Why Do African Americans Have Scottish Names?

A significant number of African Americans have surnames with Scottish origins. This article explores the historical reasons why.

I’ll start by explaining why black Americans don’t have African names. Then I’ll detail Scotland’s role in the slave trade, which is sometimes overlooked when compared to England.

This is the root of many Scottish names in African American communities. However, there are many other examples that have nothing to do with slavery. We’ll look at them all here.

How Identities Were Removed From Enslaved Americans

The trans-Atlantic slave trade transported a significant number of enslaved Africans to the southern colonies of North America, which later became the United States.

Upon arrival, the identities that the enslaved held in their home countries were systematically stripped away. They were given new names based on what their owners deemed more suitable or what was easier for people of European descent to pronounce.

Enslaved people in America typically did not have surnames. Instead, they were referred to by a first name or nickname. When there were many people with the same name on a plantation, they might be distinguished by an additional name from their occupation (like “Cook”).

Scotland And The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Scotland’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade is not as well-documented as England’s. But historical records show that it was significant. There were Scottish traders and financiers who were directly involved in the slave trade.

Many Scottish merchants based in cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh profited from slave-produced goods like tobacco, sugar, and cotton.

Scottish shipowners and captains participated in the infamous triangular trade, transporting enslaved Africans to the Americas and bringing slave-produced goods back to Europe.

Scottish Influence On American Plantations

Thousands of Scots migrated to the American South during the 17th and 18th centuries in search of economic opportunities. Some became plantation owners and consequently, slave owners.

Others were indentured servants. Some were able to work off their indenture, and subsequently acquire wealth, land, and slaves.

Scottish Surnames Among Slave Owners

You will find several Scottish surnames amongst the records of American slave owners.

Names like Campbell, MacDonald, Stewart, and McIntosh appear in the historical records of plantation owners. These all have Scottish origins.

The distribution of these names was not evenly spread across the states. Regions along the Atlantic coast and in the Appalachians saw more Scottish immigration and therefore had a higher prevalence of Scottish surnames.

Why Some Slaves Chose The Scottish Names Of Their Owners

Slavery was officially abolished in the United States with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.

This meant that formerly enslaved individuals were now free to select surnames for themselves and their families.

Some African Americans adopted the surnames of their former owners. It’s important to understand that this didn’t necessarily mean they were directly descended from those owners.

Abuse was tragically common during slavery, and it did result in mixed-race children who carried their fathers’ names. However, this wasn’t the only way (or even the primary way) in which African Americans came to have Scottish surnames.

The reasons for taking an owner’s name varied greatly.

For some, the adoption of a former owner’s surname could represent a form of resistance. As their identities had been stripped, they turned the tables in some way.

But it’s reasonable to assume that most newly freed black Americans weren’t thinking along those lines. Surviving in a hostile world brought other motivations.

Some needed to make a quick decision on a surname and chose the one they were most familiar with. They had other bigger decisions to make e.g. staying in place or moving north.

For some, choosing the owner’s surname was a matter of establishing their links to a region. These were names recognized by those in the surrounding area. This could be beneficial as the newly freed people sought work on farms and in towns.

Some may have wanted to provide a familiar name to forcibly separated family members who had been sold into other states or even escaped north on the Underground Railroad. A plantation owner’s name could trigger memories for others in future decades.

Scottish As Indentured Servants

When Scots migrated to American In the 17th and 18th centuries, many could not afford the price of the ticket to cross the Atlantic. To secure their passage, they entered into a contract of indentured servitude.

This means that they agreed to work for a specified period, typically between four and seven years.

Indentured servants were certainly not slaves. They had certain legal rights, and the servitude had time limits. However, they often lived and worked alongside enslaved African Americans.

In some cases, they formed relationships and had children together.

Descended From A Scottish Ancestor But Not Through Enslavement

Some African Americans have a Scottish ancestor for reasons that had nothing to do with slavery. People from different backgrounds and heritage simply met and nature took its course.

The genealogy website, Ancestry.com, ran a survey in 2022 that showed that over half of Americans don’t know the names of all their grandparents.

So, it’s not surprising that some African Americans had Scottish great-grandfathers who provided their surnames without the history of the name being handed down.

Examples Of Scottish Last Names In African American Families

This website has a series of articles that looks at the last names of African Americans since they were recorded in the census after Emancipation.

Here are some articles about names that originated in Scotland: