Enslaved Ancestor File

Agness Spurlock Hilton sketch

Agness Spurlock Hilton as sketched by Catherine Douthat. Agness Hilton’s father, Robin Spurlock, was given as a wedding present to Chief Justice John Marshall. Agness served five generations of the Marshall-Douthat family.

A common misconception holds that enslaved persons did not have surnames until after emancipation and that the names they took after the Civil War were those of their former owners. The truth is that many enslaved persons, if not a majority, were using surnames by the beginning of the 19th century and that in some families surnames may have been passed down for generations before that time. A striking example is provided by Shirley plantation enslaved personnel – John Roc, who was enrolled as a member of Charles City Baptist Church before 1810. His namesake, another John Roc was an Englishman indentured to Col. Edward Hill on the same plantation in the 1670’s – a hundred and thirty years before. Just as certainly as enslaved persons claimed and used surnames, official and plantation records denied them. The denial of surnames was an essential feature of an institution that regarded enslaved persons as property and not as persons. The silence of the records presents a formidable – but not always impenetrable – obstacle to those seeking to trace ancestors. Some names did slip through and when one surname is used in conjunction with other records an entire family may emerge from obscurity. In other cases, post war freedmen’s records lend clues sufficient to tie a freedman to a former owner and family members together. This data base is an attempt to gather the names that “slipped through.” It is a work in progress, so please check back periodically for updates.

“It was the custom that all the enslaved persons were called after their master, although they often called themselves after what they believed to be their true family names.” Mary Patterson affidavit Siah Hulett Carter pension file.

Enslaved Ancestor File Info: # of records – 1,005 Last update – August 2020