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US Black Heritage: Naming Conventions for Slaves

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Please note: These naming conventions are specifically for those people who were enslaved in the United States. Other countries may have unique needs that these conventions do not assist with.

When reading these naming conventions for LNAB (Last Name at Birth), please keep the following in mind:

  • The purpose of these standards is to make it easier for descendants to connect to their ancestors. Having hundreds or thousands of profiles named John Unknown does not assist in this goal.
  • It is not expected that a genealogically "accurate" LNAB may ever be found for many who were enslaved. Although we hope this does happen for many, an accurate LNAB is not the main purpose of these naming conventions. Connecting to family is.
  • Please don't make assumptions about what last name a slave may have taken. Some had last names that were kept secret or private while they were enslaved. Others took on a last name of their own choice after they received their freedom. Some took on the last name of their slave owner or their white father. Also, the reverse is true. Don't assume the last name of a slave owner wasn't the correct last name. It was very common for those enslaved to be related in some way to the slave owner. There is no one-size-fits-all rule to how slaves received a last name. Last names also often changed over time.
  • The LNAB for those enslaved was a fluid thing and isn't a concept that existed in the way we normally think of it (the LNAB is what is found on a document). You may need to adjust your thinking away from the conventional view of an LNAB.

Please see Connecting Enslaved Ancestors for more information on the reasoning behind these naming conventions.

(See Naming Conventions for Slaves below)


Naming Conventions for Slaves

An LNAB (Last Name at Birth) for slaves or those formerly enslaved should be assigned in this order. If (A) cannot be found, move to (B) and so on:

A) The surname they state themselves (orally or on a document).
B) The LNAB of their father or their mother if the father is unknown.
C) For women, the last name of their husband (orally or on a document).
D) Whichever name is most useful to descendants as outlined below:

  1. If only one slave owner is known, use the last name of that slave owner as the LNAB. If they were "owned" by an institution, use that name instead. For instance, if owned by Georgetown University, their LNAB would be Georgetown. (If an earlier slave owner is later found, do not change the LNAB. See reasoning below under "when to change the LNAB")
  2. If more than one slave owner is known, use the last name of the first slave owner as the LNAB and the most recent slave owner as the Current Last Name.
  3. If you know of additional slave owners for that person, use those slave owners' last names in the Other Last Name field.
  4. Add the {{Slave LNAB}} template above the Biography heading any time a placeholder LNAB is used so people viewing the profile will know this is a placeholder LNAB until a documented surname can be found.
  5. If a former slave is found in later census or other records, assume the surname they are going by to be their LNAB. If, after the time of that document, they change their last name, that would go in the Current Last Name field.
  6. Please see the document Documenting Enslaved People in WikiTree for best practices when creating slave profiles, which includes listing all slave owners in the biography.

LNAB Examples

Please see our Examples Page for examples of how to use these naming conventions in different scenarios.

LNAB Template

The {{Slave LNAB}} template alerts researchers that the Last Name at Birth is using the slave owner's name as a placeholder. When using a slave owner's name in the LNAB field, copy {{Slave LNAB}} and paste just above the Biography header. The template displays this helpful warning:

This enslaved ancestor's profile has a preliminary Last Name At Birth (LNAB) until a surname can be determined. Please see the US Black Heritage Naming Conventions for Slaves before merging or changing the LNAB.


  • Have descendants of slaves seen and agreed on these naming conventions?
    • Yes, descendants of slaves helped write these naming conventions.
  • If an enslaved person has a white father, shouldn't his last name be the LNAB?
    • Not unless this is a name the person chooses to go by themselves. Historically, when a child was born out of wedlock, they received the mother's last name, not the father's. But in this case, the mother may not have a last name. Therefore, whichever name the person chooses for themselves will be the LNAB.
  • What if I've already used the old convention of Unknown for the LNAB?
    • Because we don't want to change the LNAB often, don't change the LNAB until more information is found confirming a more accurate LNAB for the person. Place the most recent slave owner's surname in the Current Last Name field and any other slave owners in the Other Last Name field.

