The Life of Ona Judge
Watch as Character Interpreter Brenda Parker shares the story of Ona Judge's life.
On January 1, 1847, the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator published a letter from Reverend Benjamin Chase describing his recent visit with an elderly African American woman near Portsmouth, New Hampshire.1 The woman, Ona Judge Staines, had fled enslavement at the Washingtons’ household fifty years earlier. Staines’s account of her dramatic quest for freedom represents a rare moment when the voice of a person (formerly) enslaved at Mount Vernon appears in the historical record.
Ona Judge, often referenced by the Washingtons as Oney, was born at Mount Vernon around 1774. She was the daughter of Betty, an enslaved seamstress living on Mansion House Farm, and Andrew Judge, a white English tailor whom Washington hired from 1772 to 1784.2 Ona was later described as “a light mulatto girl, much freckled” and “almost white.”3 Like many other slaves of mixed-race descent, she received a post in the household: at age ten, she became Martha Washington’s personal maid. Like her mother, Ona was skilled at sewing, “the perfect mistress of her needle.”4 Also, like her mother, Ona and her younger sister Delphy belonged to the Custis estate, and so would pass to Martha Washington’s heirs upon the latter’s death.
When George Washington was elected president, fifteen-year-old Ona Judge traveled with seven other enslaved people to the executive residence, first in New York and then in Philadelphia. She was among the enslaved people whom Washington secretly rotated out of the latter city in order to evade the 1780 Pennsylvania emancipation law. Washington asked his secretary to accomplish this rotation “under pretext that may deceive both them and the Public.”5
During Washington’s presidency, Judge continued her daily work waiting on Martha Washington—helping her bathe and dress, cleaning and mending her clothing, organizing her personal belongings, and anything else her she required. However, in the bustling capital city of Philadelphia, life was dramatically different for her and the other enslaved people from Mount Vernon. Judge received nominal cash from Washington on several occasions to go see a play, the circus, and the “tumbling feats.” Her visible position in the household meant that she received a regular supply of high-quality clothing. Washington’s account book notes purchases for her gowns, shoes, stockings, and bonnets.6 The city’s large free black and Quaker abolitionist communities also offered the young woman new ideas, new connections, and new opportunities to escape.
On May 21, 1796, as the Washingtons prepared to return to Mount Vernon for the summer, Ona Judge fled. As she recalled in 1845, “Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go, I didn’t know where; for I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty. I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left Washington’s house while they were eating dinner.”7
Two days later, Frederick Kitt—the hired steward at the executive residence—placed an advertisement in the Philadelphia Gazette and Daily Advertiser announcing that “Oney Judge” had “absconded” from the president’s house and offering a $10 reward for her recapture. Kitt described the young woman’s “very black eyes and bushy black hair,” noting that she was “of middle stature, slender, and delicately formed.” She had “many changes of good clothes, all sorts,” Kitt warned and might be trying to pass as a free woman, escaping on a ship leaving the port of Philadelphia.8
Kitt’s advertisement stated that Judge had run off with “no provocation,” but her later interview revealed that she had two reasons for running away. First, “she wanted to be free,” and second, she had overheard that she would soon be given to Martha Washington’s eldest granddaughter, Eliza Parke Custis Law, who was known to have a fierce temper. Judge “was determined,” she recalled, “never to be her slave.”9
Kitt was right about one thing: after leaving the Washingtons’ household, Ona Judge secured passage on the Nancy, a ship commanded by Captain John Bolles and bound for Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Judge never revealed Bolles’s name until after he died, “lest they should punish him for bringing me away.”10
Meanwhile, George Washington was stewing. The young woman was owned by the estate of Martha Washington’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis not Washington. This meant he would be responsible for reimbursing the Custis estate were she not recovered. He also faced pressure from Martha, who was distressed at the loss of a maid who, Washington claimed, “was brought up and treated more like a child than a Servant.” Apparently unable to comprehend why she would flee, Washington believed that Judge had been “seduced and enticed away” by a Frenchman.11
Even in New Hampshire, Judge was not safe. Just a few months after arriving, she was recognized on the street by a friend of Martha’s youngest granddaughter, Nelly Parke Custis. Word of the escapee’s whereabouts reached George Washington, who enlisted the help of Joseph Whipple, the customs collector in Portsmouth. Whipple found Judge and tried to convince her to board a ship for Philadelphia. Judge replied that she would readily return, but only if the Washingtons promised to free her after their deaths. Otherwise, she said, “she should rather suffer death than return to Slavery & liable to be sold or given to any other person.” There was no seduction by a Frenchman, she assured Whipple, but rather “a thirst for compleat freedom . . . had been her only motive for absconding.”12
When Washington learned of Judge’s request, he was furious. His response to her proposed deal reveals the tension between his stated antislavery principles and the reality of being a slave owner. He fumed to Whipple: “To enter into such a compromise with her, as she suggested to you, is totally inadmissible . . . for however well disposed I might be to a gradual abolition, or even to an entire emancipation of that description of People (if the latter was in itself practicable at this moment) it would neither be politic or just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference; and thereby discontent before hand the minds of all her fellow-servants who by their steady attachments are far more deserving than herself of favor.”13
Because of the federal Fugitive Slave Law, which Washington had signed in 1793, slave owners retained the legal right to recapture enslaved people who escaped across state lines, if necessary with force. As president, Washington knew that using violent measures to seize an enslaved woman who had runaway could anger antislavery residents of northern states. He asked Whipple to continue efforts to recapture Judge, but only if it would not “excite a mob or riot” in Portsmouth, where abolitionist sentiments ran high.14 If Whipple made further attempts to capture her, Judge evaded them. In January 1797, she married Jack Staines, a free black sailor. The couple went on to have three children: Eliza, Will, and Nancy.
