Slave names are a topic that most people seem to know something about. It’s common knowledge that enslaved people frequently had the same family names (surnames) as their enslavers. Not all the time, of course… but fairly often, right? In African American genealogy, that name connection between an enslaved family and a white family can be a vital clue to uncovering place, identity, and lineage. On plantations across the deep South, black surnames did follow this pattern enough for us to know about it, if not as frequently as people tend to think.
But in western Maryland, it didn’t happen. In western Maryland, enslaved people virtually never had the same surnames as their own enslavers. In a decade of research, looking at thousands of enslaved people and their enslavers in western Maryland, I’ve come across virtually no cases of slave and enslaver sharing a surname. The one or two possible exceptions were slaves fathered by enslavers—that is, names that denote blood kinship. Otherwise, surname sharing was not a practice here. This is important to know, if you’re tracing African American families in Frederick, Washington, and Alleghany Counties.
Now, if you know this region, you know that black and white families do share “local” surnames. Names like Dorsey, for example, go way back in both African American and white families. As early as the first half of the nineteenth century—during the slave era—many local names were shared across the “color line”: some were very common names like Johnson and Williams, while others were more distinctive, like Booth, Butler, Reeder, and Wagoner. But when these black families and white families first appear in local historical records, they’re unconnected to each other.
Obviously the black families didn’t bring these English and German surnames with them from Africa, so how did they acquire them? There are two main possibilities, and both may have happened. One possibility is that, before black families arrived in western Maryland, their enslavers in eastern or southern Maryland gave the enslaved families the enslavers’ surnames; then the family connection had been severed (by sale, inheritance, black family descent, or freedom) by the time the black families came to western Maryland. Eastern and southern Maryland had plantation cultures more similar to the deep South, and it wouldn’t surprise me to find enslavers assigning their own surnames to slaves there. I’ll discuss one example later.
The Importance of Names
The second possibility is that black people picked their own names. I lean toward this as the more common situation. Names, as we all know, are highly personal things. In a society that degraded people of color all the time—where the majority of them literally didn’t own themselves—picking your own name would have been a way to take ownership of yourself and your identity. (For an example of how central names are to identity today, think about how important names are to trans people.)
Many written records of slave names in western Maryland, right through the whole slave era, used just first names. Sometimes one record (for example, a bill of sale) used just a first name for a person, while another record (say, an inventory) used the same person’s full name. The enslaved person clearly had a surname, but white people who wrote the records didn’t bother to use it all the time, even in official records. Enslaved people’s full names weren’t as important to enslavers and officials as they were to the owners of those names.
How did individuals and families choose their surnames? A few did actually stick with African surnames, specifically Muslim names. One well-known case is the family of Yarrow Mamout, an enslaved Fulani Muslim from the Futa Jallon region of Senegambia. His freed son (Aquila Yarrow) and free daughter-in-law (Polly Turner Yarrow) gave their surname to Yarrowsburg in Washington County. Another case is the surname Mahomett, still found in western Maryland today. It dates back at least to the 1830s-50s, when several black families by that name were recorded in Frederick and Washington Counties.
When they chose family names that were English or German, African American families were naming themselves to fit in with the society around them. The overall lack of white interest in slave surnames probably gave enslaved individuals freedom to select the names they wanted. Did they choose surnames of people they knew who had status, or who were role models, or who had been helpful to them? Did they just choose surnames they liked the sound of? We have no way of knowing for sure. There may have been as many reasons as there were names.
The Strange Case of the Name Barnes
Richard Barnes, a wealthy white enslaver, had a plantation called Montpelier in Washington County, another plantation in southern Maryland, and hundreds of enslaved people. When Barnes died childless in 1804, he left a will gradually freeing many of the people enslaved on his lands. One of the conditions he made was this: “They are required to take the sir name [sic] of Barnes in remembrance of our past intercourse with each other.” Some the freed people complied with this stipulation. Robert Barnes and Thomas Barnes were both freed in St. Mary’s County, under Richard Barnes’s will, but came to live in Washington County. Barnes was a common surname in the African American community in Washington County; I suspect many of the Barneses trace back to Richard Barnes’s plantations.
But many of the people Richard Barnes enslaved weren’t interested in renaming themselves in “remembrance” of their enslaver. When we find them in later records, we can see them keeping their own family names. Betsy Snyder, for example, was an infant when Barnes died. By the time she was freed, she had children of her own, all named Snyder as well (this may have been her husband’s name). One by one, after the Snyders gained their freedom, they registered at the Washington County courthouse for freedom certificates, using their own surname: Otho Snyder, Mathias Snyder, Margaret Snyder, Mary Jane Snyder, Martha Snyder. (Otho Snyder would later serve time in the state penitentiary for helping people escape from slavery.)
Similarly, Betsy Snyder’s cousin Thomas kept his own surname, “Henry.” He was the best known person freed by the Barnes will, growing up to be the Rev. Thomas Henry, a prominent preacher who published his autobiography. Rev. Henry had to leave Maryland in 1859, because the authorities had found his name in John Brown’s papers.
Freedom and Surnames
After Jim Pembroke escaped from slavery at Rockland plantation, south of Hagerstown, he changed his surname and eventually became the renowned abolitionist James W.C. Pennington. How common was it to change your name when you became free, and why? One formerly enslaved woman explained, “When us black folks got set free, us’n change our names, so [if] the white folks get together and change their minds and don’t let us be free any more, then they have a hard time finding us.” For self-freed people like Pennington, personal security no doubt prompted name changes.
But surnames were too important for people to discard lightly. As historian Leon Litwack argues, names were precious connections to family and identity. When families were torn apart by sale, migration, and war, names might help them find each other again. During Reconstruction, when the Freedman’s Bureau was offering benefits but creating bureaucratic procedures, keeping the same name had practical advantages.
When I’m researching a person, and I can’t find them after a certain point in time, I always wonder whether they changed their name. It’s more likely that they died, or that I just haven’t found any records of them (yet). But I wonder. And since names are the key to finding people in research, it helps to understand as much as we can about those names.
 Dee Parmer Woodtor, Finding a Place Called Home: A Guide to African American Genealogy and Historical Identity (New York: Random House, 1999), 235-9; Leon F. Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), 247-8.
 James H. Johnson, From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012).
 Marsha Lynne Fuller, African American Manumissions of Washington County, Maryland (Westminster, MD: Willow Bend Books, 1997), unpaginated manumission list in forematter; Jerry M. Hynson, Free African-Americans of Maryland, 1832 (Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 1998), 81, 82.
 Washington County Will Book B, p. 32, online at FamilySearch.org; Patricia Schooley, Architectural & Historic Treasures of Washinton County, Maryland (Keedysville, MD: The Washington County Historical Trust, 2002), 340; Thomas Henry, From Slavery to Salvation: The Autobiography of Rev. Thomas W. Henry of the A.M.E. Church, ed. Jean Libby (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1994), 5-6, 63-63-7.
 Washington County Land Records, Book CC, p. 157, and Book MM, p. 164, online at mdlandrec.net.
 Henry, From Slavery to Salvation, 34-5, 66; Marsha Fuller, Manumissions, B14b, B68c, B69b, B71b.
 Henry, From Slavery to Salvation, 52, 100.
 Christopher L. Webber, American to the Backbone: The Life of James W.C. Pennington… (New York: Pegasus Books, 2011), 440-1.
 Litwack, 249.
 Litwack, 249-51; “Changing Names,” Facing History and Ourselves [online education project], https://www.facinghistory.org/reconstruction-era/changing-names.