When to Change the LNAB

It is important NOT to change the LNAB every time a new name is discovered. It's best not to change it until you have found the first known last name the enslaved person went by--whether they were born with that last name or gave themselves that last name once they received their freedom.

  • If a person is found in the 1870 census, this is very likely the first time they have had a "real" last name. The only time to change from this 1870 LNAB is if you find a document for that person while they were enslaved that states a last name they were going by. In that case, the LNAB would be the original last name while enslaved and the last name they are using in 1870 will be in the Current Last Name field. This is a less likely scenario, but not impossible.
  • If you used a slave owner's last name for the LNAB and you then find the slave listed in later documents with a different last name, that new last name becomes the LNAB. Move the slave owner(s)' last name(s) to the Other Last Name if you feel they are still necessary for descendants to find their ancestors. Otherwise, make sure the slave owners are listed in the biography under the === Slave Owners === heading and remove the slave owner names from the name fields.
  • If you gave a wife her husband's last name and you later discover her family's last name.
  • It is the standard of the US Black Heritage Project to give enslaved ancestors with no documented last name the last name their descendants chose to go by to honor their choice.
    • Example: If the descendants of John, enslaved by Jacob Smith, are later found to be documented with the last name of Green, John's Last Name at Birth would be changed from the placeholder to Green.

Additional Resources

Email Your Info

  • If you or a friend would like to send us slavery documentation or other information about an enslaved ancestor, just email: wikitrees-usbh-exchange at - replace the at with @


Comments: 35

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Hello! I just did my first profile for an enslaved person and the owner. I'm hoping I did everything right! Would a project member be able to look her over to see if there's anything else to add or any corrections to make! Jude Musharve is the profile for the enslaved person and John P Tunison is the slave owner. Thank you! I'm so excited to be able to make Jude's profile possible. Concetta
Hi Concetta, thank you for working on these profiles. I'll check on them for you.
posted by Gina (Pocock) Jarvi
Hi Concetta, those are excellent profiles! I added the Somerset County, New Jersey, Slaves category to Jude's and the Slave owner category to John's. I am requesting categories of the same for Cayuga and Seneca Counties to add to their profiles. If you do make further slave owner profiles, if you would also place the USBH Heritage Exchange category on slave owner profiles, we check those as well. Thanks again for helping out our project!
posted by Gina (Pocock) Jarvi
Awesome! I definitely can. I know I've got more to do, sadly. Thank you SO much for your help with this!
I started working on a family in Texas during the Source-a-thon last weekend. The unsourced profile led me to a large extended family and I've been working back adding profiles from census and death records. I got back to the 1870 census with several of them and I just found the first enslaved person after I had already created a profile on her because she was with her parents in the 1870 census.

As I added her daughter, a matching profile popped up. The earlier profile that has the slave holders information had no profile manager so I have adopted it because I want to merge these and clear up the duplicates. I would like to work with someone who knows better than I do how to connect these families and preserve the information. The profile with the Slave owners name is Foley-5034 and the profile I created based on the 1880 census and her death records is Cunningham-19130. I think it's likely that the parents of Adaline Cunningham were also owned by Foley and will be attempting to figure out if they have profiles under his name.

To be clear, these are not my ancestors, but I have been doing genealogy research for years, and love wikitree but I'm new to working on the African-American Heritage project.

posted by Leslie Bell
edited by Leslie Bell
Hi Leslie, That's awesome! I would be happy to help you. Feel free to PM me with the profiles and any questions you have.


