A Headcount of Captured Slaves
Just two days into The Pearl's escape, the fugitives and the three shipmen were captured at Point Lookout on the southern tip of Maryland. The document, titled like an inventory record and riddled with checkmarks, ink blots, and smudges, evokes at once the need for order in what was to become social and political dynamite.
The first item listed is "Mary Dodson owned by J Y Young." Some questions may come to mind: Dodson? Why did a slave have a surname, and why was it not her owner's? As the document is read further, it can be seen that a majority of the slaves in fact have surnames--and none of them match their owners.
Though not popularly known, it wasn't wholly uncommon for slaves to have surnames before emancipation. Sometimes they named themselves after their main work, like "Smith" or "Sheperd." On large plantations there was a possibility several slaves had the same first name and needed a means to distinguish from one another. This could have been the case with Mary. Additionally, many slaves also took the surnames of previous owners or were assigned them, either by whites tracking their sale or by slaves themselves as a way to link them to their spouses and families. Surnames had the potential to become embedded and necessary identifiers for both slave and white communities. So, it can be safely ascertained that "Mary Dodson" was not originally owned by J Y Young, and that this is the surname of a previous owner.
Regardless of how a slave's surname came to be, it made for only more complications with "the peculiar institution." It implied belonging to someone, in two senses: at once as chattel, but almost as family. Slaveowners ostensibly used them only as markers, sort of like barcodes or clothing tags, but slaves used them as their best hope of a formal identity, to ensure connection to spouses and siblings as well as birthplaces and origins--sometimes even providing a limited sense of individuality and independence. While to many they may have been unremarkable labels concieved only to track a human being amongst other forms of livestock--John 1 and John 2 being virtually no different from John Roberts and John Smith--it ultimately become one of the few ways slave stories can at all be reconstructed.
Calley Pierce, Junior Researcher, OC History Lab 2016