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I had this posted on my other blog but decided to also post it here.

What’s a name?

Meet Alec. He is my great-great-great-great grandfather. He was born a slave in Virginia in about the year 1805. In the 1880 U.S. Census, I found him listed as Alec Washington. However, in the 1866 Freedmen’s Bureau’s register of marriages in the county, he was listed as Alec Alexander. I had been looking for him and his family for months. I always found their first names, and all the names and ages added up, but the surnames didn’t match. Then one day I simply went with my gut because I just KNEW they were my people. I then realized that many former slaves changed their surnames, and often you might find them as one surname in one census, then another surname in another.

Many of us conducting genealogical research might initially be under the impression that slaves took on the names of their former masters. So not true. In fact, while looking at the register of freedmen’s marriages, there were only a handful who indeed did take on the last name of their last slave owner. Where did they get their new surnames? I think many chose surnames from other former slave owners of theirs or their parents or decided to create their own. I have also found different spellings of surnames. In one case, the whole surname changed because of one changed letter.

This post has come to me due to another post I saw recently about slaves not taking the name of their former masters. Many responded to that post shocked because they had assumed slaves automatically took the last name of their last slave owner. Since I have experience with this subject, I felt compelled to post about it.