The 2010 U.S. Census recorded 35,246 black Americans with Wells as their last name. That represented 20% of the total of 176,230 entries.
This article compares census numbers before and after the Civil War. We also look at historic African American people named Wells in the last three centuries.
We end with a review of early records of black military service in the United States.
Wells Before The Civil War
The 1850 census was the first to record all free members of households together. Before this, people who were not white were not named in the federal census.
In 1850, there was a box to enter color on the census. There were three categories: white, black, and mulatto. The third term is the language of the time, and I will use mixed in this article.
If you are researching your black Wells ancestors in census archives, be sure to check the two non-white categories. Do not assume that the people recording the information were always correct.
1850 Federal Census
There were 334 people named Wells who were recorded as black in the 1850 census. 89 were recorded as mixed.
Because they are in the main federal census, we know that they were free citizens.
There was a total of 22,346 free citizens named Wells that year. There would be one more census in 1860 before the Civil War.
After The Civil War
The 1870 census was the first survey after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. All African Americans were included.
Those who were omitted in 1850 and 1860 because they were enslaved were now recorded.
4,183 people named Wells were recorded in the 1870 census as black and 590 as mixed.
There was a total of 36,745 people with the name.
Wells In The 1900 And 1940 Census
The mixed category was dropped in 1900, so we just need to look at the black numbers this time.
The 1900 census recorded 9,384 people with the last name Wells as black within a total of 60,786 that year.
By the way, the mixed category returned in the 1910 and 1920 censuses. It was dropped again in 1930, but replaced with extra categories for colored and non-white in a way that seems confusing now.
This changed again in 1940 and we can simply focus on one black category.
The 1940 census recorded 12,981 people named Wells as black within a total of 93,705.
Historic Black Figures With The Wells Surname
Here are some notable African Americans in history with Wells as their last name.
Ida Bell Wells
- Born: 1862
- From: Holly Springs, Mississippi
- Died: 1931
Ida Bell Wells was born into slavery but was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation at an early age.
When her parents died from yellow fever, the sixteen-year-old Ida worked as a teacher to keep her siblings together.
An outspoken proponent of black and women’s rights, she sued the railroad company that had thrown her out of a first-class carriage.
While working as a teacher, Ida wrote newspaper articles under a penname that attacked Jim Crow laws. She co-founded a black newspaper in 1889.
After a friend was shot by a mob, Wells started writing strong editorials under her own name against lynching. White newspapers published threats against her that drummed up a white mob to destroy her newspaper’s office.
Wells moved to New York and continued to write detailed investigations of lynching. She was a massive influence in the growing realization amongst white citizens in northern states to what was going on in the South.
Here is the front cover of one of her pamphlets:
Wells traveled to Arkansas in the aftermath of Elaine Massacre when hundreds of black workers and local tenant farmers were killed. She secretly interviewed witnesses and published a pamphlet to expose the lies of the official accounts. Her work contributed to the freeing of twelve black men, including Ed Hicks, who were wrongfully sentenced to death for murder.
Ida B. Wells married a kindred spirit in the widower Ferdinand Barrett. Barnett was an attorney and a civil rights leader.
Wells worked with Mary Richardson Jones to found civic clubs for black women in Chicago. She co-founded the Colored Women’s League in 1892 with activists like Helen Appo Cook and Mary Church Terrell. She would later work with Madam CJ Walker.
- Born: 1906
- From: Austin, Texas
- Died: 1989
The baseball color line was firmly established in the late 19th century to bar black players from major and minor league baseball.
Several black leagues were formed with professional and semi-professional clubs. Some of the outstanding players were the best of their generation, regardless of color.
The color line was eventually broken by Jackie Robinson in 1945.
Willie James Wells was the greatest African American shortstop of his era. He started playing in the Negro National League when he was eighteen. He hit 27 home runs in one season and won a batting Triple Crown.
When he played in Mexico in the early 1940s, the admiring local fans called him El Diablo or the Devil. He played until he was 48 and also managed teams.
Willie Wells was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.
Wells In Black Military Records
Military records are a rich resource of for family history research. Here are examples of the Wells surname from three different military services:
- Buffalo soldiers
- Black civil war sailors
- Tuskegee airmen
Five regiments for black soldiers were formed during the Civil War. They were known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
Their records are part of the national archive of military monthly returns. The information includes the year and place of birth, where they enlisted, their occupation, and their height.
One of the earliest military entries for Wells was in 1872. James Wells was a Private in the Tenth Cavalry. He was stationed in 1872 at Fort Sill, Indian Territory.
One of the later entries was in 1915. Austin Wells was a Private in the Tenth Cavalry. The photo above is of soldiers of the Tenth just three years later.
You have to create an account on either website, but you do not need to pay for the Buffalo Soldiers archive.
Black Civil War Sailors
The National Parks Service has a free archive of African American sailors during the Civil War.
The information includes their age, height, rank, occupation, and where and when they enlisted. It also includes every ship that they served on.
You can search the database on the National Parks website.
One of the earliest entries for Wells was for Philip Wells from Island A, Ohio. He enlisted in 1863 at Erie when he was aged 37.
The record shows that Philip was assigned on September 1863 to the ship Benton.
His naval rank was Landsman.
“Landsman” was the lowest rank at the time and was given to recruits with little sea experience.
One of the later entries was for a sailor who enlisted at Newport in 1862. William was aged 19 and was from West River, Maryland.
He was assigned to the ship Constitution on November 1860.
His naval rank was also that of Landsman.
The Tuskegee Airmen were military personnel who served at the Tuskegee Army Airfield or related programs.
Nearly one thousand black pilots graduated from the Tuskegee Institute. They flew single-engine fighter planes or twin-engine bombers. 352 fought in combat.
Johnson Wells graduated from the Tuskegee Institute in June 1943. He qualified as a fighter pilot. Johnson was from Buffalo, New York.
Wendell D. Wells came from Washington, D.C.. He graduated in December 1943 as a bomber pilot.
You can find a full list of graduate pilots in our list of Tuskegee Airmen.