My understanding is that pre-American revolution New York state had free blacks and slaves, then during the war both sides offered freedom to those that fought. Eventually, in 1799 slavery was officially 'phased out' by those being born after the date and those becoming indentured servants while in many cases conditions remained the same until the mid-1820s or so.

My question is what was the practice of these individuals obtaining their Surname and how was it documented (i.e 'freedom paperwork', 'release from indentured servitude', etc) specifically in New York state (even more specifically outside of New York City, such as the Hudson Valley) as I realize conditions were different in different areas.

Such as was

  • Chosen for them
  • They chose
  • Did they automatically get the name of their employer / owner?
  • Other...?

and were there any 'guidelines or rules' for this?

I ask as in my research during this period and following it I see individuals appearing as African American on the census and other records, but the rest of the family in the area as well as its origins through today are mostly Caucasian except for the descendants of these individuals. I would like to determine the relationship in which they came about the name.

For example:

enter image description here

Kingston, New York there are Palatine Souser's from a German speaking region of Europe dating back until at least 1732 (and likely before), then in the 1850 Census two land owning African American Souser households appear ungrouped from other Souser's with the eldest having birth year of 1794. In that same census but far separated in pages are the Caucasian Souser's also owning land in that area. There are then various other African American Souser's that appear in newspaper articles and censuses through at least the 1930s in Saugerties, NY and New York City in parallel to the Caucasian Souser's as well as the African American line survives today.

The only indication of any Souser I have found to date of a slave in any household in any period or location is in the 1790 Census of a Souser household showed 1 slave of unknown gender or age (which I am embarrassed by) in a household of 4 whites. From what I can tell they Souser's of the period were middle class with being farmers, a mill worker, a tavern owner, and a constable. That head of household listed with a slave I believe died in 1808 and none of the individuals listed on the 1850 census are listed on the abstract of his will nor any record I have found to date, but it is very plausible the individuals listed in the 1850 census are descendants due to the 60 year difference of that 1 slave listed.

So I am looking for clues, guidelines, or at least establish theories on how the name was acquired to help guide further research rather than taking shots in the dark or resorting to more expensive genetic testing that may be inconclusive. I will add as far as I am aware at this time none were recorded as mulatto.

So again to clarify scope of what I am asking: What were the practices of the day, in the context of New York State, for African Americans to receive their surname / last name and how was it documented?

  • +1 but I think it would be good to include a working example of one such individual that you are trying to trace. That way one answer of a few paragraphs could be how that individual appears to have obtained his/her surname, while another could be more comprehensive. This is intended as a suggestion to try and open up your question to multiple answerers.
    – PolyGeo
    Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 22:59
  • @PolyGeo Example added.
    – CRSouser
    Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 4:41
  • 1
    In my opinion, asking about the general practices of the day is worthwhile, because we need to understand the context of what we find, but such a question is too broad, because it could be the topic of a book. So I have edited the question title and added formating to emphasize the part of the question that is about locating contemporary source documents that might hold information about name changes, and perhaps some clues about the broader question.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 1:59
  • 1
    The page for the PBS show Genealogy Roadshow at pbs.org has these pages with tips and links to resources written by genealogist Kenyatta D. Berry: Free People of Color and Slave Ancestral Research. I suspect that you may find a lot of resources that address the post-Civil War period, but not so many from the late 1700s/early 1800s. Frustrating, isn't it?
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 2:14
  • 1
    Please don't be afraid to try and provide an answer to your own question. It is perfectly acceptable and encouraged to do so. Brothers of my direct Chichester ancestors held slaves in British Guiana in the 1820s, and while it is not a chapter of our family history that I am proud of, I think it should not be forgotten. I have noticed that the surname Chichester appears to still be relatively common in Guyana and as far as I know the British Chichesters were gone by about 1840. It seems plausible to me that their surname remained by the mechanism(s) you seek.
    – PolyGeo
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 8:45

1 Answer 1


For the Hudson Valley, what records you might find depends on what laws were in effect at the time; many historical records are generated as a direct result of some statute requiring that the information be collected. See How can I determine what records are available in a particular locale? for a general checklist on searching for records, and other questions tagged for clues.

Fortunately, the NYG&B has already done a lot of the heavy lifting for you by compiling their new New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer. Judy G. Russell reviews the work in her post New help with Empire State research. You may be able to find a copy in a library near you by looking in WorldCat and typing your zip code into the locator.

Except for diaries and letters, you may not be able to find records which address this question directly. You may need to build up a case by indirect evidence, or by looking for analysis already done by other researchers (e.g. a search of academic papers on Google Scholar or a search of PERSI for publications specific to genealogy). The FamilySearch Wiki: African American Resources for New York has some information about lists of manumitted slaves, lists of published works, and several links to online resources for New York State.

Other Resources:

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.