Explore your name

This guide was last updated in 2009

Traditional family history research is based on children inheriting surnames from their father, or mother if their parents were unmarried.

Slaves, however, did not have legal surnames, and were normally recorded only by their ‘plantation’ name. Also, names recorded by the owner or the authorities may not be the same as used by the person, especially after freedom. This only serves to make the research even more challenging!

It is commonly believed that slaves adopted or were given the surname of their owner, and although this did occur there are options to consider.

  • The surname could be that of an earlier slave holder;
  • It could be the surname used by the mother or father – the father may be on another estate, or may be the slave holder or an employee;
  • A last forename;
  • A chosen name – on freedom emancipated people could choose their name

In the absence of any further information you could assume that your ancestor had the same name as their master – but bear in mind that this is not certain.

Start with the basics
previous Step
Identify the slaveholder
next Step
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here