— By Russ Guerin, with intro by Ana Balka
In February, local historian Russ Guerin spoke at the Hancock County library in Bay St. Louis for Black History Month about a database he has been working on for his website, russguerin.com, of slaves named in official Hancock County documents from the mid-19th century.
Russell hopes his efforts might eventually help descendants of slaves to locate their ancestors, and also shed more light on the specifics of the slave trade on the Gulf Coast, especially Hancock County.
The following excerpts are from linked pages on Russ’s site where he discusses aspects of his research as well as various ways that former slaves determined their own last names after emancipation (section titles are hyperlinked to take you to those pages). The work on the database is far from complete — it is a work in progress.
by Russell Guerin
One example of success involved a professor at an eastern university who was able to identify her ancestor as having been one of the “servants” at the Sea Song plantation in Waveland, described in my article a couple of years ago.
The mention of names has sometimes been included in those articles where slaves are listed in official documents such as land deeds and probate records. In the case of the example above, the source of names was in family letters. Making identification difficult is the fact that slaves were referred to by first names only, as though they had never been part of families.
It is commonly known that former slaves, when freed, often took the names of their previous masters. It may be that tracing of ancestors could be substantially helped by knowing the last names of those who had held others in bondage.
(Click here to read more and to see the database in-progress).
by Russell Guerin
The source of information for these observations was for the most part the census of 1870, and to a lesser degree, the census of 1880. While a presumption is made that those listed under “Race” are former slaves, it should be considered that there were no longer any identifications as “Free Persons of Color.”
Names and descriptions assembled from early slave-day documents such as estate inventories and property transfers were then compared to census data.
Surnames Chosen after Emancipation
As was common in other areas, in Hancock County a common choice was to assume the name of a former owner. However, it has not always been possible to relate the chosen surname to a former slave’s own owner.
Some of the more prominent slave owner/dealers were the following:
Carver, Cowand, Johnson, Favre Amaker, Claiborne, DeBlieux, Fayard, Casanova, Cuevas, Johnston, Benois, Mitchell, Bell, Poitevent, Mitchell, Russ, Carroll, Otis, Daniels, Brown, Jordan, Dawsey, Peterson, Peters, Henry, Nicaise, Wheat, Wingate, Farr, Bird, Varnado.
Another obvious choice for some was to take the name of an important person, such as Jefferson, Jackson, Washington. Even the name Lee shows up in Hancock, though it is doubtful that the former commander of the Army of Northern Virginia was the person in mind.
There were also odd names, chosen perhaps for their potential symbolism: Worship, Mars, Whig, King, Christmas, President, and Absalom.
A pattern that arose to the surprise of this writer but seems to stand up to investigation was the choice of transforming the former slave name to that of the surname, which then allowed for an assumption of a new first name. Those slave names that became last names that can be clearly demonstrated were Sam, Isaac, John, Moses, Monday, Martha, and Henry.