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a book about Harrisburg...

by George F. Nagle


Table of Contents

Study Areas:



Free Persons of Color

Underground Railroad

The Violent Decade

US Colored Troops

Civil War


Chapter Four:
Legacy of Slavery

"May Pass By That Name"

One of the most essential rights accorded to free people is having control of their own name. A name is more than an identifier. It is the essence of a person’s identity. People adopt nicknames, change their names legally, and either ignore or use middle names as a means to shape their own unique identity. Losing control over your name, and that of your children, was one of the deadening qualities of slavery. On a whim, slaveholders could erase decades of family history by assigning an arbitrary name to a new slave.

But there is evidence that slave-naming practices were not mere whims, but were actually designed to break a slave’s spirit. Enslaved persons in Pennsylvania, like slaves in the rest of the country, were typically given short names that often were familiar versions of more formal names. The spelling of a slave's name usually varied considerably between different documents associated with that slave, even to the point of sometimes appearing as a completely different but similar sounding name, indicating that slaveholders cared little about maintaining a unique identity for individual slaves through a name. Very few surnames are associated with slaves prior to the revolutionary period, although there are indications that many slaves actually had surnames, often of their own choosing, which they either decided not to share with their owners, or which were disregarded as unimportant by their owners and not recorded.

Early slaveholders in Pennsylvania, like their counterparts in other states, assigned names to the people they enslaved as a means not only of identification--few slaveholders wanted to bother to learn the African name of the person he had just bought--but also as a means of defining their authority in the new relationship of master and slave. To further reinforce their role as the dominant party, and to help demean the role of the slave, slaveholders usually chose short, familiar versions of formal names for their human property.

A Lancaster County slaveholder, widow Elizabeth Ramsey of Bart Township, registered a new slave infant, born of the slave Hester, on 5 August 1789 as follows: "Now these are to certify [that] She the said Hester, was on the Night of the Thirteenth or the Morning of the fourteenth Day of March Last, Delivered in my house of a Male Child by us Named Peet." There is no evidence in the registration document, that the slave mother Hester had any say in the choice of a name for her new son. Rather, Ramsey and members of her family seem to have chosen the name, in much the same manner as family members decide on the name of a new pet. Pete was the official name reported, and not Peter, a pattern that was the norm in most surviving documents, indicating a preference for short familiar names. So the names Pete, Jem, or Joe were used, instead of Peter, James, or Joseph. Rebeccah, Virginia, and Abigail became Beck, Gin, and Abby. Some names, such as Dinah, Sukey, and Cuff do not have formal equivalents, and seem to have been used almost exclusively for slaves.

As time passed, however, the naming privileges gradually began to shift from the slaveholder to the parents of the enslaved child. In 1797, John Whitehill of Donegal Township, Lancaster County, registered with the clerk "a female child which seems to be called Susanna or Sooky by her and by the family in general, the daughter of negro Hannah, a female slave." John Hubley, the Lancaster County clerk responsible for keeping the slave registration books, in 1809 recorded "that his mulatto servant wench who is duly registered at Lancaster, was on the 12th day of January last past, delivered of a female mulatto child which she named Rachel." Five years later Hubley would again register a child, the four month-old son of his slave Hannah, "which she named Nelson." That same year, John Gundacker, of the Borough of Lancaster, reported to the clerk "that his mulatto servant wench, Grace. . .was on July 12, 1814, delivered of a male mulatto child, which she calls and has named Abraham." The majority of registrations of slave children do not indicate who named the child. 76 Perhaps the reason that those instances noted above did record the information was because allowing the slave mother to pick a name for her child was a novelty, and showed a certain humanitarian gesture on the part of the slaveholder.

The sources of names varied tremendously. In addition to shortened, familiar versions of formal names, slaveholders sometimes chose names that reflected their education, tastes, and heritage. Names derived from classical sources were very popular. "Caesar" was quite commonly used as a male name, as was "Nero," and "Pompey." "Cupid" was the name given to a male slave in Bucks County, continuing a popular tradition of honoring Roman culture.

