Recall Their Names: The Personal Identity of Enslaved South Carolinians
The enslaved people of early South Carolina bore a variety of names, many of which were not of their own choosing. Combing through documents from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we find a robust record of the personal names applied to many generations of people held in legal bondage. Some are familiar and still in use, while others now seem strange and repugnant. By sampling this body of names, we can discern trends and traditions that help us understand the personal identities of the men and women who once formed the state’s enslaved majority.
In nearly every day of my professional life over the past two decades, I’ve encountered the names of enslaved people while reading through various historical documents from South Carolina’s past. Because the practice of slavery commenced with the founding of the Carolina colony, and because enslaved people formed a majority of the population here by 1708, references to named enslaved people can be found in virtually every collection of records created in South Carolina before the arrival of general emancipation in 1865. You’ll find them mentioned in surviving collections of newspapers, legislative journals, court records, property conveyances, mortgages, probate records, banking records, military records, maritime records, municipal records, business records, church records, and, of course, personal papers like letters and diaries. Regardless of the topic one might be researching, the presence of enslaved people is woven throughout the documentary fabric of South Carolina history.
As an obsessive reader of primary source materials, I’m frequently distracted by the names of the enslaved people that I encounter in my work. Some names are plain and familiar, like Mary and Jack, while others like Quaqua and Zimbo are more “exotic.” Some names, like Dumpy, evoke a feeling of pity for a long-lost personality, while names like Cupid and Hero inspire wonder. I’ve never attempted to compile a systematic, authoritative list of such names because there are just so many—literally hundreds of thousands of individuals held in legal bondage in South Carolina over a period of nearly 195 years. I have, however, noticed that the names recorded in various documents reveal patterns and trends that merit our attention. Whether you’re writing a novel or a play about life in early South Carolina, or researching a particular aspect of the eighteenth- or nineteenth-century culture, or tracing your family tree in the Palmetto State, I think it’s helpful to have a broader knowledge of naming practices and conventions in use during the era of legal slavery.
Before we attempt to describe and categorize the names applied to enslaved people in our past, let’s cut through the mountain of evidence and acknowledge a dark truth buried at the heart of this topic. The name carried by an enslaved person in early South Carolina was more than just a marker of personal identity. In many cases, it was also badge of submission or resistance. Most enslaved people living in early South Carolina bore names assigned to them by people exerting control over their respective lives. Although more subtle than the use of physical violence and intimidation, the act of erasing and replacing a person’s identity is an effective means of breaking the resistance of captive humans. Remember the character “Number Six” from the 1967 sci-fi series, The Prisoner? The protagonist was kidnapped, taken to a new location, and re-named. “I am not a number,” he shouted, “I am a free man!”
Millions of Americans heard this message loud and clear in Alex Haley’s ground-breaking 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of An American Family, and in the 1977 television miniseries and the 2016 remake. Haley’s African protagonist, Kunta Kinte, was enslaved in Virginia and refused to abandon his native identity. The man who claimed to own his body told Kunta that his new name was Toby, but the African man ignored him. After being chained to a post and whipped mercilessly, Kunta still refused to simply say his new name out loud. He could not physically escape, but he would not let his identity be erased.
Not every African captive who came to South Carolina and the other New World colonies resisted as strenuously as the fictional Kunta Kinte, of course, but the point can be applied generally. The names of enslaved people found among various historical records are the products of a process of dialog and negotiation between persons asserting dominance and others being forced to submit. That process could be brief and relatively painless or it could be protracted and violent. Regardless of its duration, it commenced at the port of Charleston when newly-arrived Africans were initially sold into slavery here.
Some unknown number of the African captives brought to early South Carolina refuted their new identities and attempted to assert their original African or “country” names. For the most part, we know of such resistance only through a handful of documents such as newspaper advertisements for runaways. In 1748, for example, Daniel Bourget of Charleston advertised in the South-Carolina Gazette for the return of two “Angola Negro men,” one named Moses, but his “country name Monvigo,” the other named Sampson, “his country name Gomo.” Such runaway notices provide a clue to unrecorded negotiations that went poorly for the African captives. Like the fictional Kunta Kinte, Monvigo and Gomo asserted their desire to remain free and to retain their African identities.
Hundreds of similar examples of African resistance can be found in South Carolina’s early newspapers, but I’ll mention just a few more to illustrate the point. In 1753, Henry Laurens advertised for a runaway “new negro man (of the Mindinga [sic] country).” Laurens had assigned the name “John” to the African man, but he acknowledged that John “will more readily answer to the name of Footabea, which he went by in his own country.” Similarly, Arthur Bull advertised in 1755 for the return of “a middle sized, middle aged negro fellow, named London, but his country name is Appee.”