posted by Gina (Pocock) Jarvi
HI all, I just created my first profiles for a slave-owner and enslaved person (Jack Roosa (abt.1750-)). Would a project-member please check them to make sure I did it right and offer any feedback for improvement>? Thanks!
posted by Kathryn McCollough
Hi Kate, your profile looks great. I would just add Ulster, New York as a location. Even though we do not know for sure he was born there, he definitely lived there and that's better than no location.
posted by Gina (Pocock) Jarvi
Thanks, Gina! (You're very fast to respond!) Done.
posted by Kathryn McCollough
I have an inventory of enslaved persons inherited by the wife of the slave owner (husband #1) at the home of husband (#2) home after her death. The slave owner (husband #1) had not named these individuals in his will, but I'm assuming they were part of the 1/3 of his estate she inherited for her lifetime. It makes sense to me to use the surname of husband #1 as LNAB, but should I also provide the surname of husband #2, either as current LN or OLN? At her death, these enslaved individuals were inherited by her children with husband #1, so likely reverted to the surname of husband #1.
posted by Judith Booker
Hi Judith- Yes, use husband #2’s name as OLN, and husband #1 as LNAB and CLN. (and add the Slave LNAB template above the biography header) Thank you for working on these families!
posted by Elaine (Weatherall) Martzen
edited by Elaine (Weatherall) Martzen
Hello I am an avid researcher. I have been researching my family for over 40 years. In my research I have seen many references to slaves in documents such as wills. Not all but many do have the first names that they were given. I may be of help in adding to the knowledge base of those men, women, and children that were enslaved. Maybe this will assist those of this heritage to find their ancestors. My focus in my research has been Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama.

How would I begin to add those that I have found while I am researching others including my own families. Some of my ancestors were slave owners. I have seen names of slaves in many of the wills. Not much information could be provided in a newly created profile other than the names and possibly their ages. I of course could include the circumstances of these names such as a will and where that will was written.

Also let me say that I was given a letter by a friend in Georgia. The letter includes copies of letters sent to a former slave from North Carolina that had fled to Canada. The letter was written in 1843 by Augustus Wattles. He was an abolitionist. I have since submitted the letter to the archives. I do have a transcript of the letter in my files.

posted by John Simmons Jr.
Hi John, it would be great if you could create profiles on WikiTree of the enslaved while you are researching. See this help page for a directory of help pages on how to do that:


I run across tons of enslaved people. Do y’all want someone to create a file for each slave? What would be the guidelines?
posted by Wanda Richards
Hi Wanda, yes we do want a profile for each person. You can start here to read about how we document slavery:

Thanks! Emma

The usual Wikitree convention is to use Unknown. When a profile uses Lnu instead, is it helpful to change to LNAB to Unknown ----in other cases, this makes the profile more searchable and accessible. Case in point: Lnu-893 for Luce. I messaged the PM and asked for a Trusted list status. I can file a UPM and change the LNAB but want to be sure I do the most helpful thing....thank you.
posted by Pam (Anderson) Smith
I would instead change it to the slave owner's last name. Unknown is not helpful in this case. I see the daughter's name is Tidwell. I'm guessing Luce's name should also be Tidwell. Emma
I would love to know anything about my 4th ggrandfather ´s ancestors who was born 29 April 1837 in Kingston Jamaica and according to my dna came from the West of Africa. I do know the tribes- The Akan and the Mende tribe which means they were from Sierra Leon and Ghana or Yhe Ivory Coast.His name was Alexander William Francis and as slavery had been abolished a few years earlier he was probably born a free man. He joined the Royal Navy volunteering 21 May 1859- service no 17973A, He did 20 years continuous service and was on HMS Hastings which was docked in Chatham Kent England. He married my English 4th ggrandmother in Harwich Essex in 1877 and had a naval pension. He died in 1897. I,m guessing that the surname Francis was probably the surname of his parent´s slave owner but do not know what plantation they would have been on nor do I know when they were captured and brought to Kingston. Im guessing it was sometime in the 1700s but have no idea, What was strange is that my great aunt had some deeds to a plantation in Jamaica but ripped them up so know nothing, Why would my great aunt have deeds to a plantation??? I have dna matches from all over the world from Sierra Leon and Nigeria.
posted by Tracey OBrien
Thanks for all the information. Will help me with my brother in-law's side, and in fact because of the information I'm going back over his side on both wikitree and ancestry trees.
posted by Robert Wilson
To me these are very useful guidelines that answer many of questions I had. The explanation of the complex clan-like social relations between the enslaved and the enslaver is especially helpful in encouraging our efforts to discover the most complete set of connections to the person's family members. The complexity of these social relations have by far been the most surprising aspect of working on such profiles, once I got beyond the visceral revulsion at the paper trail showing humans enslaved one another.

