Posts Tagged ‘African Names’

Washington Surname Most Common among African Americans in America—and in Robertson County, Tennessee

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

According to an interesting article by Jesse Washington of the Associated Press  entitled “Washington Named the ‘Blackest Name’ in America,”

Based on the 2000 U. S. census, Washington is the most prominent surname among African Americans.  90% of  163,036 individuals with the Washington surname are African Americans, a far greater percentage than any other name.

The descendants of  African Americans once enslaved on Wessyngton Plantation are part of this group.  Before and after Emancipation, they chose to use the Washington surname—the surname of the slaveholding Washington family (were distant cousins of the president). 

At the onset of the Civil War there were nearly 300 African Americans on Wessyngton Plantation.  In 1870, 212 former slaves and their descendants from Wessyngton in Robertson County carried the Washington surname.  This was nearly 5% of the total number of African Americans in the county.

In the years following the Civil War hundreds of Washingtons from Robertson County migrated out of the area.  Today there are still African Americans in the area who carry the Washington surname (although far fewer than decades earlier), and  some African American Washingtons throughout the country are descended from the Wessyngton Washingtons.






Court Case Reveals Plight of Africans During the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

The following story sheds light on the impact of the Transatlantic slave trade on the lives of native Africans.  Some of these slaves ended up on the plantations of the Blow families.


            I found this story while searching through a Sussex County deed book looking for genealogical information and noticed the names of several slaves.  What stood out most were the names of some of the slaves:  August, September, June, April, Caesar, and Quaco.  I then thought these were likely Africans.  Some slave owners gave Africans the names of the months of the year or days of the week.  Planters did not realize in some African cultures children were named for the days of the week they were born on, thereby continuing an African tradition.  Names such as Samba, meaning born on Monday, which was later, corrupted to Sambo.


  The plight of the Africans was revealed in detail in a Virginia court case that lasted eighteen years.  The story began in 1781 during the Revolutionary War.  John Wigfall owned a large plantation at Wambaw on St. Thomas Parish in South Carolina.  During this time, Wigfall was a Loyalist to Britain and was banished from the colony and had his property confiscated which included his slaves.  At the same time, Captain John Singletary was issued a commission as a privateer in his cutter Victory.  His commission ordered him to take as prize any British property.  Captain Singletary and a small crew set out in rowboats up the Santee River and landed at Wigfall’s plantation, where they captured thirty-four of his slaves: April, Will, August, Dolly, September, Wally, Philander, Philis, Caesar, Horah, Scipio, Cloey, Daniel, Santon, Will, Neppy, June, Dianah, Pegg, Binah, Jenny, Peter, Cyrus, Duke, Flora, Limbrick, Pharo, Toby, Nanny, Sabina, Rosanna, Carolina, Wallis, and Quashilla.[1][1]  The slaves at first were taken to Beaufort, North Carolina. 


Although Wigfall was to be banished, he was granted leniency because he pleaded poor health and a large family to support and was allowed to remain in South Carolina.  Thus, Wigfall made immediate application for the return of his slaves, as a Court of the Admiralty convened in New Bern and ruled that the slaves were a fair prize.  They were declared property legally condemned by the court.


            After discovering that Beaufort was threatened by the British, Singletary took the slaves to Virginia and sold them to four planters: Richard Blow of Sussex County, who was the nephew of Colonel Michael Blow, Colonel Benjamin Baker of Nanesmond County, Captain Sinclair in Smithfield, and William Hines of Southampton.


            Wigfall was informed of the whereabouts of some of the slaves and managed to steal back a few of them, although some of their names had been altered to conceal their identities.  Wigfall and his son and the plantation owners had several heated disputes over the ownership of the slaves.


            In 1792, John Wigfall gave his friend James Warrington of Richmond power of attorney to recover his property, to no avail.  In 1798 his son Joseph, who was the executor of his estate pursued the case.  The judgment in all matters of the case except the ownership of the slaves was in favor of the defendants.  However, each purchaser had to pay Wigfall for the use of the slaves during the time they were in Virginia.


            Some forty years later some of the Africans were still living on Richard Blow’s plantation in Sussex County called Tower Hill.  An 1830s register of slaves for Tower Hill lists August, Tember (September) and April, who was also called Joe, (possibly a shortened version of the African day name Cudjo) as being African Negroes.  They died in 1832, 1826, and 1829 respectively, ranging in age from 60 to 80.[2][2]  Their names first appeared on tax lists for 1784 for Richard Blow when they were purchased.[3][3]


            August probably suffered the greatest loss of all the Africans.  According to descendants of the Blows, after August learned English he and the other Africans related the story of their capture and voyage from Africa.  August informed the Blow family that his father was an African king and he was next in line to succeed him to the throne but was betrayed by a jealous uncle who sold him to slave traders so he could rule as king.  Instead of living the life of African nobility, August was condemned to a life of American servitude.


[1][1] Power of Attorney from John Wigfall to James Warrington 1792 to recover slaves taken from his Wambaw plantation in South Carolina, Sussex County Deed Book G pages 723-725.  Federal District Court case, Richmond, VA Wigfall Vs Blow 1799, Virginia State Library and Archives.


[2][2] Register of slaves on the plantations of Richard Blow 1832.  1838 register of slaves of George Blow.  Manuscripts Department of Swem Library, College of William and Mary.    Register contains the slaves’ names, parents’ names, dates of birth and death, if the slave was acquired by inheritance, purchase or gift.


[3][3] 1784 Tithables for Sussex County, VA for Richard Blow.  Virginia State Library and Archives.

Sources of African American Names During Slavery

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009
Names Among Wessyngton Slaves

Names Among Wessyngton Slaves

African Americans got their given or first names from various sources during the slavery.  Some of them used African “day names” such as Cudjo, Mingo, and Cuffee, denoting the day of the week on which they were born.  Others used names from the Bible, classical names, place names, names of plantation owner’s families, famous individuals like the presidents and their own family members.

