Analyzing records for common slave names

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StuX's picture
Analyzing records for common slave names

For my master's thesis, I am trying to reconstruct slave households and track the famlies after Emancipation. Many of the blacks enslaved by this white family, which had more than one plantation, had the same names. When I use the records created by the slaveholders, how do I determine which slave the record is talking about?

EE's picture


As you probably suspect, there is no simple answer that EE can give you for this type of analysis. Indeed, it is primarily an issue of research methodology. Your quickest approach to absorbing that methodology would be to immerse yourself in case studies that demonstrate how others sort same-name slaves and reconstruct slave families. This study will take you beyond the standard academic journals used by students in the social sciences. The best examples of this type of research are available in post-1982 issues of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (most of whose slave-research articles are regularly included in the "Recent Scholarship" catalogs of such history staples as the Journal of Southern History and the Journal of American History). Most large university libraries carry the NGSQ. Members of the organization can also access back issues at the society's website (

Online, you will also find several of these case studies archived at Click the "Articles" tab, then scroll down to the section for "African America & Slavery."


The Editor

mhait's picture


Ms. Mills has already given you several great sources for further review of methodology used in previous cases. I would like to offer some more general advice.

When dealing with issues of identity--regardless of race or social condition--it is always wisest to define additional points for association with individuals. In no form of historical research is this more necessary than when researching enslaved families.

In dealing with records of the slave owner, whether using estate records (such as wills, estate inventories/appraisements/sales, or estate distributions or accounts), plantation records, chattel bills of sale, or others, it is most common that certain slaves are further identified with other descriptive terms. In some cases, these may be ages (or approximate ages), occupations (such as "carpenter" or "blacksmith"), or even other family members (such as "son of Sucky"). When possible these terms should be "attached" to the enslaved individuals to whom they refer, as a means of identifying them across multiple records.

In other cases, when no descriptive terms can be reasonably discerned, one should note patterns in the order in which slaves appear in various lists. If, for example, the slave "Manuel" always appears near the slave "Molly" then you can use their association to identify them amidst others. (Chances are also high that the two have some family connection.)

Another way to identify slaves individually is to look at the slave holdings as a whole in each record. I will often create a table in MS Word or a spreadsheet in Excel (depending on the size of the holdings) to compare two lists adjacently. When doing this over the course of multiple years, using various records, you can often discern patterns and identify individuals in context and through the process of elimination, that may not always be easily identifiable when looking at unorganized lists of individuals.

Hope these tips help you in your research!

Michael Hait, CG