Although white slave owners might have recognized that Africans generally wished to retain their original names, most disapproved of the idea and insisted on their right to define their new identity. When a fugitive “new” African woman was captured and lodged in Charleston’s Work House in 1765, for example, the warden interrogated her in order to identify her legal owner. She didn’t know the name of the man who had purchased her at auction, or much English at all, but she remembered the name he had assigned to her. The master of the Work House then published a notice advertising the woman’s presence in his custody: “The wench’s country name is Camba, but her proper name [is] Tyra.”
In this struggle to assign, supplant, and assert identity, repeated millions of times in the various American colonies, the will of the African captive occasionally prevailed. West African names such as Binah, Cudjo, Quash, and many others appear in relatively small numbers among the surviving records in eighteenth-century South Carolina as the accepted and acknowledged names of enslaved people. This fact suggests that at least some slave owners were apparently content to allow their imported chattel servants to retain their African names, or perhaps conceded defeat in their efforts to force the adoption of a replacement name.
The struggle for asserting and defining personal identity continued long after the acculturation of those who arrived directly from Africa. Consider this difficult question: How much choice did an enslaved mother have regarding the names of her own children? If she named her newborn child Quami, for example, but her white owner scoffed at the African name and called the boy Henry, which name would be recorded among the written records of the master’s household—or when he chose to sell the boy he called Henry? The white authorities recording the details of such transactions would most likely ignore mother’s voice and write the name Henry in the paperwork we see today.
Questions and negotiations of this sort must have reverberated within Charleston townhouses and rural plantations from the early colonial period down through subsequent generations to the spring of 1865. The frequency of African names in South Carolina records declined in the decades after the American Revolution, however. The Palmetto State briefly reopened the trans-Atlantic slave trade between the summer of 1783 and the spring of 1787, after which time the number of native-born Africans in the state gradually diminished. The brief and final re-opening of the trans-Atlantic slave trade between January 1804 and December 1807 brought another influx of Africans to Charleston, but other circumstances mitigated their local impact. Many of the people imported through this port in the early nineteenth century were immediately taken to westward plantations, far beyond South Carolina. In addition, the legal and cultural mechanisms for controlling the enslaved population were much stronger in the early 1800s than they had been a century earlier. Based on my anecdotal observations of records and newspapers of Antebellum South Carolina, it appears that fewer of the African natives who arrived at the turn of the nineteenth century and remained here succeeded in preserving their “country names.”
In light of such circumstances, therefore, a list of the names of enslaved people who lived in early South Carolina represents more than just a list of names. It’s also a sort of unquantifiable record of submission and resistance. Without more detailed evidence, we have to conclude that some people adopted their new names with relatively little resistance while other apparently succeeded in preserving their African names. Every individual case was unique, of course, and was shaped by the personalities in question. We’ll never know how many people lived with multiple names—one used by the white masters, and one or more used privately among family and friends. Because the system of slavery generally denied enslaved people access to education and the tools to record their own stories in their own words, we have only their legally-recognized names written among documents created by and for the dominant white minority.
One could fill volumes exploring the philosophical and psychological components of this topic, but I’ll leave that work to others. It’s time to name names. I don’t claim to be a linguistic expert, and it’s not my intention to construct a comprehensive lexicon or taxonomy. Rather, I want to share a few conclusions and point you in the right direction if you’d like to pursue this topic farther. Having spent many years turning thousands of pages of archival records, I’ve compiled a non-systematic, non-quantitative collection of common and unusual names of enslaved people who lived in South Carolina before the end of slavery in 1865. Based on my own experiences and observations, I’ve divided my collection of names into seven categories that I believe encompass the gamut of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slave nomenclature with reasonable accuracy.
1. “Country” Names:
The people brought by force from the African continent to the Americas and to South Carolina represented a large diversity of cultural groups who spoke a number of different languages. Most but not all of them spoke a tongue included within the large Niger-Congo language family that dominates the west coast of Africa, but a few examples of East African names can be found in early South Carolina records as well. The blending and distillation of these various tongues and personal names on this shore led to the rise of what we now call the Gullah language.
Perusing the records of early South Carolina, we find distinctly African names such as Arrah (sometimes rendered as Arrow), Dumby, Gola, Gomby, Guinea, Mimba, Mimbo, Minta, Minty, Noko, Renty, Rhina, Sambo, Soanon (a Malagasy name from Madagascar), Tenah, Wally, Yamma, Zamie, Zimba, Zimbo, Zinga, and many others, in a great variety of spellings.
