Monday, April 8, 2013

Slave Children?

Question from Angel:
“I ran across a will of my ancestor, who apparently was a plantation/slave owner in 1826. SUCH a sensitive subject but fascinating nonetheless, especially when I saw he made provisions for each one and obviously thought of their welfare. This is such a deep subject and people either feel one way or the other, but I do believe that some slaves were considered family and when freed, did not want to leave.

One of the things that jumped out at me was that in the will, after he provided for every one of his children and son-in-law (he was a wealthy man in Virginia and a Captain in the Revolutionary War, as well as other military assignments in Virginia), there was a mention that $50 would be set aside for  "children named for me".

It especially caught my eye due to the quotation marks used. Is this a way to acknowledge a child by a slave mother, possibly by him? I do believe there was a tradition or practice for slaves to name their child after the Master, because then they would be taken care of, and maybe not separated down the line. Or am I off-base? I am trying to research more about this time in our history. What are your thoughts? I am eager to hear what you think.”

I did not know the answer to this question as I have never seen this wording in a will myself so I posed the question to the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) mailing list.  I got two great answers and I asked for permission to post those answers here.

Michael Hait, CG stated, “He was more likely talking about grandchildren. I have seen wills with similar provisions, where the sons of daughters legally changed their names—including dropping their father’s surname—in order to receive the inheritance.  It is extremely rare that (1) slave children were acknowledged by their owner-fathers, or (2) slave children were named after their owners."

Drew Smith stated, “Googling the phrase "children named for me" turns up some wills in Pennsylvania in which this language is used: "if any remained to be divided among any grand children named for me" and "and the remainder to be divided equally among the grand-children named for me and my first wife". A North Carolina will has the language "to each of my other grandchildren named for me or my wife $1" and a Virginia will states "to grandchildren "named for me" $50 when each comes of age".  (So the latter one uses that phrase in quotations, too.)  So this seems to point to its use being primarily to reward heirs for naming their kids after the benefactor, and even the phrase in quotation marks doesn't seem to point to slave children. Perhaps it's in quotation marks to provide some leeway as to how the child's name was written?”

Thank you Michael and Drew!

Please visit:
Michael Hait, CG’s blog Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession
Drew Smith’s blog Rootsmithing: Genealogy, Methodology and Technology

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. I realize this is not directly connected to the thrust of your post (which I find fascinating), but the idea of the "happy slave" is a myth perpetuated by slaveholders and their families to justify their abuses. And I don't think I want to know what the "other" way to think about the enslavement of human beings is.

  2. Mr. Daft, if you study records, you will see a wide range of relationships, in what happened after the war. Yes, there were heartless, sadistic people. But there were also families witnessing each others marriages and deeds, co-signing loans, and former slave owners and slaves remaining right where they were, as neighbors, for generations. Some even named in wills and white fathers named on marriage licenses of nonwhite children, before and after 1862-1865. While the institution was horrific, the relationships between individuals varied.

  3. I have a very solid background in American history, thank you, and continued association is in no way evidence of good treatment. My point is simply this: even the best-treated slave was still a slave, and even the kindliest slave owner was still a slave owner.

  4. My comment is not slave-related but naming tradition related.

    My 3rd great-grandfather's will had some similar intent, meaning that only grandchildren named for him would received monies and siblings of those grandchildren would only receive money in the event of a named grandson's death. This excerpt (below) is taken from Joseph Evans' will dated 18 March 1867. He died on April 2, 1867 in the county of Oxford, Ontario, Canada.

    "I give and devise to my grandson's named as follows that is to say Joseph son of Connell Evans,
    Joseph the son of my daughter Jane, Joseph the son of my daughter Charlotte and Joseph the son my daughter Hannah the sum of two hundred dollars each to be paid to them without interest as they severally become the age of twenty one years by my executor hereinafter named but should any of my said grandson's die before receiving his or their portion then his or their portion is to be divided in equal portions between his or their brothers and sisters as they severally become the age of twenty one and all without interest."

    I thought this type of clause was specific to my family, especially since our family has always placed such high value on the Joseph name, but now I wonder if this was a practice during this time period?

  5. Bizarre! So maybe all of Joseph's children named a child after their father hoping to stay in his good graces. Apparently it worked :)

  6. At least 5 of his 7 children named sons for him and many of his great-grandchildren also bore his name. My brother is Joseph Evans decended in a unbroken line of Joseph Evans' from this man's second son - Joseph.

    But back to the intriguing situation above. Your post made me wonder about the possibility that this practice might more a common occurance during this time period. I searched the terms "named for me" and "will and testament" in a what was supposed to be a brief Google search attempt and the results produced enough initial results similar to my own to warrant further research on this matter.

    Examples: (7th para.) (8th para.) (1st para. under James Kear)


    From your reaction to my post, am I correct in thinking you have not seen this before?

  7. I have seen it but not to that extent. Some of the posters on the APG mailing list said that they have seen it in obvious terms like your example. Personally, I think it is a bit narcissistic to want all of your grandchildren named after you! I would also think it would be really confusing to have that many first cousins with the same name. I guess everyone would have had to have adopted nicknames. I know in the rural south most families lived near each other for generations. If everyone moved off it wouldn't be as bad I guess.

  8. I agree, very narcissistic. And, they all lived near each other for decades. Researching that time period is tricky for me. Most seemed to refer to each other by their middle names. I have hundreds of postcards containing family correspondence between my great-grandfather, grandfather and family - including those cousins. But the vital records often are Joseph records. Thank goodness it was mostly daughters the original Joseph had, resulting in different surnames for most of them.

    Thanks for your responses, I learn a great deal from your posts.


  9. Thanks so much, Cynthia. I am glad I don't have a family that has quite that many men of the same name!