Naming for colonial categories of enslaved people/slaveowners

+8 votes
I was going to add a the "Slave Owners in America" category to someone, and I ran into a problem.  All of the subcategories are currently broken down using names of modern states.  But in Massachusetts, for instance, most profiles in the category are of people who died before the Revolution, so lived instead in the Province of Massachusetts Bay or in one of the earlier colonies.  Some people owned slaves through several of these periods.

I imagine there are other categories with the same naming issue.  For instance, some old cemeteries existed through multiple periods.  

Is there a policy on naming conventions here?  I imagine it should depend somewhat on the category and that there should then be instructions placed at the highest level category.  For instance, most old cemeteries that people know about still exist, so using the most recent name, like Massachusetts, would make sense.  But what is the convention to follow names of categories for American Slaves and for Slave Owners in America?
in Policy and Style by Barry Smith G2G6 Pilot (307k points)
retagged by Robin Lee

You might want to add the tag African-American to your question as I believe that is the tag that the project members are following.  You might also want to post on the project page here:

My personal opinion is that the point of the categories is to try and put "like things" together so that people can find it.  When I look at these categories the way that they are used today, I do not see an enormous volume of profiles there.  So in my opinion, it would be better to tag them with the modern names for now in order to make life easier (not having to create all those extra categories) as well as keeping the ones together in at least the same general geographic region even if it might not be correctly speaking the right name as it is a modern state name instead of a colonial one.  But I can definitely see revisiting the question if the number of profiles in these categories get a lot larger in the future.

Just my opinion.

I did a little work on the Alabama Slave Owner Category.  I also included all the counties and the date they were established.  I started a related discussion:

5 Answers

+12 votes
Best answer
Some thoughts on the discussion so far:

1.  The African-American Project should have a primary say in this discussion, since the vast majority of persons affected by it are the ancestors of African Americans, and African-American genealogy before the modern era is especially difficult.

2.  Categories are developed by Projects in collaboration with the Categorization Project.  There are often advantages in consistency across projects, but consistency is not mandatory;  collaboration is.  If the African-American Project could justify categorizing according to highland and lowland rather than states, it could happen!

3.  If you have gotten back more than 3 or 4 generations, all of us have ancestors we are proud of and all of us have ancestors we are ashamed of, and often, our ancestors would have had different opinions on what is shameful.  It is good to be sensitive -- reading colonial Maryland wills in which slavery was so.....normal....can make one's skin crawl.  But in fact is was normal.  On top of that there were people who were abusive.  In my tree, the cousin of an ancestor was the real life "inspiration" for Simon LeGree in Uncle Tom's Cabin.  In Genealogy you have to take the bad with the good.  Anybody who has a Revolutionary War ancestor from a southern state probably also has an ancestor who owned slaves.  If you have achieved a connection with European "nobility" and go back to the England of William the Conqueror, your tree is filled with people who by our standards would be thieves and rapists, murderers and thugs.  Be historians and write about it, don't hide or sugar coat anything!

4.  It's valid to call attention to the fact that their standards were not ours.  I favor the use of the phrase "enslaved persons" rather than "slaves" because "slave" conjures up the subtle impression -- current at the time -- that we are dealing with people who are subhuman and therefore not entitled to marriages -- or genealogy.  Read the wills and you'll understand this impression.  The enslaved persons did not have family names, they were not identified by who their parent was, and you won't find a reference to two slaves who were married.  At least I haven't seen any.  The institution of slavery was, among other things, an attack upon genealogy, and as genealogists we have a special obligation to undo that legacy when we can.  

4.  Perhaps there is merit in distinguishing "personal and family" shame from "cultural shame."  If I, or my parents or grandparents whom I know or knew personally did something shameful, I suppose I too should feel the shame.  If my 5G-grandparent whom I first encountered in a history book or census record did something shameful, and many others of that person's generation did the same thing, that is not my personal shame, that is the shame of a culture, and we have an obligation to document it and combat its traces.  