A number of cultural groups in West Africa followed a tradition of naming children after the day of the week on which they were born. These weekday names are different in the various African languages, including Akan, Hausa, and Yoruba, for example, but we can identify the following temporal names (with a variety of spellings) in the early records of South Carolina: Quash, Quashey, Quasheba (Sunday), Cudjoe, Quajo, Juba (Monday), Quabena, Bena, Binah (Tuesday), Quaco, Cooba (Wednesday), Qua, Aba (Thursday), Kofi, Cuffee (Friday), Quamina, Quamino, Quame (Saturday).
In contrast to these predominantly West African names, I’ve personally seen fewer names of undoubted Arabic or Islamic origin in my own research. Names like Farah, Fatima, Mahomet, and Maram definitely appear among surviving records of early South Carolina, but there are probably other Arabic and East African names among our historical records that I simply haven’t recognized.
2. “Christian” or Anglicized European Names:
It’s very difficult to determine the criteria used by white European settlers to choose certain names for enslaved Africans in early America, but familiarity seems a reasonable candidate. Most of the early colonists to this area were of English extraction and Protestant persuasion, so it seems natural to that they would choose names drawn from familiar cultural traditions. Among the surviving records of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century South Carolina, we find names such “Christian” or Anglicized European names as Abigail, Affy, Amanda, Amy, Andrew, Ann, Archie, Beck, Bella, Ben, Bess, Betty, Billy, Bob, Bridget, Cate, Charles, Charlie, Charlotte, Dick, Doll, Dolly, Eliza, Elsey, Fanny, Frank, George, Harry, Harriet, Jack, James, Jane, Jenny, Jemmy, Jockey, Joe, Johnny, Judy, Juggy, Kitt, Kitty, Larry, Lindy, Lizzy, Louis, Lucy, Mary, Marianne, Miley, Molly, Morris, Nancy, Nanny, Ned, Nelly, Patty, Peggy, Peter, Polly, Prissy, Pussy, Retta, Rhody, Robin, Rose, Sam, Sancho, Sandy, Sibby, Sue, Sukey, Toby, Tom, Tommy, Tony, Violet, Will, and many others.
3. Geographic Place Names:
As a sort of corollary to the preponderance of “familiar” names derived from Anglo-European culture, slave owners in early South Carolina and other American colonies frequently applied geographic place names to enslaved people. In the early generations of the colonial period, such names often reflected the geographic origins of the slave owner, or places associated with their business or their own family history. In later years, some place names were probably applied or repeated because they had become traditional or personal favorites. In my personal experience, it appears that these geographic names were always, or at least nearly always, applied to enslaved men and boys. Among the state’s early records, we find such place names as Aberdeen, Africa, Antigua, Antrim, Bath, Bedlam, Belfast, Boston, Bristol, Cambridge, Carolina, Chelsea, Chester, Cork, Derry, Dorset, Dublin, Edinburgh, Essex, Exeter, Glasgow, Greenwich, Halifax, Hampshire, Hanover, Kent, Kensington, Kingston, Limerick, Lisbon, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Maryland, Norfolk, Oxford, Rochester, Salisbury, Shillelagh, Stepney, Tipperary, Venice, Virginia, Waterford, Windsor, York, and many others.
4. Temporal Names:
This category contains but a small pool of names, but it’s significant for two reasons. First, it echoes or perhaps imitates the African tradition of naming individuals after the day of the week on which they were born. Second, personal names derived from the temporal vocabulary of the English languages appear frequently in the surviving records of early South Carolina, from the earliest days of slavery through the 1860s. Like the geographic place names, it appears that they were usually applied to men and boys. Among the state’s historic records, we find Christmas, Easter, Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, January, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, and December.
5. Hebrew Biblical Names:
Many of the most commonly-used slave-names in early South Carolina pre-date the era of early-modern European culture. Although familiar to English colonists, these names sprang from an older tradition rooted in the Hebrew Bible, which Christians commonly call the “Old Testament.” If you’re perusing the records of early South Carolina, you’re sure to find Biblical names such as Aaron, Abraham (sometimes shortened to Abram or Bram), Adam, Cain, Dinah, Esau, Goliah (instead of Goliath), Hagar, Hannah, Isaac, Ishmael, Israel, Job, Jacob, Joseph, Leah, Marah, Maria, Mariah, Miriam, Moses, Nebuchadnezzar, Noah, Rebecca, Ruth, Sampson, Samuel, Sarah, Simeon, Simon, Tamar, and a few others.