About the large sticker alerting other researchers to the preliminary LNAB, yes it is quite large, but to me it is an effective way to spur others to hunt for the most authentic LNAB (or self chosen last name) and to go the extra mile with a profile. I do appreciate the sticker's reminder to use the naming conventions. Too many changes ("redirects") of the last name at birth is said to present some actual strain on the mysterious wikitree computer system which we all depend on, and yet in time finding the most authentic last name is one of the best ways to honor the life of person profiled.

posted by R Adams
edited by R Adams
Thank you for your comments R. We are looking at ways to reduce the size of the LNAB alert box. It is too large and takes up too much of the profile. It doesn't look as large on the template page, but on the profile it seems to be taller. Emma
This enslaved ancestor's profile has a preliminary Last Name At Birth (LNAB) until a surname can be determined. Please see the US Black Heritage Naming Conventions for Slaves before merging or changing the LNAB.
sticker is extremely overwhelming visually on the profile. The font needs to be reduced and the box color muted. Better yet, instead of such a long explanation, a sticker no bigger than the Black Heritage sticker, which would link to THIS PAGE would be superior. It would bring any interested party to the appropriate full explanation on slave naming conventions. I won't add the current sticker to any profiles I create, and I have done a lot.
posted by Chad Olivent
We've shortened the wording on the template, so it's a little bit smaller. Still working on alternatives. Emma
I am impressed by the well-thought-out naming guidelines.

Forgive me if I am asking ignorant questions. I had not seen this page before, and looked for it this morning after reading some blog that referred to slave records. Now and then I encounter the mention of a slave in my research, usually in a will. I'm afraid I don't have the energy to create profiles for them all, especially given that the one mention is the total extent of my knowledge--for example, "a woman named Jenny" who was alive at some date, in some place. Does WT have some place where members can note those mentions? And I have the same question as Amanda below, which I'll ask again in case anything has changed in seven months. It seems like it would be very useful to have some central WT registry of slave profiles, perhaps a category, among other reasons so that people can check before creating duplicates. Are there any?

posted by [Living Kelts]
I have the energy and interest to create profiles for you. I am currently recording enslavers and enslaved in profile updates and creation. You may send me your info (the will, etc) and I will complete the task for you. And I am eager to hear any answer to your questions.
posted by Boni (Clark) Quandt
Thank you! I have not kept a list of the slaves I've encountered (and I'm not certain that all are slaves; some may be indentured servants) but I will keep you in mind and when I dig them up again let you know.
posted by [Living Kelts]
Hi Boni, we just now got everything set up. We now have a landing page for some of these questions here:

All new slave/slave owner profiles, or space pages with documents or lists of slaves, should be added to the "Category: USBH Heritage Exchange" so the project can make sure they're all standardized.

Thanks, Emma

Hi Julie, we just now got everything set up. We now have a landing page for some of these questions here:

All new slave/slave owner profiles, or space pages with documents or lists of slaves, should be added to the "Category: USBH Heritage Exchange" so the project can make sure they're all standardized.

Thanks, Emma

Thank you, Emma. For counties not yet set up as categories, will the project be taking care of that? My ancestor Rabb-191 owned slaves in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, but I could not find the category.
posted by [Living Kelts]
Yes, we'll be creating new ones. We're working to add more counties. When you need more, you can email me or Heritage Exchange and ask for those categories to be created. I just got Fayette set up for you.


Thank you! ....................
posted by [Living Kelts]
Is there a list of former slaves' last name and place that I can refer to? There is a family with a mother and 3 girls who would have probably listed themselves as Wise in Georgia in 1870. She's probably be somewhere around 35 in 1870. Where would I find such a roster? They're on a slave schedule attached to an owner's household... is this enough to create a link somewhere? My math could be off right now.
posted by Amanda (Moyer) Torrey
edited by Amanda (Moyer) Torrey
Hi Amanda, There is no easy answer to this question. A slave will be listed on a slave schedule usually with no name, just an age. there may be slaves listed in a will or slave roster for the slave holder. they might be listed in a bill of sale. A person wanting to connect slaves to their descendants has to work pretty diligently with all the documents for one slave holder and compare them with each other and then compare that information with the 1870 census in which slaves were enumerated by name for the first time.