One hundred and sixty-six years ago today, Joseph Allen wrote out an account of the enslaved workers here at Tuckahoe. Lists like this and other farm records help give us clues as to what life was like on the property during this time.
The Allen family had purchased Tuckahoe along with the enslaved workers in 1850 from the Wight family. At that time, there were 29 enslaved workers recorded. On March 1, 1856, another account was taken. Now, we see almost 60 names listed. With the enslaved population doubling during this time, it would stand to reason that the plantation was considered financially successful and that the Allens had the resources to be able to support more enslaved workers. But based on notes within the account, we have to wonder if this was actually the case.
Typically, an enslaved worker was allotted one pair of shoes and one blanket during the year. But on this account, we can see that not every worker was listed as having received a blanket (especially younger children who might have needed it the most). Mahala Boyd, who was an enslaved houseworker, had a family of ten at this time (likely living in the South Cabin along Plantation Street). This large family of several generations was noted as having five blankets. Why was that? Did the others already have blankets? Or was there some sort of shortage of supplies? At this point, it is unclear.
Within the Allen records, we also see how the land was being used at that time and consequently, what kinds of labor many of the field workers would have been doing. In early colonial Virginia, tobacco would have been the major cash crop but by the time the Allens owned the property, other crops like corn and wheat were being grown more. This account even notes that it took about 156 barrels of corn per year for the plantation and between 7,000-8,000 pounds of bacon. These two food items would have been key components of the customary diet of the enslaved here. Yet the weekly rations they were given would not have been enough to sustain the strenuous labor that was required of them and they likely would have supplemented their diet with fish from the nearby James River, small game they could trap from the wooded areas, and fresh vegetables grown in small plots near their living quarters.
As there was clearly a lot of corn grown here on the property, it is very possible that there was the occasional “corn shucking festival” at Tuckahoe as well. The process of harvesting corn was very laborious and sometimes plantation owners would have these festivals where they invited other enslaved workers from the area to come and shuck the corn. Once the work was completed, a celebration would follow where they would eat, drink, and dance together. For the enslaved it could be a rare opportunity to socialize as they combined work and recreation.
Under the Allen’s ownership, the majority of the enslaved would have been working in the fields. There were only a handful of enslaved house workers including Mahala and one of her daughters, Henrietta, Lucy Parker and her daughter, Jane, William Robinson, and Jane Smith (whose mother was Ellen, the cook). It is interesting to note that this is the only account where Jane Smith was listed as working inside the house. By 1859, her role had changed to a field worker. What could have caused that? As her mother was the cook, it was possible that Jane would have been helping her in the Old Kitchen and the Allens thought that she should be trained to continue working inside the house. Perhaps Jane did not prove as attentive and subservient as the Allens would have liked (which could certainly have been a deliberate form of resistance against her enslavement). Working inside the house could sometimes afford an enslaved worker access to better clothing, food, and important gossip concerning the enslaved community, but it would also have been a life with far less privacy and autonomy as they would be under the constant scrutiny of the Allens every day. Was Jane unhappy in the house and deliberately sought to get sent out to the fields to work alongside her siblings? Or would she have considered that a form of punishment? We will likely never know. As often happens in our research, the more we learn, the more questions we have. Little by little we continue to uncover more about the lives of these unique and resilient individuals who have shaped the history of Tuckahoe.