Testing Inscoe’s Thesis with Contraband Camp Registers

Hilton Head Register November 1862

John Inscoe found, more than three decades ago, that nomenclature among slave communities during the slave era was rich and complicated. More often than not, enslaved people chose their own names, or, more to the point, slave mothers chose names for their children.

Nevertheless, chosen names were strongly influenced by European traditions or European names, as well as biblical names. Seldom, Inscoe found, would blacks seek to name their children after a master or mistress though this did happen sometimes.

On the other hand, Africanisms, according to Inscoe, day names or month names for example, were not uncommon. At the top of the word cloud above one can see the name “March,” and in the same record from which this cloud was created there are five other persons with this spring month as a name, as well as four Januarys, and three Julys. Inscoe noted that a person being so named does not necessarily suggest the person’s birth month. I have hypothesized that the months were chosen for symbolic reasons, January for example meaning first, July seventh or summer, or warmth. In the Hilton Head Register, there are seven month names represented, the last months of the year–September, October, November, and December conspicuously missing.

Day names may have served similar purpose related to numerology among other divining systems. The Hilton Register contains seven such names, three Mondays and four Fridays. The absence of days of the midweek would seem to suggest that Monday and Friday were chosen as beginning and ending, or first and last even while there may be some debate as to which days of the week these in fact are. Perhaps slaves avoided Sunday and Saturday as sabbath days closely associated with divinity.

The most common name in this register is the name William. I have no theory concerning this choice other than that it is a common European name, and slaves may indeed have often chosen names of masters, which is to say of powerful people. But, Inscoe explained, enslaved people interpreted these words in their own way. A name representing to the slave power is not the same as honoring the master though I can see this too as a way a slave might create power for him or herself.

Next to William in commonality is a list of biblical names–Abraham or Abram, Isaac, Thomas, John, James, Moses, Paul, Simon, Jacob. Inscoe did not provide a clear reason for these names but suggested that they were first given by slave owners, who may either have wanted to instill piety in their bondspeople or were being whimsical. As with other names, I tend to think as well that slaves, as they were exposed to Christian teaching, came to attach their own meanings to biblical names. An enslaved persons would have more reason to name an offspring Moses than would a slave owner.

Last are names like Patience, Hope, and Chance. This particular Hilton Head Register, of November 1862, contains only males, and there are two persons named Chance. Inscoe wrote that such names were more common in New England than they were in the American South. He believed that they were in a sense borrowed from whites but that among slaves they worked with an African belief that a name could shape a personality.

In a later post, I will compare the Hilton Head (Nov. 62) register with one for Beaufort, S.C. There are yet other registers for the state that will make for an even more interesting set of data.

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