Greek mythology is represented by "Hector," for the mythical Trojan warrior, and was used as a male slave name in several counties. Women were given such classical Roman names as "Dido," "Venus," and "Flavia," and were also named for the Greek goddess Athena. A female slave in Lancaster County, born in 1815, was named Sabina, perhaps for the ancient Italian peoples the Sabines. While the importance of such names to antiquity would seem to give a certain dignity to their bearers, the very essence of the slave's status made the names a sort of cruel joke by the slaveholders. At least one name of an African king, Juba, a Numidian king who was defeated by Julius Caesar in 46 BC in the African War, was used by two different Cumberland County slaveholders for male slaves.

Most given names in eighteenth and nineteenth century American society were biblically derived, and as noted above, those names were often given to slaves in a shortened form. Slaveholders therefore looked to the Bible for additional inspiration in naming their slaves, utilizing the names of such prominent biblical figures as Moses, Jonah, Hagar, and Caspar, as well as some less well-known figures, such as Ishmael, Tamar, and even place names, such as Aram. A slaveholder in Cumberland County used the name "Ham," who was one of Noah's three sons and the father of four sons who, according to biblical stories, populated the southern hemisphere, including Africa, after the Great Flood. Cush, one of Ham's sons, was also used as a male slave name. "Abel" appears as a male slave name in several counties, but "Cain" appears only once, used by Cumberland County slaveholder John Steel to name a male slave. "Adam" and "Eve" appear frequently throughout slave records, although those names were not used exclusively for slaves.

Place names seem to have been popular as slave names. Slaveholders gave many of their slaves the names of towns, regions, or places from all around the world. "Boston" was a male slave name used in Lancaster and Bucks counties. Certain names, such as "York," "Derry," "Cornwall," "Lancaster," and "Dover," either reflect the heritage of the slaveholders or make reference to those local places with the same names. Other slave names definitely refer to locations in the old country, paying homage to London, Cambridge, Edinborough, Plymouth, Sheffield, Sligo (for County Sligo, in Ireland), and Weymouth, to give some examples.

A few slaves were named for what was probably their own place of origin, as evidenced by the slaves named Africa and Jamaica, who appear in the registration lists. It appears that only male slaves received names referring to geographical places. No females in the lists and records had such obvious names, although the female names "Carolina" and "Charlotte" do appear. These names, however, are traditional names from which those place names were derived.

There are a few possible place names among the names of female slaves, making reference to the ancient northern African city of Zama and the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre--although this could also be a variant spelling of "Tyra." The name "Cooba" also appears, which could be a misspelling of "Cuba." As a general rule, though, female slaves were not named for local or old country locations.

Some names cannot be explained except through the vagaries of the slaveholder. A Lancaster County slaveholder named a female slave "Billander," a misspelling of bilander, which is a small, two-masted boat used on the canals in Holland. "Beach," "Bead," and "Beaner" all appear in Cumberland County as female slave names. In Dauphin County, the female names "Team," "Pug," and "Pink" appear in registration records, while the name "Lemon" appears four times in Lancaster County records as a female slave name. Patrick Campbell, of Cumberland County, registered a male slave named "Cunk."

Some slaves were named for famous people, as shown by the two male children in Lancaster who were registered as "Napoleon Bonaparte." One slave was born in 1813 just prior to Napoleon's exile to Elba, and the other was born in 1826, more than ten years after the death of the French emperor. No doubt, America's fascination with all things French contributed to this naming instance, although the choice is ironic in that the revolutionary government of France had abolished slavery in 1794 and Napoleon is credited with destroying the old feudalistic system and instituting the egalitarian ideals of the revolution throughout the extent of the empire. One of the slaveholders who registered the child Napoleon Bonaparte also registered two separate male children, one in 1802 and one in 1818, with the name "Voltaire." The choice of this 18th century French philosopher's name for a slave again seems ironic, as Voltaire opposed slavery as an unpopular practice, but justified the enslavement of blacks as inferior peoples: "As a result of a hierarchy of nations, Negroes are thus slaves of other men ... a people that sells its own children is more condemnable than the buyer; this commerce demonstrates our superiority; he who gives himself a master was born to have one." (Essay on General History and on the Customs and the Character of Nations, 1756.)