In August 1799, Washington made one more attempt to find and recapture Ona Judge. When Martha’s nephew Burwell Bassett Jr. traveled to New Hampshire on business, Washington enlisted his help.15 Bassett successfully located Judge in Portsmouth and tried to persuade her to return, but again she refused. Though Washington had asked Bassett to avoid any methods that were “unpleasant” or “troublesome,” Bassett was determined to take the young woman by force. When he announced his plans over dinner at the home of John Langdon, the U.S. senator from New Hampshire, a sympathetic Langdon secretly sent a messenger to warn Judge. With her husband at sea and one-year-old Eliza in her arms, Judge hired a horse and carriage to take her to the home of a friend, a free black woman named Nancy Jack, eight miles from Portsmouth in Greenland, New Hampshire.16 Bassett returned to Virginia empty-handed.
After Washington’s death in December 1799, Judge said, the family “never troubled me any more.” She nevertheless remained a fugitive: the Custis estate could legally recapture her and her children at any time. When Judge was interviewed in the 1840s, she was still living at Nancy Jack’s home in Greenland. Legally considered a “pauper,” she received support from Rockingham County. Her husband had died in 1803, and her two daughters had predeceased her as well. Despite these sorrows, she told her interviewer how her life had changed for the better since arriving in New Hampshire: “She says that she never received the least mental or moral instruction, of any kind, while she remained in Washington’s family. But, after she came to Portsmouth, she learned to read; and when Elias Smith first preached in Portsmouth, she professes to have been converted to Christianity.”17
Ona likely never again saw her Mount Vernon family. Her mother, Betty, died in January 1795. In 1802, her younger sister Delphy was inherited by Eliza Parke Custis Law, the fate that Ona had fled to avoid.18
Ona Judge’s determination to escape slavery eclipsed any regret over leaving. As one interviewer noted: “When asked if she is not sorry she left Washington, as she has labored so much harder since, than before, her reply is, ‘No, I am free, and have, I trust been made a child of God by the means.’”19 Ona Judge Staines died in 1848.
George Washington's Mount Vernon
If not specifically cited, biographical and genealogical information about enslaved people has been drawn from Washington’s 1786 and 1799 slave lists: George Washington, Diary, Feb. 18, 1786, and “Washington’s Slave List,” 1799, The Papers of George Washington, Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel, Edward G. Lengel, et al. (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008); the Mount Vernon slavery database, which compiles references to the estate’s enslaved people; and the files of Mary V. Thompson, Mount Vernon’s research historian.
1 Benjamin Chase, letter to the editor, The Liberator, Jan. 1, 1847, quoted in Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies, ed. John W. Blassingame (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977), 248–50.
2 Lund Washington to GW, Oct. 15, 1775, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0164, Lund Washington to GW, Oct 22, 1775, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0193, and Lund Washington, Account Book [microform], 1762–1786, Washington Library.
3 Chase, letter to the editor, 1847; Frederick Kitt, “Advertisement,” Pennsylvania Gazette and Universal Daily Advertiser, May 24, 1796.
4 GW to Oliver Wolcott, Sept. 1, 1796, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-00910.
5 GW to Tobias Lear, Apr. 12, 1791, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-08-02-0062.
6 See “References to People from the Presidential Household Account Books,” The President’s House in Philadelphia, accessed March 7, 2016, ushistory.org/presidentshouse/history/references.htm.
7 T. H. Adams, “Washington’s Runaway Slave, and How Portsmouth Freed Her,” Granite (NH) Freeman, May 22, 1845, reprinted in Frank W. Miller, Portsmouth New Hampshire Weekly, June 2, 1877.
8 Kitt, Advertisement, Pennsylvania Gazette, May 24, 1796.
9 Kitt, Advertisement; Adams, “Washington’s Runaway Slave.”
10 Adams, “Washington’s Runaway Slave.”
11 GW to Oliver Wolcott, Sept. 1, 1796.
12 Joseph Whipple to Oliver Wolcott, Oct. 4, 1796, quoted in Fritz Hirschfeld, George Washington and Slavery: A Documentary Portrayal (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997), 114–15.
13 GW to Joseph Whipple, Nov. 28, 1796, quoted in Hirschfeld, George Washington and Slavery, 115–16.
14 GW to Joseph Whipple, Nov. 28, 1796, quoted in Hirschfeld, George Washington and Slavery, 115–16.
15 GW to Burwell Bassett Jr., Aug. 11, 1799, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-04-02-0197.
16 Chase, letter to the editor, 1847.
17 Chase, letter to the editor, 1847.
18 “Drafts of Negros,” Peter Family Archives, Washington Library.
19 Adams, “Washington’s Runaway Slave.”
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