was five years older than William. It seems a strong possibility that these two men are closely related, possibly brothers, since they share a surname, are close in age and are living directly next to each other. It is also possible that they adopted the surname from the same former slave owner or chose it because of a relationship to the same person.

Next, we searched the 1870 U.S. federal census for any individuals who matched the description of any of the people we connected to Jane Nowlin. We located family with the surname Alexander in Lexington, Rockbridge, Va., that included a Jane the same age as your Jane Nowlin and a William about the same age as the William Alexander with whom Critty Alexander was living in 1900. This is about 60 miles from Rustburg.


A less likely match to William Alexander could be the William with a brother, Samuel, and mother, Kesiah, residing in Flat Creek, Mecklenburg, Va., although this record does not include Jane. In either case, this may indicate that the family originated outside of Rustburg, since there are no records there in 1870 that match what we know about this family.

Including Name Variations Yields Promising Leads 

It’s important to include name variations in your record searches. We did just that and located a death record for a Mary Jane Nowlin, who died in Campbell County, Va, on June 25, 1918 (via, subscription required). According to the record, she was 59 years old at the time of her death, placing her birth about 1859. The informant on the record was Lucinda Thornhill, who was living at 716 Taylor St., the same residence given for the deceased. Mary Jane Nowlin’s parents were York Robinson and Lucinda Wilson, both born in Virginia. It is possible that the daughter, Lucy, who was recorded in the 1880 census with your Jane Nowlin could be a namesake for Lucinda Thornhill.


Searching for the Thornhill name, we did locate a Lucinda Thornhill residing in Stonewall, Appomattox, Va., in 1880 with her husband, George. According to this record, Lucinda Thornhill was a black woman born about 1861 in Virginia. Also in the household was 10-year-old John R. Nowlin, who was recorded as George Thornhill’s brother-in-law, so, brother to Lucinda.

This indicates that Lucinda’s maiden name was Nowlin. If this is the same Lucinda Thornhill who was the informant on Mary Jane Nowlin’s death record, this could mean they were sisters. We suggest including the names Mary Jane Nowlin, York Robinson, Lucinda Wilson and Lucinda Thornhill in your record searches as you work your way back in time.


Widening the Search to Other Local Nowlins 

it is also worth noting that searching Freedmen’s Bureau records reveals that there were also black individuals with the surname Nowlin residing in Lexington, Rockbridge, Va., such as Frank Nowlin, who was there in 1867 when he requested payment from William Browning of Appomattox for the work of his son Thomas Nowlin, who had been paid wages described in the letter as “quite low.”


You may benefit from researching other black families with the surname Nowlin in and around Rustburg, Campbell County, Va., because they may have adopted the name for similar reasons to those of your Jane Nowlin. Perhaps they all had the same former slave owner; there is also the possibility that one of them is the father of her children.

In locating white families with the Nowlin surname, you may need to broaden your search. So far as we could tell in our own searches, Rustburg was not identified on the town level prior to the 1880 census, so expand your search terms to include all of Campbell County, Va.


When we did this in the database for the 1850 U.S. Slave Schedule, the results returned included slave owners Samuel Nowlin and Joseph B. Nowlin, both from nearby Lynchburg; and a Peyton W. Nowlin of Campbell County. This indicates that there were white slave-owning families in close proximity to where your Jane Nowlin later resided.

Furthermore, we noted a Peyton W. Nowlin, who died in Campbell County in 1860. This means that he died during slavery and his probate record may mention his slaves. These records are not digitized, but you could search for his probate on microfilm through the Rustburg County Courthouse or through the Family History Library.


You will likely want to investigate each of these leads further to see what additional information you can find that might connect to your Jane Nowlin. Particularly, examining the probate records for slave owners with the Nowlin surname may include a listing of their slaves that could mention Jane or her mother, Critty Alexander. It may also be helpful to check out the resources listed by the Campbell County Historical Society.

Good luck!

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 chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


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This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Ph.D., a senior 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 1 billion 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.