Tracing Your Roots: Were Slaves’ Surnames Like Brands?

Grave headstone for Wilson Wood, who had been enslaved (family photo courtesy of Lisa Sykes Chilton)
Grave headstone for Wilson Wood, who had been enslaved (family photo courtesy of Lisa Sykes Chilton)

We made a surprising discovery while addressing a question about how slaves got their last names.

Dear Professor Gates:

Were the surnames of enslaved people changed when they were sold, or were they allowed to keep the surnames of their former slave owners? It would seem plausible that a slave’s name was like a brand that identified the claim of ownership.


This question came up at the family reunion of a newly discovered branch of my family that traces its line back to an enslaved man, Wilson Wood, of Meigs County, Tenn. Wilson was born in 1815 and died in 1878 and was married to Sarah Taliaferro Wood. We believe his father was the slave owner William W. Wood Sr. and his mother was a slave named Mary. We have a copy of a bill of sale showing that Wilson was sold to his uncle Samuel Wood in 1862. In this case, both owners had the same surname, but if they hadn’t, would Wilson’s surname have changed? 

Also, are there any additional details of Wilson’s early life that you can find? I will send you the documentation that we have for him. —the Rev. Dr. Lisa Sykes Chilton

If only it were that simple to trace the surnames of enslaved people! In truth, there were a variety of ways that former slaves adopted surnames, only one of which was adopting the surname of their slave owner. There were instances of an enslaved family passing down a surname through several generations. Sometimes people kept a surname of a previous slave owner, and sometimes they had a name chosen for other reasons, such as their occupation or a long-standing family connection to a name. A window into the complexities of slaves’ surnames can be found by reading the article “A Perspective on Indexing Slaves’ Names” (pdf), by David E. Patterson, in the American Archivist.

The Many Ways African Americans Came by Their Last Names 

Further complicating African-American-surname research is the fact that after the Civil War, former slaves didn’t always take the name of their most recent owner (or have it assigned to them by record takers). Sometimes newly freed slaves chose new surnames for themselves to separate themselves from their former owners. For instance, some selected the surnames of people they admired or considered to be important, such as U.S. presidents. This may be why “Washington,” the surname of America’s first president, was dubbed “the blackest name” in America in an Associated Press article. Ninety percent of people recorded in the 2000 census with the surname “Washington” were black, a significantly higher percentage than for any other common name.


In a previous Tracing Your Roots column, “Am I Related to Black Nationalist Martin R. Delany?,” we determined that Dennis Dorrity likely changed his surname from that of his former slave owner, John Dorrity, to Delaney. This was possibly out of admiration for the black abolitionist Major Martin Robison Delany, who is frequently referred to as “the Father of Black Nationalism.”

In other instances, individuals chose the name “Freeman” or “Freedmen” to distance themselves from any slave owner.


For these reasons, our advice to African Americans who are tracing family roots is to search for ancestors in the 1870 census without a surname. This was the technique used in another previous column, “What’s the Story of a Portrait of My Slave Ancestor?,” when we discovered that a family using the surname “Dickey” from 1880 forward was recorded under the surname “Johnson” in 1870.

Because surnames for former slaves were so fluid and not set on any particular laws or rules, determining a surname during and after slavery is often the most challenging aspect of African-American genealogy.


Re-Examining the Story of Wilson Wood 

In your case, you have the name of your ancestor and two of his former slave owners in the bill of sale. The belief is that Wilson Wood’s father, William W. Wood Sr., sold him to his uncle Samuel Wood. After looking at the documents that you identified, we traced further and found information that might surprise you.


The bill of sale for Wilson Wood was recorded Sept. 22, 1862, but the record states that the sale actually took place earlier than that date, on Oct. 26, 1861. This means that the sale was recorded at least a year after the sale took place. Keep in mind that documents recorded after the event are not always completely accurate, since they are often based on memory.

We looked at the 1860 United States Census Slave Schedule (on; subscription required), and it appears that the sale of Wilson to Samuel O. Wood could have occurred even as early as 1860, since there is a 45-year-old male recorded in the household of Samuel Wood in Meigs County, Tenn., that year who would match the description of Wilson. Samuel had only two slaves: the man that could be Wilson and a 42-year-old woman.


Going back a decade to the 1850 Slave Schedule, both William Wood and Samuel O. Wood were recorded as slave owners in Meigs County, and their households were recorded on the same page of the census, meaning that they were living close to each other. Each man had only one slave in his household in 1850. Samuel had a 29-year-old male, placing his birth around 1821, and William Wood had a 26-year-old male, born about 1824, and both were described as being black. Both of these men are younger than what you know about Wilson Wood. However, it’s important to note that ages can vary, particularly in slave schedules, so perhaps one of these men is Wilson.

When we compared the 1860 Slave Schedule with the information in the federal census, however, we didn’t find a William Wood who was old enough to be the one who was on the bill of sale. A minor would have had to have a guardian conduct the sale for him, and that was not indicated in the document. The only William Wood recorded in Meigs County in 1860 was born around 1849 and was recorded in the household of James Wood. We also found 42-year-old Samuel O. Woods residing in Meigs County in 1860 with his wife, Mary, and two children: Roena, 9, and Elias, 2.


Going back 10 years to the 1850 census, we found Samuel residing there with Mary and a 1-year-old son, William Wood. This might be the same child who was recorded with James Wood (possibly a relative) 10 years later. However, in 1850 we also found a better match for the William Wood recorded in the bill of sale: a 30-year-old living alone in Meigs County.

Based on this information, it seems probable that the William and Samuel Wood in the bill of sale were brothers or close relatives, though both are far too young to be the father of Wilson, who was born in 1815. Perhaps Wilson was actually the son of William and Samuel’s father, and the story shifted in its retelling over time. You’ll want to focus on tracing this white Wood family back in time to determine if that is a possibility.


It also appears by the wording of the bill of sale for Wilson Wood that William Wood was either deceased or was no longer in the area at the time that the sale was recorded, since it states that the clerk John T. Russell “was personally acquainted with the said William Wood.” He was not available in some capacity, since he was not present for the recording of the document.

This aligns with the fact that a William Wood of the right age does not appear in Meigs County in 1860. You can search for a probate record for him in Meigs County before 1861 (the sale date) or search for a William Wood in another location that matches his description in 1860. This may help you learn more about any other slaves he may have owned or sold in Meigs County.


We went back further in time to research white Wood families in Meigs County. In 1836 there were two men with the surname “Wood” who were taxed in Meigs County: John W. Wood and Samuel W. Wood (subscription required). Neither of them was taxed for any slaves. Likewise, in 1830 a William Wood was recorded in Rhea County, Tenn., which is adjacent to Meigs County and is also the county where the Samuel O. Wood in the bill of sale married in 1848. The household did not include any slaves, but perhaps there is a connection to the William and Samuel Wood in the bill of sale.

These records suggest that there wasn’t a slave-owning Wood family in or around Meigs County when your Wilson Wood was born, and he could have been born elsewhere—or even been enslaved previously by another family. Extending your search geographically may help you locate an early bill of sale or probate record that mentions him and provides more information about his origins.


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.

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