Names that in some way describe the slave, referring to either physical or character traits, were less common but do show up occasionally. Two female slaves in Lancaster County bore the name "Comfort" and another was named "Temperence," a misspelling of the word meaning moderation and self-restraint. In that same county we also find female slaves named "Dark," and "Zilla," meaning shadow, and a male slave named "Sable," meaning black.

Very few slaves show up in records with their original African names intact. Slaveholders disliked and discouraged the use of names that sounded strange to them, and as noted above, the power to rename a person at will reinforced the role of the slaveholder as the person in charge. Only one known slave was registered locally with a name that may be African in origin. William Hay of Londonderry Township, Lancaster County (later Dauphin County) registered a twenty-six-year-old female slave named "Dembigh" in 1780. "Dembigh" is very close to the African "Dembi," a traditional male name meaning "peace." No other instances of traditional African names have become known in central Pennsylvania, showing how thoroughly original African names were suppressed among slaves brought into the interior of the Keystone State.

One additional instance, from Philadelphia County, does specifically mention the slave's African name, and helps to explain this phenomenon. The item is a runaway notice from 1763, which advertises for the return of "Jupiter, though it is likely he may call himself by his Negroe Name, which is Moeyon, or Oantee." This runaway slave appears to have been a recent import from Africa, as the ad noted he spoke very little English. The date of the ad corresponds with a time period in which many slaves were being brought into the port of Philadelphia directly from Africa. Despite the slaveholder's awareness of his slave's original African name, he referred to him only by the slave name "Jupiter," and no doubt used that name in official papers concerning this slave. If not for the escape of this slave, the African names "Moeyon" and "Oantee" (which we should assume are phonetic approximations of the actual African names) would never have been preserved to give clues to the true identity of this man.

Slaves were rarely given surnames when being named by their owners. A first, or "given" name was all by which Pennsylvania slaveholders would acknowledge their enslaved persons. Upon registration, in papers relating to the sale or transfer of ownership of a slave, and in other legal documents, few slaves were allowed the dignity of being identified by anything other than a single name. Those few surnames which do appear in legal documents are usually found in documents dated after 1788, the point at which Pennsylvania began to require registration of the children of slaves. Surnames appear with increasing frequency in slave registrations during the first two decades of the nineteenth century, although even in the final few years of registrations, most returns still did not mention the surnames of those slaves being recorded.

Unlike given names, enslaved people appear to have chosen their own surnames in cases where a surname did not already exist for them. This contradicts the popular belief that slaves were assigned the surname of their master. However, surviving slave registration documents clearly dispute this myth, as only one slave out of several thousand documented, a manumitted slave from Philadelphia, had a surname that was the same as the slaveholders that released him from bondage.

While surnames do not appear in the majority of the registration documents, slaves who have been traced from slavery into free society, where surnames were a necessity, did not use any of the surnames associated with past masters.78 Even in the pre-Revolutionary era, when surnames were rarely associated with slaves, those who did have them did not use the same name as former masters.

Evidence of this appears in the wording of runaway notices that list both the slave's given name and the name that the slaveholder believed the slave would use. As early as 1755, Mordecai Moore of Chester County placed an advertisement for a slave "named Jack, but is generally known by the name of John Powell." William Chesney of York County placed an ad in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1769 for a slave who had managed to get away while Chesney and the slave were traveling through an unsettled area of what is now Dauphin County: "Run away, on the 13th of March last, from the Subscriber, at Sasquehanna, near Harris Ferry, a Negroe Man, called Will, alias William Keith." In Cumru Township, Berks County, the slaveholder David Evans advertised in 1770 for his escaped slave "Dick, alias John Linch." In late December 1794, Benjamin Duncan of Dauphin County placed an ad in the Pennsylvania Gazette for the escaped seventeen-year-old slave he listed only as "Sam." That slave was captured and jailed five months later in Chester County, giving his name to the jailor as "Sam Roach."79

