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US Black Heritage Connecting Enslaved Ancestors

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Surnames/tags: black_heritage slavery
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US Black Heritage Project

See the companion page: Naming Conventions for Slaves



When researching enslaved ancestors, it is essential to identify the slave owner/enslaver.

When only the first name of a slave is known, the US Black Heritage project uses the surname of the slave owner as the LNAB, until a more accurate one can be found. (Approved by WT team in 2021)

The purpose 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.

"When Africans were enslaved and brought to America, any identifiers that could have tied them to their homeland or families were broken."[1] Many early slaves, as well as later ones never had a true LNAB as defined by here at Wikitree.

Clans, FANS, and clues

In family history research and genealogy, every clue--no matter how small, can get you closer to answers. This is especially true when researching US Black Heritage and its ties to slavery.

The FAN Club Method Genealogist and author Elizabeth Shown Mills coined the phrase “FAN Club” for genealogical purposes. She points out the significance of not only searching records for an ancestor’s surname, but also paying attention to documents about the ancestor’s “FAN Club” (Friends, Associates, Neighbors). Learn more on Elizabeth's Evidence Explained website, where she gives an example of how this works.

Clans The culture of a plantation was similar to a clan (except in this case it was a forced relationship). The slave owner forced people to come under their care and work for them. This caused the following:

  • "The slave and white families were bound together not just as property and owner, but also as a community and a family unit. Their children played together, Black women cared for white children, and the owners and slaves sometimes worked side by side. But more important, slaves were often “kept in the family.” As legal property, they could be passed down through inheritance, loaned out and given away as gifts to children. All of these actions could generate records under the slave family’s name." (emphasis added) [2]
  • Thus slaves were known by their slave owner's name (ie. John Smith's Ben). In clans, a person was known by the clan name (John of Clan MacDonald). If they changed clans, that designation changed. It is the same with those enslaved. Although comparing a plantation to clan is not a perfect analogy, it gives you an idea of why using the slave owner's or institution's name as the LNAB is important. It identifies them as a part of the group of people they lived with and a potential paper trail to follow.

Last name historical examples

To illustrate the different paths former slaves took to arrive at their name, a few examples:

Lottie Smith Fry, in civil war pension of husband Phillip Russell aka Fry.

  • "Q. Where did you get the maiden name of Smith from?
  • A. My mother's name was Octavia Smith and it was from her that I got it but where the name came from to her I never knew."

How-to Links


  1. Craven, Julia. Many African American last names hold weight of Black history. 24 Feb 2022.
  • "The number of freed slaves who used the name of their last slave owner is unknown. It varies from one state to another and perhaps even from one county to another. Estimates can range from 25 percent to 75 percent." Tracing freed slaves’ surnames

Wevonneda Minis Jul 18, 2010 Updated Mar 5, 2018. Post and Courier, Charleston SC. Link

See also:


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