Guide to African American slavery, plantation and other related records available for researchers. Finding an African American ancestor who was enslaved almost always means finding the records of the family that owned him or her. Study the life and records of the slave owner and his family. Nearly 75 percent of people who arrived in America from Europe and Africa before were immigrants in bondage. Those from Africa almost always arrived enslaved.
The naming of slaves has not been treated in dedicated monographs, but it often figures in general accounts of plantation culture and the practices of enslavement. Questions about slave naming intersect with some of the major debates in slavery studies especially regarding Creolization and the formation of Atlantic Creoles and can illuminate issues about the ethnicity of African slaves, the personhood and agency of those enslaved, the nature of kinship structures among the enslaved, and the survival of African cultural practices in the diaspora. There has been disagreement about whether it was slaveholders or the enslaved who gave the recorded names. Practices undoubtedly varied, and different archival sources may yield different conclusions. In addition to time and place, a likely variable is whether the birth rate, in a severely overworked and maltreated population, was sufficient to ensure a relatively stable population over several generations, or whether the high mortality associated with slavery led to declining numbers and hence to the frequent acquisition of new slaves. Slaveholders often renamed newly acquired slaves; but self-naming by slaves, which also occurred, is likely to be underreported in the records, which were mainly created by and for slaveholders.
Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher. Some scholars of slavery have come to view the names and naming of slaves as a meaningful gauge of many aspects of slave life and culture and of how their customs changed over time. Anthropologist Meyer Fortes's observation that the naming practices of any society "epitomize personal experiences, historical happenings, attitudes to life, and cultural ideas and values" holds particularly true for African American slaves.
A slave name is the personal name given by others to an enslaved person, or a name inherited from enslaved ancestors. The modern use of the term applies mostly to African Americans and West Indians who are descended from enslaved Africans who retain their name given to their ancestors by the enslavers. In Rome slaves were given a single name by their owner.