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Naming Patterns in Enslaved Families

Historians of the African-American experience have sought to recognize patterns in the naming practices of enslaved people.  At Monticello children were most frequently named for parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts.  The almost four hundred names on the program for the Slave Burial Ground commemoration confirm this.

Using Jefferson's records and the Monticello Plantation Database of over six hundred enslaved people at his several plantations, we formed a list of the men, women, and children who had lived at least a part of their lives at Monticello. 

We puzzled over how to list the names, finally deciding on an order based on both chronology and family, beginning with those first resident at Monticello in the 1770s but trying to keep parents and children together as much as possible.  Under slavery, separation was the more usual reality.

As the names were called out during the memorial ceremony, many signs of family strength became evident.  The widespread recurrence of given names indicates the honoring of  parents and siblings.  Among the Herns, for example, the unusual name Lovilo was borne by family members from 1801 to the twentieth century.   Brown and Mary Colbert's children who remained in bondage when their parents left for Liberia carried on their memory.  Robert and Benjamin Colbert both named sons Brown after their father, who had died 3,000 miles away.


It is often stated that American slaves had no surnames until after the Civil War and Emancipation, and that they then usually took the last names of their masters. The evidence about the Monticello enslaved community contradicts this stereotype. We believe that most, if not all, of the Monticello enslaved families bore surnames, which preserved family ties and memories from the generations that came before. We have learned of several -- Hern, Granger, Hughes, and Smith, for instance -- since the Getting Word project began in 1993. Jefferson himself, like most southern slaveholders, rarely recorded his slaves' family names and usually used diminutives for first names. Thus he wrote merely "Ned" and "Jenny" for the enslaved couple who knew themselves as Edward and Jane Gillette. These practices served to create social distance between paternalistic masters and their human property. The Jefferson surname is not known to have been used by any African-American family at Monticello (in the case of the two men who were known by the Jefferson surname, they were obliged by circumstances to adopt it). 

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