5.  Despite all the newspaper headlines, I think a study of history reveals that we actually have progressed.  There never really was a golden age.  For the most part, we are better than our ancestors, but what we appreciate about life was built on their labor.  Genealogy is always a mixed blessing.  But remember this:  neither Charlemagne nor William the Conqueror knew what a flush toilet was.
by Jack Day G2G6 Pilot (474k points)
selected by Porter Fann
Well said and thought-provoking, Jack!
Well thought out, Jack.  I agree about your distinction between "personal shame" and "cultural shame."  I am not my great-great-great-grandfather and I am not ashamed of the fact that he was a slave-owner, nor am I proud of it. It is a fact that should be acknowledged as part of the record of history.

And, to your point about families and married couples who were slaves -- I do have one example in my own family history.  The entire family was purchased in a "bank sale" and then, upon their owner's death, show up in the succession of his estate (will). Just wanted to share that with you as I thought you may find it interesting:
Jack, I have an observation on your comment(s) No. 4:  I agree.

Chattel slavery was a major attack on genealogy.  Also, it is not only valid to note that their standards were not ours, but it is often critical to a full understanding of what happened.

Just as one example, under Texas state law, it was flatly illegal to free a slave in antebellum Texas.  Hypothetically, if you were willed a slave by a deceased relative, it was not legal for you to free that person -- not even if you were the biggest abolitionist west of the Mississippi.  Your only legal choices were to remit the enslaved person back to the county (who would sell them to strangers for money on your behalf, making you a slave trader) or accept responsibility for them (thereby becoming a slave owner).  If you had any interest in the fate of that enslaved person, the law left you only one way to exercise it: You took responsibility.

Even though the morality involved has remained pretty constant, the environment has gone through a complete 180.  The majority of slave owners were callously in it for the money and did not care whose families they destroyed.  However, Texas also included a number of slave owners who were in it because -- legally unable to free a living soul -- that was the only way they could keep their families together.  The label "slave owner" alone provides no information to differentiate between the two.  It's not fair to blame without at least knowing the details.
I wasn't entirely sure where to put this comment so I'll add it here because Jack's comment piqued my interest the most.  Due to this discussion I downloaded and have been reading an interesting (free) e-book, "The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveller's Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States," written in 1861 by Fredrick Law Olmsted - yes, the architect of Central Park - who apparently, prior to his landscaping career was a writer for the New York Times.  He traveled extensively in the South and West and wrote columns for the paper, which were then collected into three books.  

I skipped the intro chapter which was kind of slow and dived right in to Chapter 2 which is much more lively, and will come back to Chapter 1 later.  So far it it is a FASCINATING book.  Very well written and it is really interesting to get a window directly into the perspective of the era, from a reporter's point of view.  It is actually a bit shocking at times (no surprise I am sure) as it is rather unvarnished, but it's not sensationalist.  

To Michael's point, the label "slave owner" does not provide any shades of gray (which as you will see in the Olmstead book, there are many kinds of slaveowners) but it is a starting place.  When we label a house a "house," do we label it a "big house" or a "small house" or a "cheap house" or an "expensive house?"  All of the adjectives are unknown; it is simply a "house."  So too with the label "slave owner."  It is unknown whether we're talking about Simon Legree or Eva St. Clair. Both were slave owners.  The nuance comes later.
Fair enough.  I just added "Texas Slave Owners" for Anson Jones and Samuel Houston.  No reason an appropriate category can't go on the applicable colonial New England folks, either.  

Just don't assume it tells the whole story in three words.
Absolutely not!  The purpose of categories is to group profiles in some kind of meaningful way.  They are a convenience.  They aren't intended to tell anything, not even part of a story!

Crispin - No doubt, Olmstead new of what he spoke - he also was the design architect for a linear park in Atlanta, GA - here in the Deep South. One thing you have to give Atlantans credit for is that an entire community rose up against the destruction of the park. A Ronald Reagan Parkway was proposed that would have destroyed the park for the sake of commuters. Big win!

+4 votes
Personally, it is one thing to add a category for "Slave". That is bad enough. But in this charged climate of political correctness and runaway charges of racism, should we really even have a "slave owner" category?

Can you imagine if my mother's second husbands great grandmother was married to a brother of a slave owner? Now all of a sudden the whole family tree was "Slave Owners".