It might be tempting to conclude that enslaved people received Hebrew and Christian names after they had adopted one of those religions, but that wasn’t always the case. The sparse records of enslaved people from the earliest days of South Carolina demonstrate the frequent use of Judeo-Christian names. Runaway slave advertisements published in the decades before the American Revolution and immediately after the reopening of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, 1804–1808, demonstrate that many recently-arrived Africans who spoke little or no English received Hebrew and Christian names. It seems improbable that such recently-enslaved people quickly adopted a new religion, and more likely that their new owners gave them familiar Anglicized names in an effort to erase part of their African identity and jump-start their acculturation into South Carolina society.
6. Classical Greek and Latin Names:
European interest in the literature and culture of ancient Greece and Rome blossomed in the early eighteenth century, during South Carolina’s colonial period. Knowledge of that cultural phenomenon is reflected in the profusion of “Classical” Greek and Latin names applied to enslaved people here and in other American colonies. A sub-set of these “Classical” personal names includes a significant number drawn from the mythological stories recorded in the literature of ancient Greece and Rome.
For Anglo-American settlers, the act of assigning such names to people of African descent was a way of marking them as different and separate from the ruling minority. Members of the Carolina gentry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not give their children names like Zeus or Aphrodite, but they did not hesitate to apply such names to people they viewed as chattel property. The use of such “Classical” Greco-Roman names persisted from the beginning of the Carolina Colony to the end of slavery in 1865, but their frequency was definitely higher in the eighteenth century than in later years.
Among the surviving archival records of early South Carolina, we find many people with such names as Achilles, Adonis, Agrippa, Ajax, Amoretta, Apollo, Atticus, Bacchus, Belinda, Brutus, Caesar, Cassandra, Cassius, Cato, Celia, Chloe, Clarinda, Cleopatra (or Cleo), Cupid, Cyrus, Damon, Daphne, Delia, Diana, Dido, Dorcas, Flora, Hannibal, Hebe, Hector, Hercules, Hero, Juno, Jupiter, Leander (sometimes misspelled Lander), Lesbia, Lucinda (or Cinda), Lucrecia (or Cretia), Linus (usually misspelled Limus), Lysander, Marcus, Mars, Melinda, Melissa, Mercury, Monimia, Neptune, Nero, Paris, Philander, Phoebe, Phyllis, Pluto, Polydore, Pompey, Primus, Priscilla, Remus, Romulus, Roxanne, Sabina, Sabrina, Sappho, Scipio, Serena, Statira (frequently misspelled Satira, and often shortened to Tyra), Saturn, Strephon, Sylvia, Syphax, Titus, Venus, and more.
7. Miscellaneous Names:
As a final, catch-all category, I’ll mention some of more unusual and intriguing names that appear in the early records of South Carolina. Some of these names might tell us something about the long-forgotten individuals who bore these interesting names, while others leave us wondering what inspired their creation. But enough of my commentary, let the names speak for themselves. The regal names Prince, Queen, and King, were always popular. I detect a bit of moral irony in calling enslaved people by such names as Charity, Faith, Farewell, Fortune, Grace, Hope, Patience, and Plenty. Some names might reveal a bit of the bearer’s personality or character, such as Booby, Handy, Lawyer, Night, Pretty, Sharper, Smart, Smiley, and Spry. A number of martial names were applied to people who were not in military service, like Brigadier, Captain, Drummer, Major, Marshal, Sergeant, and Trumpeter. Similarly, nautical names like Boatswain (pronounced “Bosun”), Ketch, and Pilot might or might not be applied to someone in the maritime trade. Abstract names like Brass, Rock, and Luck, might represent truncations of longer names or might have been inspired by some long-lost aspect of their life experience.
The personal name “Hardtime” or “Hardtimes” (usually spelled as one word) is, in my opinion, one of the most fitting names to express the experience of slavery in early South Carolina. It is an unusual name, to be sure, but it appears more frequently among the state’s early records than you might think. We’ll never know what inspired white slave owners to apply such a name, and we can only imagine why an enslaved mother would have called her child Hardtimes. The rationale behind other names is equally obscure. The name “Fortimore” appears many times along surviving records with various spellings, and I believe it’s a British name similar to Mortimer. Among the estate of one Lowcountry planter in 1783, however, we find an enslaved man named Forty and his wife, “Forty more.” Their stories are now lost, unfortunately, as is the narrative of the man name named “Sugar Candy” who ran away from his Charleston home in the spring of 1738.