The document above lists various sources of names of individuals enslaved on Wessyngton Plantation from 1796 to 1865.

Surnames Used by African American Slaves

Friday, August 28th, 2009

There has been much debate among scholars, historians and genealogists whether enslaved African Americans used the surnames of their last owners, previous owners, or a surname that had no connection to slavery.

Location the owner of one’s ancestor is crucial for an African American genealogist to trace his family before 1870.

In more than thirty years of researching my ancestors and hundreds of others enslaved on one of America’s largest plantations, slaves owned by mid-sized planters and small farmers, reviewing thousands of documents I have come across various situations that might give others clues on what to look for.

There are many factors to consider in determining what surnames African Americans used.

Although it is not widely known, some African Americans used surnames before they were emancipated. This happened mostly on large plantations where several individuals had the same first names and a surname was used to distinguish them from one another.
African Americans were known by these surnames in the slave community and often recorded by slave owners on plantation documents.

In small communities where census takers and county officials knew African Americans personally and their previous owners, they often recorded the former slaves with the surnames of their last owners. One former slave Bill Scott from Wessyngton reported in his pension application for military service that when he enlisted in the Union Army officials put down his surname as Washington. He stated that he had always been known by his father’s surname Scott, even before he was freed.

Former slaves often made up surnames based on their occupations. A Wessyngton slave named Bill who was the plantation’s blacksmith was known as Billy the Smith during slavery. After emancipation, he became William Smith. Another slave named Bill who attended the sheep became Bill Shepherd.

When slave owners married, they often received slaves as wedding gifts and inheritances from their wife’s family. As a result, many slaves used the surnames of their owner’s wife’s family. When Wessyngton’s owner George A. Washington married Margaret Lewis in 1849 her father gave the couple twenty-nine slaves. The majority of these slaves used the surname Lewis instead of Washington. If searching for a slave owner with the same surname of your ancestor fails, check marriage records for the slave owners. This may reveal your family used the surname of the slave owner’s wife’s family.

African Americans tended to use surnames associated with their own families instead of the last slave owner. In the late 1830s, Nathaniel Terry of Todd County, Kentucky died leaving a plantation of fifty slaves. Five of the slaves were sold to the Washingtons and brought to Wessyngton. Several of the other slaves were sold to various slave owners. After emancipation, they all used the Terry surname because their families had been with the white Terry family for generations.

Former slaves also interchanged surnames on census records. It is not uncommon to see an African American family listed with one surname in 1870 and another in 1880. This is due in part to officials imposing surnames on them based on their last owners. John Lewis was born in 1831; in 1844 he and several family members were given to George A. Washington of Wessyngton. In 1870, he is listed as John Washington. On all subsequent census records, he is listed as John Lewis. This was the case with several others from Wessyngton.

Another myth is once African Americans were sold they never saw their families again. This is true in some cases but not all. In small communities when slaves were sold, they were often bought by someone in the area. Thomas Black Cobbs was owned by a small slave owner Catherine Black. At her death when Thomas was ten, he was sold to Solomon Cobbs who lived nearby. Thomas’ mother, younger brothers and sisters remained with the Black family. After emancipation, he moved back with his mother, brothers and sisters and used the Cobbs surname. It had always been passed down in the family that Thomas has been owned by the Blacks.

In instances where slaves were sold from their families and they did not retain their previous owners’ surnames, they named their children for parents, sisters and brothers to keep a connection with their families. In 1836, William Turbeville died leaving an estate with several slaves who were brothers: Turner, Nelson, Simon, Jordan, and Jacob. They were all sold to different owners: Connell, Rose, Johnson, and Hughes respectively. The brothers were sold when they were very young and remained with their last owners nearly thirty years. In 1870, all of them were listed with the surnames of their last owner; however, each one of them named their sons for one of their brothers.  

Former slaves often used surnames names of historical figures such as Washington, Jefferson or Jackson. Others who wanted no connection to their former owners used surnames like Freeman or Freedman. In these cases, unless the name change had been passed down in the family by oral history, it would be impossible to trace the family back any further. This is another instance of oral history being a key component in tracing African American ancestry.

Colonial Documents Reveal African Roots

Friday, July 24th, 2009
Court Orders, Southampton County, VA, 1749

Court Orders, Southampton County, VA, 1749

Nero a Negro boy slave belonging to Henry Cooker is by the court adjudged to fourteen years of age.

Zingo a Negro boy slave belonging to John Warren by the court adjudged to thirteen years of age.

Douglas a Negro boy slave belonging to Thomas Westbrooks by the court adjudged to ten years of age.

Anarcha a Negro boy slave belonging to Thomas Westbrooks by the court adjudged to nine years of age.

Juba a Negro boy slave belonging to David Edmunds by the court adjudged to ten years of age.

Tilla a Negro girl belonging to Thomas Gillum the court adjudged to fourteen years of age.

Pompey a Negro boy slave belonging to John Barrow the court adjudged to ten years of age.

During the Colonial period, slave owners were required to pay taxes on their slaves from ages twelve to fifty years old. When Africans were brought to the colonies and it was evident that they were adults they were simply added to tax rolls called tithables. When small children and teenagers arrived from Africa and their ages were uncertain, the slave owners would have to take them into court and a judge would assign an age for the slave, which was then recorded in minute or court order books. Most of the slaves were assigned English names, although some retained their true African names. Some of the court orders also list the names of the ships the Africans arrived in and the dates of arrival. Many of these individuals can be traced in later documents such as tax records, wills, and estate settlements. These records can prove to be a genealogical goldmine for African American researchers.