That slaveholders considered these surnames illegitimate, or an alias, underscores the belief that these were names chosen not by the slaveholders, but by the slaves themselves, perhaps as a way to counter their status. As previously mentioned, the surnames also do not appear to have any relation to the slaveholder to which the slaves were associated. If indeed the slaves chose their own surnames, they did not, as commonly believed, choose the surnames of the slaveholders associated with them. An examination of known slave surnames in central Pennsylvania shows that most were surnames commonly found in the local area: Miller, Martin, Smith, Butler, Stewart, George, and Jenkins all show up in Dauphin County. Cogan, Harris, Armstrong, Collins, Parker, and Green are slave surnames found in Cumberland County. Lancaster County had slaves named Lewis, Jackson, Hunt, Brown, Bailey, Myers, and Peters. The preponderance of common surnames among enslaved persons, and the assumption that those surnames were chosen by the slaves themselves, suggests that slaves chose surnames with a desire to fit into everyday society, and not to be set apart from it.

Even though slaves were assigned slave names by slaveholders, the slaves did not necessarily accept and use those names, especially in the company of anyone other than the slaveholder. Many slaves who were given lofty-sounding mythological names, or belittling informal names, used common names of their own choosing in private. Runaway slaves, in particular, were known to change their names. In 1778, a thirty-six-year-old Bucks County slave who was captured on suspicion of being a runaway identified himself to the jailor as Tim, but the jailor determined that his slave name was Ben. Tim, or Ben, was in the company of another slave who "calls himself HARRY, sometimes WILL," according to the advertisement placed by the jailor. That same year, a slaveholder placed an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Packet seeking the return of "Sukey Brown," who had run away with her husband James, a free black. "Sukey," however, was by that time going by the name of Lucy Brown.

Jacob Shoemaker, of Berks County, in 1776 purchased at public sale a jailed runaway slave named Bill from the county jailor "for his prison fees, for the space of five months." Shoemaker later found that the slave's "right name is Jerry, imported from Barbados, and run away from his master in Carolina." Another runaway, "London," temporarily taken into custody in 1778 in Delaware, made good a second escape from a bounty hunter seeking to return him to his owner in Cumberland County. The owner, James Young, noted that he was "a cunning artful fellow," and that he "changed his name to Daniel Anderson."

Ironmaster Peter Grubb of Lancaster County's Hopewell Forge placed an ad in 1781 for the return of Abel, a slave who ran away from a Chester County slaveholder two years earlier. Grubb noted in the ad, "It is probable he will pass for a freeman, he having got a pass from a free Negroe, named NAT, and may pass by that name."80

Runaway slaves became so adept at the name game that jailors, advertising for slaveholders to come pick up their escapees and pay their costs, quickly learned to phrase their ads cautiously, using terms such as "he calls himself..." and "she says her name is..." to identify a jailed slave, rather than simply listing the name given by the prisoner.

Such is the power of a name. Slaveholders wielded names like a club, using them to usurp an enslaved person’s personal history and replace it with a spurious label that was worn by most slaves with the same sense of degradation as if it were a brand of ownership. Slaves, in turn, often refused to recognize an imposed name, and steadfastly referred to themselves by a name of their own choosing. Furthermore, over the years they increasingly insisted upon the right to name their own children. Even if they could not ultimately control their children’s destinies, they were determined at least to influence them.

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76. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania Clerk of Courts (Clerk of the Peace), "Returns of Negro and Mulatto Children Born After the Year 1780, June 7, 1788-November 13, 1793," Microfilm no. 6251, Pennsylvania State Archives; "A Record of the returns made in writing and delivered to me. . ."; "Slaves in Lancaster County in 1780."

77. Pennsylvania Gazette, 27 October 1763.

78. "Returns of Negro and Mulatto Children Born After the Year 1780;” "Children of Previously Registered Slaves”; "Slave Returns Listings in Cumberland County."

79. Pennsylvania Gazette, 17 June 1769, 10 May 1770, 7 January 1795, 6 May 1795.

80. Ibid., 31 July 1776, 25 April 1781; Pennsylvania Packet, 6 May 1778.


Caution: Copyrighted material. Published September 2010.

© 2010 George F. Nagle



This is the first in a series of books from the Afrolumens Project. Drawing on a large number of sources, and making good use of the treasure trove of information on the pages of the Afrolumens Project, this is the first truly comprehensive history of Harrisburg's African American community.

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