George Washington And How He Tried To Recapture Ona Judge, His Slave Who Got Away

George Washington And How He Tried To Recapture Ona Judge, His Slave Who Got Away

In 1796, Ona Judge, a 22-year-old slave woman, fled President George Washington’s household for a life of liberty in New Hampshire.

George Washington inherited 10 slaves from his father’s estate when he was only 11 years old. He would acquire many more over the years, whether through the deaths of other family members or through direct purchase. When he married the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759, she brought with her more than 80 slaves, bringing the total number of enslaved men, women, and children at Mount Vernon to more than 150 by the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.

Ona Judge was born in the year 1773. Betty, her mother, was a “dower slave,” part of Martha’s first husband’s estate; Andrew Judge, her father, was a white indentured servant who had recently arrived in America from Leeds, England. Andrew Judge left Mount Vernon after completing his four-year work contract to start his own farm. As children born to enslaved women were considered the property of the slaveholder, according to Virginia law, his daughter remained in bondage.

Ona, also known as Oney, moved into the mansion house when she was only nine years old. She, like her mother, trained as a seamstress and rose through the ranks to become Martha Washington’s personal maid. When Washington and his wife traveled to New York City for Washington’s inauguration as president in 1789, Oney was one of only a few slaves they brought with them. When the federal capital relocated to Philadelphia late the following year, the presidential household did as well.

Philadelphia had become the nation’s leading hotbed of abolitionism, with an active and growing free black community of around 6,000 people. In fact, as Erica Armstrong Dunbar writes in her new book, “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge,” Oney would have been in the minority as a slave in Philadelphia in 1796; the city had fewer than 100 slaves. To avoid a gradual abolition law that went into effect in Pennsylvania in 1780, the Washingtons made it a point to transport their slaves in and out of the state every six months in order to prevent them from establishing legal residency.

As the first lady’s body-servant, Judge dressed her mistress for special occasions, accompanied her on social calls, and ran errands for her. Over the course of more than five years in Philadelphia, she met and became acquainted with members of the city’s free black community as well as former slaves who had gained their freedom under the gradual abolition law. Such encounters undoubtedly influenced her thoughts on slavery, changing laws concerning the institution, and the possibilities of freedom.

Judge learned in the spring of 1796, at the age of 22, that Martha Washington intended to give her away as a wedding gift to her famously temperamental granddaughter, Elizabeth Parke Custis. “Martha Washington’s decision to hand over Judge to Eliza was a reminder to Judge and everyone enslaved at the Executive Mansion that they had absolutely no control over their lives, no matter how loyally they served,” Dunbar writes.

So, as the Washingtons prepared to return to Mount Vernon for the summer, Judge plotted her escape. She slipped out of the mansion on May 21, 1796, while the president and first lady were eating their supper. Members of the free black community assisted her in boarding a ship commanded by Captain John Bowles, which sailed between Philadelphia, New York, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire on a regular basis. Judge arrived in that coastal city after a five-day journey, where she would begin her new life.

Portsmouth was unlike any other place Judge had ever known, with a free black population of about 360 citizens and almost no slaves. She found shelter in the free black community, which was used to assisting fugitive slaves, and supported herself through domestic work, one of the few opportunities available to women of color.

Judge was walking in Portsmouth the summer after she escaped when she saw Elizabeth Langdon, the daughter of New Hampshire Senator John Langdon. Betsy Langdon recognized Oney from previous interactions with Martha Washington, a family friend, or her granddaughter Nelly Custis. Betsy most likely informed her father of the sighting after Judge passed by without acknowledging her, and her father felt obligated to notify Washington of his fugitive slave’s whereabouts.

Washington made contact with Joseph Whipple, the collector of customs in Portsmouth and the brother of famed Revolutionary General William Whipple, in order to act discreetly. Whipple tracked Judge down (by falsely advertising that he was looking for a female domestic for his home) and inquired about her reasons for fleeing bondage, offering to negotiate on her behalf. He later wrote to Washington, saying that she had agreed to return on the condition that she be freed when Martha Washington died.

In her book, Dunbar asserts that Judge never intended to keep her word: “She told Whipple what he wanted to hear, agreed to return to her owners, and left his presence with no intention of ever keeping her word.” In any case, Whipple’s proposal was flatly rejected by Washington, who wrote, “To enter into such a compromise…is totally inadmissible.” Though he supported the gradual abolition of slavery, the president did not want to reward Judge’s “unfaithfulness” and encourage other slaves to flee.

By the 1780s, Washington’s feelings about slavery had shifted, and he confided in close friends, including his Revolutionary War comrade the Marquis de Lafayette, about his reservations about the institution. But, as his reaction to Judge’s escape demonstrated, Washington was not ready to abandon the slave labor that had built his Virginia plantation and his life. Far from being a passive bystander in the perpetuation of slavery, Washington was actively involved in returning Judge to his (or his wife’s) possession at this point.

Whipple did little more to pursue Judge on his behalf as antislavery sentiment grew in New Hampshire and Washington’s influence waned as his term ended. She began her life in Portsmouth, safe for the time being, and married Jack Staines, a free black sailor, in early 1797.

Despite the fact that marriage provided her with some additional legal protection, Ona remained vigilant—and for good reason. In August 1799, Washington directed his nephew, Burwell Bassett Jr., to attempt to apprehend Judge and any children she may have had during his upcoming business trip to New Hampshire. When Bassett dined with Langdon and informed him of his plans, the senator quickly informed Ona via one of his servants. Jack Staines was at sea at the time, but Ona managed to flee to Greenland, where she and her infant daughter hid with the Jacks, a free black family, until Bassett left Portsmouth empty-handed.

George Washington died four months later, freeing all of his slaves in accordance with his will. Though the gesture was not insignificant, it did not go far enough. Martha Washington, who lived until 1802, couldn’t even legally emancipate her slaves upon her death (including, technically, Oney Judge Staines and her children), because they were part of her inheritance from her first husband and passed to her surviving grandchildren under law. In the end, Washington and his fellow founders would foist the difficult decisions about slavery on future generations of Americans, with disastrous results.

Until Jack’s death in 1803, Ona Judge Staines lived with her husband and their three children. After briefly living with the Bartlett family in Portsmouth, Ona left and moved her children into the Jacks family’s home, where they remained. Work was scarce, and Ona’s son, William, is thought to have left home in the 1820s to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a sailor. Eliza and Nancy, her two daughters, were tragically forced into indentured servitude and died before their mother. Ona herself lived in poverty after she became too old for physical labor, relying on community donations.

Despite the difficulties, Ona reaped the benefits of a free life: she taught herself to read and write, converted to Christianity, and attended church on a regular basis. She granted two interviews to abolitionist newspapers several years before her death in 1848, recounting her journey from slavery. When a reporter from the Granite Freeman asked her if she regretted leaving the relative luxury of the Washingtons’ household, Ona Judge Staines famously replied, “No, I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means.”

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