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In the 18th century, tobacco plantations became an economic staple in Virginia. Plantation owners were able to prosper off the fertile land, cultivated by exploiting unpaid labor. An effort is underway at Tuckahoe today to deal more candidly with the brutal institution of slavery that the Founding Fathers relied upon to build their homes and their wealth. The legal institution of human enslavement (primarily of Africans and African Americans) existed in the U.S. since before the birth of the nation in 1776 until passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865.
As with many large plantations, The Randolph’s of Tuckahoe relied on enslaved African-Americans and indentured servants for labor in the fields and chores of the household. William Randolph of Turkey Island (considered by some to be the beginning of the Randolph family here in America) came to Virginia sometime in the 1670’s. Due to cheap land and fortunate opportunities, William acquired a large amount of property during his lifetime (including the land of Tuckahoe).
Another way that an early settler could have acquired land was through the head-right system. This specified that if someone was willing to pay for a person’s passage by ship to America, they would receive a certain amount of land (usually 50 acres) in return. We know that William Randolph was responsible for bringing a number of indentured servants and African Americans here through this system- over 168 total. William Randolph’s will of 1709 made mention of several enslaved workers by name however it is unknown exactly how many there were at the time.
Tax records from the later in the 1780’s provide us with more insight on slavery at Tuckahoe under the Randolphs. During this period, Tuckahoe was owned by Colonel Thomas Mann Randolph who listed close to 200 enslaved workers by name (though it is not clear if all of them would have worked specifically at Tuckahoe as the Randolphs owned a vast amount of land). After his death in 1793, his estate, including his enslaved workers, was sold off. There were 118 workers listed (including 14 infants), many of whom would have been separated from their families and friends and sold to new owners.
Account books from Harriot Randolph around 1821 have provided additional glimpses of some of the enslaved workers that were here at the time. By this point, it appears there between 55-60 enslaved workers. The account book details various expenses of the house and the farm like food, furniture, and other household goods. Sprinkled throughout this book are instances of small payments (typically around 25 cents) made to various names thought to be some of the enslaved workers. During this period, it would not have been uncommon for an enslaved person to sell surplus food they had grown from their garden or handcrafted goods they had made. Once their assigned tasks were completed for the day, an enslaved worker may have also been given the opportunity to complete extra tasks for pay (though the amount was usually nominal as evidenced by this account book).
The Wight family acquired Tuckahoe around 1830. When Hezekiah Lord Wight died in 1837, he left the property including many of the enslaved workers to his son, Edwin. Through Hezekiah’s will, a number of enslaved workers were freed though the time frame varied wildly. Three workers were freed upon his death, others were freed by the end of the year 1839, and others were freed once they reached 30 years of age (which would have not been until the 1850’s and 60’s). Edwin seems to have continued this practice and was known to have freed at least one enslaved worker through his will in 1849.
An account list of the estate in 1840 shows 43 enslaved workers on the property and 1 free man. By 1850 when the property was sold to the Allen family, the number of workers had decreased to around 29. More details are known about the enslaved workers during the Allen period as we have numerous lists during the 1850’s with names, ages, shoe sizes, and occupation of many of the workers. The number of enslaved workers doubled during this decade as we see 65 workers on the list of 1859. The majority of the labor force would have been working out in the fields with only a handful of workers assigned to work inside the plantation house.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, a number of the freed families remained in the Goochland area. Some continued to work on the property as paid servants into the early 1900’s. Harriet (pictured below with her family) was one of the last to be born into slavery at Tuckahoe, and lived in the North Cabin along Plantation Street. These original quarters still stand on the property today.
Even after Emancipation, the passage of “Jim Crow” and other discriminatory laws and practices worked to deny African Americans full participation in the great American experiment.
Research is currently underway, digging into tax records, estate sales, sifting through newspaper ads and searching out personal recollections to uncover more of the untold stories of the enslaved people who labored here for so long. If you believe you could add to our telling of the entire story of Tuckahoe, please contact us at email@example.com
A note on terminology:
“Slave” is a noun, and as such is used to identify the person it refers to. “Enslaved” is an adjective that describes a condition, which is as a better way to talk about people who should be defined by more than their bondage.