Civil War, Enslaved People, Free People of Color

What’s in a name?

When James Barnes’ will was probated in 1848 in Edgecombe County, North Carolina, and its provisions carried out, ownership of Howell, an enslaved man, transferred to McKinley Darden. In the 1870 census, Howell Darden, his wife Esther, and their children appear in Black Creek township in Wilson County, North Carolina. Howell had adopted the last name of the family that had owned him most of his adult life. His choice, however, was the not only one available to freedmen. Unbeknownst to slaveowners, many enslaved people claimed surnames even during slavery, though these names were not recognized legally. Some former slaves cemented links to kin by taking the surnames their mothers or fathers used. Others adopted the name of their last master, or reached back to earlier owners, perhaps from their childhood. Still others declined to acknowledge their former bondage altogether, and took names related to a skilled trade, a physical feature, a famous figure, or some other personal idiosyncracy.

Researchers attempting to trace African-American family lines often hit a brick wall at 1870. Having identified an ancestor reported in that census, they invariably ponder the question: how can I find the parents and siblings of this newly freed person? Answering these questions requires flexibility and a willingness to consider indirect sources. Marriage and death records may reveal close familial relationships among people with different surnames. For example, Vicey Artis, a free woman of color, and her enslaved husband Solomon Williams lived separately in the area of northeastern Wayne County and southwestern Greene County, North Carolina. Vicey appears in the 1850 and 1860 censuses with several children named Artis. Vicey and Solomon recorded their cohabitation in 1866, when most of their children were adults. Examination of marriage and death records reveals that some of Vicey and Solomon’s children (who were all free-born) assumed their father’s last name after his emancipation and others (especially the older ones) retained their mothers’. While nothing immediately obvious links Jonah Williams of Wilson and Adam Artis of Nahunta, vital records and other documents establish that they were brothers.

Similarly, upon Emancipation, two of the children of Margaret McConnaughey and Edward Miller, formerly enslaved in Rowan County North Carolina, chose the surname McConnaughey and three, Miller. Margaret and her children had been owned by a McConnaughey. Death certificates, marriage records, and close examination of households in census records provide the clues that establish this family’s connections.

Researchers should also pay attention to groupings of first names.   Like whites during the era, former enslaved people often fortified the ties between generations by naming children after relatives. Thus the recurrence of certain given names among a group of families sharing the same surname could indicate kinship. For example, the fact that Benjamin Barnes’ son Calvin, born about 1836, named two sons Redmond and Andrew could indicate a sibling relationship between Benjamin, Redmond and Andrew Barnes, all born circa 1820 and listed near one another in the 1870 census of Wilson County. That the elder Redmond also had a son named Calvin further supports the possibility. In addition, when comparing documents, keeping an eye out for familiar first names may help identify freedmen who changed their surnames, perhaps rejecting one that had been chosen too hastily or that had not chosen for themselves. For example, the Isom, Guilford, Robert, Jackson, and Lewis Bynum who registered cohabitations in Wilson County in 1866 appear in the 1870 census and after as Isom, Guilford, Robert, Jackson and Lewis Ellis.

Also remember that freedmen who shared a surname and common former owner were not necessarily kin. A grouping of one hundred enslaved people may have comprised a dozen or more — many more — unrelated families. For example, Mack Coley of Wayne County, North Carolina, was the grandson of Winnie Coley and of Sallie Coley Yelverton. Several of Winnie Coley’s children were fathered by Peter Coley. Trying to understand how these Coleys — all of whom appear to have belonged to a single former master — relate to one another (or don’t) is a daunting task.

Civil war pension records are another rich source of evidence about naming choices and family ties. Consider this passage from the Confederate pension application of Jim Ellis Dew of Wilson County, North Carolina:

“It was at the time we were making ‘sorgum’ that I was sent to the war. I belonged to my master Mr. Hickman Ellis who married a Miss Dew. You know missus, the white folks are not as strong as the niggers and Mr. Jonathan Dew, brother to my missus, was not very well, and they let him draw a man to go in his place and they drew me. I was sent to Fort Fisher and went to work throwing up breastworks. … We stayed on the island for while. After a while, I came home. While I was in the war I was known as Jim Dew, but when I came back from the war I was called by my old name “Jim Ellis” because I belonged to my missus.”

Similarly, the file containing the Union Army pension application of Baalam Speight’s widow Hannah Sauls Speight reveals that Baalam had enlisted as Baalam Edwards, his owner’s surname, but later adopted his father’s surname Speight. His brother Lafayette, on the other hand, had kept Edwards as his name. A witness named Lewis Harper testified that he had a brother named Loderick Artis. (Artis, born enslaved, had taken his free father’s surname.)

