Pictured here is a woman named Mahala (also spelled Mahelia). She was an enslaved African American who lived and worked for many years inside the house at Tuckahoe.
She was born around 1816 and is thought to have come to Tuckahoe sometime in the 1840’s when the Wight family owned the property. By the time the Allen family purchased Tuckahoe in 1850, she had married a man named Spy Boyd (who was listed as a field hand) and had four children (Henrietta, Chagny, Armistead, and Robert). By 1858, the family had four more children (Matilda, Thomas, Mary Eliza, and Margaret) and a grandchild, Sallie (Henrietta’s daughter). Sadly, Armistead had died in December of 1857 at age 13 from unknown causes. While death at a young age was not uncommon in that time period, it still would have been a tremendous blow to the family as they were entering into the holiday season, one of the few times they would have been granted an opportunity to rest and celebrate with friends and family.
Mahala and her family lived in the South Cabin (pictured below) which still stands today along Plantation Street, the working corridor of Tuckahoe. In this small dwelling, the family would have had a small room with a single fireplace for heat and cooking and a loft upstairs for sleeping. Mr. Allen’s account of 1858 notes that Spy’s family of ten had five blankets among them.
During the Allen period, a very small percentage of the enslaved people at Tuckahoe worked inside the house. The majority of workers were assigned to the fields, tending to the many crops that Mr. Allen had need of. Mahala and her daughter, Henrietta were among the handful that labored inside the house, likely doing chores such as laundry, cleaning, and attending to the family. Working inside the house was a more “high profile” job and as such, house servants were sometimes given slightly better clothing, living conditions and treatment (though it would certainly not exclude them from punishment). Being in close proximity and communication with the cook may have afforded them slightly more food for themselves and their family as well. However, working directly with the owners every day could also make women the recipients of unwanted attention. It was quite common for white owners to sexually abuse their servants and father children with them as has been documented countless times at plantations in the south. While we have not found explicit written evidence of this at Tuckahoe, Henrietta’s child, Sallie, does raise suspicion of this practice here. Sallie’s birth is recorded on the 1858 account however there is no mention of the father nor does it appear that Henrietta has married or started a family of her own as she continued to live with her parents and siblings.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, the now freed African Americans sought to redefine and establish their place in a divided society. Many formerly enslaved workers would choose to remain on the plantations they had worked before while others left the area completely after being freed. It seems that a number of the Boyd family including Mahala chose to remain at Tuckahoe as paid servants. In the 1870 census, she and her daughter Margaret were listed as house servants and Spy was a farm laborer.
In the census of 1880, Spy Boyd was listed as a widower making Mahala’s death sometime in the 1870’s. We have no written records from Mahala herself or any of her family so we only speculate and wonder what exactly they must have felt and all of the hardships they must have endured here. We can only hope that they would find some solace knowing that their story is unknown no longer.