Almost all slave mentions studied from original documents in Hancock County MS show only one name – neither first nor last, simply one. The acquisition of last names by freed slaves was an important post Civil War transition. Whether there was an official program of renaming, or whether and when choices were made and recorded have not been found. Still, it can be observed that the changes took form in patterns.
The source of information for these observations was for the most part the census of 1870, and to a lesser degree, the census of 1880. While a presumption is made that those listed under “Race” are former slaves, it should be considered that there were no longer any identifications as “Free Persons of Color.”
Names and descriptions assembled from early slave-day documents such as estate inventories and property transfers were then compared to census data.
Surnames Chosen after Emancipation
As was common in other areas, in Hancock County a common choice was to assume the name of a former owner. However, it has not always been possible to relate the chosen surname to a former slave’s own owner.
Some of the more prominent slave owner/dealers were the following:
Carver, Cowand, Johnson, Favre Amaker, Claiborne, DeBlieux, Fayard, Casanova, Cuevas, Johnston, Benois, Mitchell, Bell, Poitevent, Mitchell, Russ, Carroll, Otis, Daniels, Brown, Jordan, Dawsey, Peterson, Peters, Henry, Nicaise, Wheat, Wingate, Farr, Bird, Varnado.
Another obvious choice for some was to take the name of an important person, such as Jefferson, Jackson, Washington. Even the name Lee shows up in Hancock, though it is doubtful that the former commander of the Army of Northern Virginia was the person in mind.
There were also odd names, chosen perhaps for their potential symbolism: Worship, Mars, Whig, King, Christmas, President, and Absalom.
A pattern which arose to the surprise of this writer but seems to stand up to investigation was the choice of transforming the former slave name to that of the surname, which then allowed for an assumption of a new first name. Those slave names which became last names that can be clearly demonstrated were Sam, Isaac, John, Moses, Monday, Martha, and Henry.
Though having little to do with names, other patterns have also become apparent. The most important of these involves a comparison of population numbers then and now. According to the latest statistics available, Hancock County in 2014 had a total population of 45,949. Of that number, only 8.4% are identified as “Black or African American alone” as compared to 37.5% statewide in Mississippi. Another category is “Two or More Races” but that percentage is only 2.0, and affects the proportions but little if at all.
By comparison, the total population in the 1870 census was approximately 4,200 persons, of which 1,094 were listed as “Bk” or “Mul.” That equated to 26%, substantially higher than present-day ratios.
Incidentally, far more people were identified as “Black” compared to those listed as “Mulatto.”
While population numbers have increased in the county in the past 145 years, the ratio of African Americans has substantially declined. In short, there has been a large exodus of slave descendants from Hancock.
Location of population groups is another pattern. It is evident at a glance that some sections of the census contained proportionally high Blacks and Mulattos. Standing out was Pearlington, with 56% African Americans. While it might be assumed that such included the plantations of the Claiborne area, those seem to be in yet again another section, included under “Shieldsboro.”
By comparison, Gainesville was largely a white community. However, one Gainesville group numbering 80 persons were identified as “Ind,” i.e., Indian. Such pockets of people are also observable among those who were presumably former slaves. It must be considered, however, that the census taker might have chosen to interview related groups together, without regard to their geography.