And does this even address current slave owners in Africa and the Middle East where slavery is still a booming business or will we skip this due to political connotations.
by Steven Tibbetts G2G6 Pilot (417k points)

From the description of the high-level category "Slave-owners in America": The slave-owner categories exist to help with tracking the genealogy and family history of pre-Civil War era African Americans

If such labels do prove useful for such genealogical research -- and it is not for me to judge whether this is the case -- then I will use such labels in pursuit of the Wikitree ideal of connecting as many people as possible to a grand unified tree.  

Slave-ownership does not propagate through a whole tree, as you suggest.   I have discovered some of my owner ancestors were owners of chattel slaves, willing them to family members in the same sentence that they will furniture and cows.  Seeing such in a will gives this national and personal shame an immediacy that is lost in reading history books and movies.  But that doesn't make me a slave owner, nor any of my recent ancestors, and as a result none of these recent ancestors will have the label.  My personal view is that the category should be applied only when there is incontrovertible proof -- such as a will.  So, for instance, when I look in the 1774 Rhode Island Census and see a household with white head-of-household with some black household members, I do not on that basis alone assign the "slave-owner" label to the head-of-household.

The qualification "in America" in the category title certainly does distinguish it from slavery in other countries, including modern slavery.  But it does not distinguish, say, pre-Civil War slaves from the modern slaves being held in secret in America, nor do I think it should make such a distinction.  


On the other hand,  the category "slave" is definitely cringeworthy.  The term used these days for referring people subject to slavery is "enslaved person".  I would like to see the category labels changed to avoid the word "slave", but I don't know how make said changes.
I do see that the Project has "Categorization" on their todo list.  If this is an interest of yours it might be worth joining / asking to help out.  I am also interested in the project so I just posted there myself.

I also think this is an important part of history. I agree with you that the tag "Slave Owner" does not propagate to the whole tree.  However I think those of us whose ancestors DID own slaves do, I believe, owe it to posterity to preserve and document that as part of our research as we run across it in the work we are doing.  I have done so in several of my profiles and will continue to do so.

It is certainly a strange experience to look at a will of one's ancestors and see named human beings there listed right along with the horses and cows.  We do ourselves as human beings no good if we ignore that reality.
Barry, I'm well aware slave ownership doesn't propogate through a whole genealogical tree. But in this age of political correctness the BLAME does. The world is going nuts with victimhood mentallity. I would rather not give them more ammo. LOL
I just ran into a case where I felt like some of the people adding the Slave Owner category are using it to "call out" our ancestors that owned slaves.  No details were provided on the slaves they owned, just a comment that where they lived and the because of the land they owned, they were surely slave owners.   

Clearly, there is a reason for this category, and let's not lose sight of the purpose.
I have been reading some of the comments and I am surprised that people feel they will be blamed for the actions of their ancestors who were slave owners. This is a research project and by its very nature, you must present the information you find in its entirety.  If you are truly trying to help people of African descent find their families then you must include the slave owner's name; that is the only way to trace families of African descent who were enslaved in this country. The slave owner's name is critical to any research on families of African descent.  Yes, it is painful to see your family sold or passed on as chattel. I imagine it is difficult for those reading the wills to see that their families had a hand in it; unfortunately, that is what happened in the peculiar institution of slavery in America.  I felt a visceral reaction the first time I saw a Slave Census, my family member were described only by gender, age and year of birth. My desire to find out what happened to my ancestors has overridden my initial reaction.  While I am at it, I would also like to point out that many of us are descendants of both slaves and slave owners and are being denied the right to claim our full heritage. Using the term African American  puts a qualifier on our citizenship and forces us to ignore or deny a large part of our heritage.  To me it is the modern day one-drop rule.  If I can believe AncestryDNA then my ancestors are/from Mali, Cameroon/Congo, Ireland, Sweden, Ivory Coast Ghana, Great Britain, Iberian Peninsula, Europe East, Europe West, Italy/Greece, South African Bantu, European Jew, Native American and Polynesian.  A designator of African American forces me to ignore or deny my rich heritage and the 35% of my heritage that is not  of African descent.  Do not get me wrong, I fully embrace my African heritage, however I feel that I should have the right to embrace my full heritage.  This is not something in the distant past, I have third and fourth cousins that are 100% European; I am speaking of my present and future states. We really need to start looking at how we can allow people to embrace their full American heritage.
Hi Vivian,

Wow.  Great comment. Thank you so much for posting; it is great to hear your take on it. Hearing your story is very powerful.

