Southern African-American 19th Century naming conventions

Understanding 19th and early 20th Century naming conventions – the structure and method of naming children – can provide clues about your ancestors. This is an area of research I’m still getting up to speed on, especially Southern naming conventions during these time periods.

19th and early 20th Century naming conventions amongst our white Sheffey ancestors is pretty straightforward. Women’s maiden names tend to be used as middle names for their children. So a Southern woman with the maiden name of Hume will tend to have children bearing the middle name Hume.  It’s pretty simple and straightforward. If I come across a white Sheffey in the records for the first time, and he or she has a middle name that comes from an ancestor’s maiden name, I can immediately place him or her within a certain family line.

Southern African-American naming conventions can take a couple of different forms, it would seem.

Within certain family groups, certain male or female names seem to be used exclusively within a specific family line.  Take the name Venus, for example.  There is only one line of Joseys in North Carolina where the name Venus appears through the generations.  Recently, when I came across a Venus Josey from North Carolina in the records, without the names of her parents, I immediately knew which branch of the North Carolina Josey family she belonged to.  While I haven’t been able to specifically find her place within that line, there is only one line she could have come from.

Another example is the name Dred, which is a name that originates with Dred Seals and has been passed down through one line of the Virginian Richardson family and one line of the Seals family. In the future, should I come across either a Dread Seals or a Dred Richardson, I’ll know exactly what family branch they belong to.

Daniel Sheffey is a distinctive marker within my own immediate ancestral  line. With one or two exceptions, it has been largely been used by my father’s Sheffey family line.

I’ve come across instances where maiden names are used as middle names.  However, this seems to be an uncommon practice – at least within my family.

On the Roane side of the family, in the early 19th century, Christian Names like Braxton, Baylor, Wyatt and Taliaferro relate to white slave owning families who maried into or had relations with the white Roane family.  The use of their surnames by my African-American ancestors and kin was either a mark of respect, a sign of previous ownership or a blood relation in an earlier generation.

There doesn’t seem to be a consistent, ‘hard and fast’ rule when it comes to naming children amongst my African-American ancestorys and relations.  There is a rich mix of naming conventions.  Perhaps this is due to regional variances, perhaps it’s a residual memory of a tribal practice. Or perhaps, culturally, it just wasn’t important to them.

There are more subtle name implications.  In pre-Civil War family history, within the Sheffeys and Roanes, names used in the white family are mirrored in the African-American family.  With mulatto ancestors, this can prove to be a goldmine. I’ll use my Roane ancestors as an illustration.  One of the earliest Roane ancestors I’ve traced the family line back to is George Henry Roane (b. 1805). The name ‘Henry’ appears as middle name exclusively through his line. What makes this interesting is the renowned Judge, Spencer Roane, was married to Anne Henry, the daughter of Patrick Henry. The name ‘Henry’ is used amongst their own children. While I have as yet to find details of George Henry Roane’s parents, this use of the name “Henry” as a middle name acts as a marker.  And whilst I continue to look for records to verify a hunch, my hunch is he is related by blood to either Spencer Roane, who owned slaves, or one of Spence Roane’s sons. The naming conventions used just seem too strong to be coincidental or mere mirroring.

While I’ve made a start with getting to grips with old Southern African-American naming conventions, this is an area I need to do more research.  It’s like looking into one of those puzzle pictures with a hidden image.  I know it’s there, and I can just grasp glimpses of something…but the full picture hasn’t come into view yet.  So if you’re an expert n this area, I’d love to hear from you.

7 thoughts on “Southern African-American 19th Century naming conventions

  1. I would be very interested in knowing where you got your information about Dred Richardson.

    1. Hi Monique. Most of what I know about Dred has come from a distant Richardson relation via She is a direct descendant of Dred. Are you a descendant as well?

  2. Venus Josey of Rich Square, North Carolina, was mentioned in one of your comments. I learned about 15 years ago that I am a descendant of Venus. She was my great grandmother or the mother of my grandfather.

    1. Hi Dorna. Thank you for the comment. And best wishes for the holidays. She was my great grandmother’s grandmother. Your family wouldn’t have any information about her? All I have is her name. I’d love to learn more about her and her children. My email is anamericanincornwall(at)gmail(dot)com Brian

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