This is a not-so-studied part of American history dating back to the days of Thomas Jefferson.


The name is originally Italian and means “iron-cutter.” It can be traced back to a Richard Taliaferro, who was an architect who designed the house of Williamsburg burgess, George Wythe, upon marrying his daughter Elizabeth Taliaferro. Wythe was quite interested in the Taliaferro surname. Since he was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and an instructor to Thomas Jefferson, he requested assistance from Jefferson to investigate where the name actually came from. After having a friend conduct research in Tuscany, he found that there were two families who had that name. Jefferson would then sketch the coat-of-arms that was described to him.


Over time, the pronunciation of the family name supposedly evolved from its original pronunciation to [taw-lih-vuhr]. Considering how the American colonies were based off the British Empire, therefore the English language would become the linguistic marker of that era. So, more likely than not, there would have been an effort to Anglicize the name Taliaferro to sound “Americanized.”

As for well-known descendants, I have noticed that there are variations, such as the Taliaferro name being used by white Americans, such as Mabel Taliaferro and Glenn Close (who comes from the Taliaferro branch on her father’s maternal side), and the Tolliver name used by African-Americans, such as NBA player Anthony Tolliver and actress Melba Tolliver. Of course, it has never been stated that Richard Taliaferro owned slaves, though there is the strong likelihood that it is the case, and there was divergence between the Taliaferro and the Tolliver branches as time passed.

I would very much like to see research being done in this field, in how race could have played a role in the actual division of an entire family. What is also of particular interest is how the name Tolliver itself can represent a name that is evidence of a linguistic negotiation with an English-speaking colony. There would have been many interactions with the population that would have made the pronunciation evolve from Taliaferro to Tolliver.

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