I am currently studying anthropology and one concept that I just learned is "structural violence," the violence written into the system by structures (such as slavery) which then comes down to harm an individual (such as the enslaved person.)  I look at the slaves owned by my ancestors and the violence that was done to those families, and feel a terrible shame and guilt that that was part of my family's story, but on the other hand knowing that was not me, so not knowing what to do with that fact of slaveownership, and that emotion, other than witness it and document it as a genealogist in my tree (which I have done.)  And share it with the other genealogists in my family (boy does it make their eyes pop out when you casually trot that one out at the dinner table!)

Anyway it occurs to me that "structural violence" is made up of thousands of individual stories and maybe the opposite of structural violence (whatever that is?) is also made up of that?  Kind of in reference to allowing people to embrace their full American heritage, is what I am getting at...  Maybe there needs to be a new word? Of course... there already is... it's just "American" ?  :)

Anyway, thank you again for sharing.

Thanks for that*, Barry. I wish you had put that as an answer (vs. a reply) as I think it is Best, even if it is indirect to the question.

More on the question, though: When I had the cringe-worthy experience of having to identify some folks as slave owners, I only saw "in America" and just a few other locales in the US. So I am not clear on where and how those other designations that are area-specific get populated for tagging a profile...

A monumental task lies ahead for me, as I know from reading wills and seeing census records in my years of research that the practice of using slaves was prevalent. Now I have to backtrack to make profiles complete here (most of my work has been done over in, so many profiles of mine are yet to be entered, too). 

I do know that the process for identifying and scrubbing those who should be named from the trading side can be helped some by this website, but it's daunting. I haven't quite figured out the best way to drill down in the data at but I do know they were supposed to enhance accessibility - for example, they now have slave names indexing.

Anyway, I was looking for a post I saw here recently, and happened across this discussion and I was triggered to add to the discussion. The best way to be accountable for the past is to be matter of fact about it. Slavery was a horrible business, and many abuses occurred, including deaths, that can never be erased. That's all the more reason that naming the names - both owners and so many whose lives were cheated - naming the slaves.

From the description of the high-level category "Slave-owners in America": The slave-owner categories exist. . . 

I applaud your effort in trying to match the names of people taken from Africa with people arriving on slave ships in the Americas, and then correlating them to the names of slaves passed on in wills. It will indeed be a great challenge because the trail is not as clear as those who arrived at Ellis Island.  Outside of names changing, there is clear documentation of families from European nations that lead to their ancestors today.  In direct opposition, Africans were not identified by name as they were taken, loaded on ships and offloaded in the Americas.  The records of their history is obliterated through Slave Census data, punishment for sharing family history and the destruction of slave records by families who owned slaves. A condition of slavery was the elimination of African history and family ties of those enslaved.

It has to be noted that a few families of African descent held onto their history, however the vast majority have no idea where their ancestors are from on the African continent.  Outside of work by Dr. Gates and Alex Haley, few people have been able to connect families in this country with those remaining on the African continent.  The difficulty in confirming identity lies in family members being torn apart, sold and resold to plantations across the expanding country. We do not broadly discuss slave breeding for specific genetic traits, further distorting the country of origin of those brought to this country.  Ancestry,com and other genetic companies have allowed us to get closer to identifying families.  However, what is particularly disturbing to me are the stories of women and men sold multiple times during slavery who left children behind in different states across the country. Many of these families remained lost to each other after slavery; this is perhaps the most criminal aspect of slavery, the destruction of Black families and their history.