Though researching enslaved ancestry is almost always difficult, creative consideration of the available evidence often yields surprising rewards. Marriage records for people born into slavery often show surnames for both parents that are different from the child being married. Cross-reference siblings, and you’ll often find a completely different set of surnames. Be careful when trying to match former enslave people to their kinfolk and their masters. Reasons for choosing names were varied and inscrutable, and people tried on different identities for a few years. Empowering for them — maddening for us!

(For a more in-depth analysis of slave naming practices and patterns, see Eugene D. Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made and Herbert Gutman’s The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom.)

Free People of Color, North Carolina, Paternal Kin, Photographs

The case for Margaret Henderson as daughter of Nancy Balkcum.

The case for Margaret Henderson as the daughter of Nancy Balkcum (and sister of Mary Eliza Balkcum Aldridge) —

1. Margaret was born 1833-1836, probably in Sampson County NC. Mary Eliza was born in 1829 in Duplin or Sampson County.

2. Her photo clearly indicates that she was mixed race, as was Mary Eliza. Mary Eliza Balkcum’s mother Nancy Balkcum was white.

3. Margaret is not listed in the 1850 census, and neither is Nancy Balkcum.

4. Nancy Balkcum’s will makes reference to a daughter Margaret Balkcum, as well as a daughter Eliza Balkcum.  The will was probated in 1854 in Sampson County, prior to Margaret Balkcum Henderson’s marriage circa 1855. Margaret Balkcum purchased a number of small items from her mother’s estate.

5. Margaret named her second son James Lucian Henderson in 1857.  Compare: James Lucien Balkcum, born 1838, son of Nancy Balkcum’s daughter Mariah Balkcum Johnston.

6. Margaret named her first daughter Isabella circa 1860.  Compare: Isabella Johnson, born 1858, daughter of Mariah Balkcum Johnson.

7. Margaret named her second daughter Ann Elizabeth circa 1866.  Compare: Ann Eliza Balkcum, born circa 1840, daughter of Nancy Balkcum’s son John Balkcum.

8. Margaret named her third daughter Mary Susan circa 1868.  Compare: Mary Susan Balkcum, born 1844 to John Balkcum, and Susan Johnson, born 1844 to Mariah Balkcum Johnson.

9. Between 1860 and 1870, Margaret and her husband Lewis Henderson and Eliza and her husband Robert Aldridge migrated to the Dudley area of southern Wayne County.  The families are listed side by side in the 1870 census.

10. Caswell C. Henderson’s November 1907 marriage license, issued in New York City, reports his mother’s name as Margaret Balkcum.

11. Matrilineal descendants of Margaret Henderson have mtDNA haplotype H3. Descendants of Mary Eliza Aldridge have mtDNA haplotype H3.

12. Certain descendants of Margaret Henderson share significant autosomal cM totals with descendants of Mary Eliza Aldridge, but have no other known lines of common descent.

Problematic points:

1. Margaret’s death certificate lists her mother as Margaret Bowkin, not Nancy.  Informant was her son Lucian Henderson.  (I have seen instances in which an informant listed his own mother’s name, instead of the decedent’s mother’s name. Is this the case here?)

2. Margaret’s son Lucian’s June 1934 death certificate lists his mother’s maiden name as Hill.

3. Margaret’s daughter Sarah’s January 1938 death certificate lists her mother’s maiden name as Carter.  Informant was Hattie Mae Henderson, Sarah’s great-niece, who told me 60 years later that she did not recall giving this information and did not believe it was correct.

4.  Perhaps most puzzlingly, there is absolutely no tradition of kinship between the two families. Hattie Mae Henderson was reared by her great-aunt (Lewis and Margaret’s daughter) Sarah Henderson Jacobs. If Sarah had been first cousin to Robert and Eliza Aldridge’s children, it seems that there would have been some acknowledgement of the relationship passed down — not only to Hattie (my grandmother), but to others descended from the free colored families in this small community. They (Simmonses, Winns, Jacobses, Hendersons, Aldridges, etc.) intermarried freely, so consanguinity would not have been shameful. The one exception: Hattie Henderson reported visiting with Sarah a “Cousin Tilithia” in Norfolk as a child. This was Tilithia Brewington King Godbolt Dabney, daughter of Robert and Eliza’s daughter Amelia Aldridge Brewington. Did Sarah call Tilithia “cousin” because they themselves were related, or because Hattie was related to Tilithia (through J. Thomas Aldridge, her father and Tilithia’s first cousin)?  A point to consider: all but one of Lewis and Margaret’s children (son Lucian, who himself had no children who lived to adulthood) had died or migrated from Dudley by about 1905. The “lack of tradition” I perceive may simply be a function of a gap in familiarity between those people who knew Lewis and Mag’s family and those I was able to interview 80-90 years later.


 Photo of Margaret Henderson in collection of Lisa Y. Henderson.