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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

The Remarkable Story of Ona Judge

This article is part of the Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood initiative. Explore the Timeline

In April 1774, one of Martha Washington’s enslaved housemaids, Betty, gave birth at Mount Vernon to a daughter named Ona Judge.1 Ona’s father was Andrew Judge, a white indentured servant who was employed on the estate. Ona probably lived with Betty in a small cabin near the mansion house, completing simple chores, helping her mother with easy tasks in their cabin, or playing unsupervised with other enslaved children.2 When Ona was twelve, Martha brought her into the mansion house to begin her official training as a housemaid. She continued in this role until 1789, when she traveled with Martha to the President’s House in New York City. Ona worked as Martha’s enslaved housemaid for the next seven years before running away. Many decades later, when all of her family members had died, Ona gave two interviews about her life and escape to freedom. While the newspapers did not print the interviews verbatim, the quotes are rare examples of a formerly enslaved person describing their experiences in their own words. Few enslaved workers left written records, let alone participated in interviews with reporters. Whenever possible, this article uses Ona’s words to tell her remarkable story.

While Ona lived in Virginia, she was surrounded by several family members. Andrew Judge’s indentured servitude ended in 1776, but he worked for Washington until 1781. Yet, he remained in the area until at least 1784, when Washington loaned him £12. There are no records of Andrew Judge’s departure from Mount Vernon, or whether his relationship with Betty was consensual. But Ona certainly met her father and likely had some relationship with him given his extended stay, which was not always the case for enslaved children. Ona also knew her siblings. When Betty came to Mount Vernon with Martha, she brought her infant son, Austin. Six years after Ona was born, Betty gave birth to another daughter, Delphy.3

When Martha brought Ona to the President’s House, Ona left her family for the first time. It must have been incredibly scary for sixteen-year-old Ona to travel to New York City, a place she had never visited before. But New York City, and then Philadelphia, offered new opportunities.4 Ona encountered a sizable free African-American community for the first time, saw interesting sights, tasted different foods, and met new people. For example, in June 1792, she attended the theater; in April 1793, she saw “tumbling feats” (probably acrobats); and in June 1793 she went to the traveling circus.5 Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of President George Washington.

"Interview with A Slave of George Washington." Published in The Liberator in 1846.

“Interview with A Slave of George Washington,” The Liberator, December 1846.

Ona also accompanied Martha on her social visits and attended to the first lady’s needs at home. Ona’s status as Martha’s preferred lady’s maid meant that she received a fancier wardrobe than most enslaved people because she visited homes and buildings normally off-limits to enslaved people. Much like George’s enslaved manservant, coachmen, and postilions, these individuals wore fancy livery because their uniforms needed to reflect the president’s wealth and status; Ona’s clothing was an extension of Martha’s status. Accordingly, Tobias Lear, Washington’s household manager, documented regular purchases of textiles for dresses, bonnets, stockings, and shoes for Ona. The shoe purchases are especially telling. Unlike Washington’s other enslaved servants in Philadelphia, Ona received new shoes several times per year while working in the President’s House.6 Perhaps Ona wore out her shoes while accompanying Martha on her visits. Moll, the enslaved nanny for Martha’s grandchildren, did not usually join them out of the house, so she likely needed fewer pairs of new shoes. Additionally, if women’s shoes wore out more quickly than men’s shoes, Ona may have needed more pairs than the enslaved coachmen or postilions. Another, more insidious possibility also exists. At sixteen, Ona may have been growing still and she may have outgrown her earlier shoes. There are no records to indicate why Ona received new shoes several times a year, but she likely received them because she was in New York and Philadelphia with the Washingtons.7

Ona may have been tempted to pursue her freedom during the early years of Washington’s presidency, but there were severe consequences for such an act. It would have made her a fugitive in the eyes of the law and she likely would never be able to see her family again. Ona’s calculations changed after March 21, 1796, when Eliza Custis, Martha’s granddaughter, married Thomas Law. Martha announced that she planned to give Ona to Eliza as a wedding present, separating Ona from her family and the life she knew in Philadelphia and at Mount Vernon. When a reporter asked why she chose that moment to escape, Ona said “she was determined never to be her slave,” referring to Eliza Custis.8 Eliza had earned a reputation among the enslaved women for being highly volatile and erratic—dangerous qualities in a slave owner. Finally, Ona may have worried about Law’s questionable reputation. When Law arrived in Philadelphia, he brought his two illegitimate children that he had fathered while in India and he was plagued by rumors about his character. Given Ona’s enslaved status, any white man could sexually assault her without punishment and she may have feared for her safety in a new household with a disreputable owner.9

Runaway advertisement requesting the return of Ona Judge. The advertisement was posted by Frederick Kitt in the Philadelphia Gazette on May 23, 1796.