It saddens me to see our nation's history rewritten to sooth the guilt of families who owned slaves.  Is was far more difficult to make these changes when they were in hard copy books, however, electronic media allows us to change history with a few keystrokes.   If slavery was wrong, then the further destruction and distortion of the history of slavery and the histories of families enslaved is equally wrong.  We need to bring these families together and make reparations so that these families can finally heal. When a people have been awarded citizenship for 156 years, it is time to recognize them as full citizens which includes the use of the name American without qualifiers. I wish you Good luck with your project and your research!
+10 votes
The word "Slave" comes from the early Middle Ages when the largest population of those in European servitude came from the Slavic countries. In very early American Colonial history, all slaves were indentured servants--they had a contract that could potentially be fulfilled at sometime.  These servants could be from any culture or race and, often, Irish.  (Thus the term "Redneck" as the Irish sunburned easily).

The first servant to be indentured for life was John Casor in about 1654.  In a court case, John Casor accused his contract holder of not releasing him when his indenture was up but his contract holder, Anthony Johnson, claimed that Casor was his property.  The court sided with Johnson.  This established legal precedent.

Seven years later, in 1661, Virginia made a law allowing anyone--white, black, or Indian--to own slaves for life as well as indentured servants.  One eastern state (I think it was Massachusetts) made it illegal for black slave owners to own white slaves because it "looked bad".

In the early days of the United States, slavery was not a racial thing--it was completely economic.  Free peoples of all races had both slaves and indentured servants of all races.  During the Civil War, black slave owners fought for the Confederacy to defend their way of life.

The word "slave" distinguishes between those who were indentured with a time frame and those who were indentured for life--both types had legal written contracts.  I think changing the word after 500 years of usage is just busy work with little purpose.

Just my two-cents.
by Saundra Stewart G2G6 Mach 6 (63.0k points)
Thank you Saundra for a very clear perspective on the subject of slavery.
Whatever we choose to call a slave today, "indentured" is still the term for indentured servants. The distinction remains and is clear.
+4 votes
Aside from all of the discussion about what to call the persons in the profiles for slavery, the question remains about the places attached. I would say that the colonial names should be used.

Right now, there exists: [[Category: Massachusetts Slave Owners]]

I do notice that there are profiles in there from different eras, including colonial times. Colony names have not been used.  There is also a [[Category: Massachusetts Bay Colony, Massachusetts, Slave Owners]] which seems like a clunky name. I would have named it [[Category: Massachusetts Bay Colony, Slave Owners]].  The top level page says that the [[Category: Slavery in America]] should be used for "people who owned slaves in the United States of America and the colonial territories that existed before it became the United States." So you would follow that stream, assuming to know in advance that it is for colonial places.  It looks like it was set up to use the modern name for the state. (This is what it looks like to me. I could be wrong though!)  So, please consult:

When in doubt, though, please ask a leader or coordinator from:
by Natalie Trott G2G Astronaut (1.4m points)
You know, Massachusetts Bay Colony sounds all well and good and highly official but I'm betting the locals just called it "Massachusetts".  For example even today we do not refer to it as "The Commonwealth of Massachusetts" even though that is it's legal name.

I'm betting [[Massachusetts Slave Owners]] would work just fine even for that era and there is no need to split them up.
I agree with you on that, but, to be certain, the project needs to be consulted. I'm sure they don't want to clean up a mess of mistaken categories.
I disagree.  You're right that people didn't use the full name in certain places -- for instance, in many registers of births, only the town name is given (why bother with a state or province?  Everyone around knows where the town is...).  But in stand-alone documents, like wills or assignment of guardianship, I invariable see complete names like "Province of Massachusetts Bay", etc.
+5 votes
I was going to say, "Where have I been?"  I haven't yet read through the entire thread, but see I am only a day late.  To date, I am the only Project Coordinator for the African-American Project.  We also only have one leader, but we wanted to sort of break-out a little from the US History Project and be a larger project.  Sarah Heiney is the leader and she is currently moving, so I haven't bothered her in a while.

One of the things I find most important is to fix the category structure to reflect the way things are done now.  Whatever is in place is wholly inadequate and was done several or more years ago.  I started moving things around and was informed that I was doing things incorrectly, but I will get back on it.

All volunteers are greatly appreciated, and you don't need to be African-American to have an interest.
by Lucy Selvaggio-Diaz G2G6 Pilot (862k points)
Hi Lucy, I signed up on the page but do let me know if there are specific tasks that need to be done.  I am happy to help but don't want to step on any toes! :)

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