Astute readers will have noticed that my discussion of personal names applied to enslaved people in early South Carolina has yet to mention people of Native American ancestry. The early settlers of his colony did enslave some of the indigenous people of the Lowcountry and in what we now call coastal Georgia and Florida, but records of the individuals caught in that process are now very sparse. In my own experience of perusing historical records from the early days of this colony, I haven’t personally noticed any names that suggest an Amerindian origin. There is some scholarly debate surrounding the fairly common name Mingo, however. It definitely appears among some Amerindian people, but Mingo also appears in West Africa and, in some cases of enslaved Americans, it appears to represent a truncation of the Spanish word Domingo, meaning Sunday. In short, the naming practices and conventions used by early South Carolinians were applied to enslaved people in general, with little or no regard to their ethnic or cultural background.
Today’s program has focused on personal or given names. In a future program, we’ll explore the family names or surnames adopted by enslaved people in early South Carolina, both during the era of slavery and after the general emancipation of 1865. The experiences and contributions of those unfree people form an important part of South Carolina’s long and diverse history. Few details about their respective lives can now be found within the vast body of surviving documents, but, at the very least, we can recall and say their names.
For Further Reading
One of the most voluminous and valuable sources of enslaved names in South Carolina is our rich collection of historic probate records—including wills and estate inventories—that survive from the late 1600s to the early 1860s. These record frequently list the names, monetary values, and sometimes family relationships of the enslaved people belonging to the estates of deceased individuals. These inventories include both enslaved people residing on rural plantations as well as enslaved people working in the shops and households of Charleston and other urban centers. You can find the original probate manuscripts and microfilm at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History in Columbia. Typescript copies of this material, created in the 1930s as a part of a Federal work project, can be found in the South Carolina History Room at CCPL. Additionally, the subscription website Fold3.com has digitized the microfilm of South Carolina’s early estate inventories and indexed every name found in those documents.
Because enslaved people represented chattel property, the free people who bought, sold, and mortgaged such human property in early South Carolina usually (but not always) registered the transaction with the Secretary of State. The so-called “Miscellaneous Records” of the Secretary of State, now held at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History in Columbia, include many thousands of documents recording the sales and mortgages of human beings. This vast but incomplete collection spans from the turn of the eighteenth century to the 1860s. For information about enslaved people, the “Main Series” (Series S213003) of Miscellaneous Records contains a large number of bills of sale from the 1730s onward. There is also a separate collection of bills of sale, 1843–1872 (Series S213050). A robust collection of sixty-four volumes of chattel mortgages (Series S213030) contains many thousands of names of enslaved South Carolinians. Much, but certainly not all, of this material has been indexed in the archive's online database: http://www.archivesindex.sc.gov.
The newspapers of early South Carolina, which commenced publication in Charleston in 1732, regularly included advertisements for enslaved people who had run away from their owners. These published contemporary descriptions represent at least twenty thousand individuals who ran away before the year 1865, and provide unique and valuable information about the identity of obscure enslaved people. CCPL’s South Carolina Room holds microfilm of Charleston’s historic newspapers, and the library provides access to an online database containing searchable digital version of the local newspapers from 1783 to the very recent past.
Boskin, Joseph. Sambo: The Rise & Demise of an American Jester. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Brown, Thomas and Leah Sims. Fugitive Slave Advertisements in the City Gazette, Charleston, South Carolina, 1787–1797. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2015.
Cody, Cheryl Ann. “There Was No Absalom’ on the Ball Plantations: Slave Naming Practices in the South Carolina Low Country, 1720–1865.” American Historical Review 92 (June 1987): 563–96.
Cohen, Hennig. “Slave Names in Colonial South Carolina.” American Speech 28 (1952): 102–7.
Gomes, Michael A. Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Gutman, Herbert. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925. New York: Vintage Books, 1976.
Handler, Jerome S. and JoAnn Jacoby. “Slave Names and Naming in Barbados, 1650–1830.” William and Mary Quarterly 53 (October 1996): 685–728.
Inscoe, John C. “Carolina Slave Names: An Index to Acculturation.” Journal of Southern History 49 (November 1983): 527–54.
Morgan, Philip D. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-century Chesapeake & Lowcountry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Windley, Lathan A. Runaway Slave Advertisements: A Documentary History from the 1730s to 1790. Volume 3: South Carolina. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983.
 South Carolina Gazette, 11–18 April 1748.
 South Carolina Gazette, 3 September 1753.
 South Carolina Gazette, 17–24 July 1755.
 South Carolina Gazette, 3–10 August 1765. “Tyra” was a common truncation of the name Statira.
 Appraisement and division of the estate of Thomas Hartley, 5 May 1783, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Inventory Book A (1783–1787), page 37.
 South Carolina Gazette, 18 May 1738.