Philadelphia Gazette

At some point during the spring of 1796, Ona made contact with members of the free black community that would facilitate her escape. There are no records of how she was introduced to this community or who helped her, and Ona kept this information secret to protect everyone’s safety. In the afternoon of Saturday, May 21, 1796, Ona slipped out of the house while the Washingtons enjoyed their dinner. Her friends in the free black community had already carried her belongings to the port and they were waiting for her when she arrived at the docks.10 Two days later, Frederick Kitt, Washington’s steward, placed an advertisement in the Philadelphia Gazette chronicling the details of Ona’s escape:

Absconded from the household of the President of the United States. Oney Judge, a light mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes and bushy black hair, she is of middle stature, slender, and delicately, about 20 years of age. She has many changes of good clothes, of all sorts, but they are not sufficiently recollected to be described.11

The advertisement also listed a $10 reward for her capture and return, and conveyed the Washingtons’ shock and outrage that Ona would escape: “As there was no suspicion of her going off nor no provocation to do so, it is not easy to conjecture whither she has gone, or fully, what her design is.”12 Of course, it never occurred to the Washingtons that enslavement served as plenty of provocation for Ona to escape. They believed they had treated her like a daughter and felt betrayed by her departure. Ona, on the other hand, said “she did not want to be a slave always, and she supposed if she went back to Virginia, she should never have a chance to escape.”13

Market Square in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1853.

Market Square in 1853, Portsmouth, NH: Market Square, Portsmouth, NH, Gleason Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, 1853, Boston, MA.

Ona likely made her way out of Philadelphia immediately to avoid being recognized by Washington’s contemporaries.14 In one of her later interviews, she revealed that she had escaped on a vessel commanded by Captain John Bowles, who left Philadelphia and eventually made his way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She revealed, “I never told his name till after he died, a few years since, les they should punish him for bringing me away.”15

Once she arrived in Portsmouth, Ona found lodging with a free African-American family. She also secured work as a domestic servant. While she was likely grateful for the work, it was a change from the needlework and tending to Martha’s needs. She probably did the laundry, cooked meals, scrubbed floors, and cleaned the home—all physically demanding labor.16 In January 1797, she married a free man named Jack Staines and they moved into their own home. Staines was a sailor and although the pay was decent, it was sporadic and seasonal. To help make ends meet, Ona continued her domestic work and they took in a boarder in one of their extra rooms.17

Washington made two concerted attempts to re-enslave Ona. First, while still in office, he sent a letter through Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, Jr. to Joseph Whipple, Portsmouth’s collector of customs. Whipple owed his position to the Washington administration, so he reluctantly agreed to help send Ona back to Mount Vernon. He told his friends that he was looking for a good maidservant to help his wife. Ona learned of the inquiry and met with Whipple to discuss the position. She quickly became suspicious, however, when Whipple began asking personal questions to verify her identity—the type of questions that would be unusual in a job interview. After she fell into a fearful silence, Whipple confessed that he had received instructions from President Washington, but that he was eager to help her and would try and negotiate her eventual manumission. Looking for a means to escape, Ona agreed to meet Whipple at the docks and return to Virginia. She walked out of the house and quickly rushed to safety. But when Whipple arrived at the docks to ensure Ona boarded the ship at the agreed upon time, she never arrived.18

Governor John Langdon’s Home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Public domain.

On October 4, 1796, Whipple wrote to Wolcott that he had failed to secure Ona. Frustrated, Washington wrote directly to Whipple asking him to return Ona by force.19 A quiet abolitionist, Whipple was deeply uncomfortable with this sort of violence. He recommended that Washington secure a lawyer’s services and direct future letters to “the Attorney of the United States in New Hampshire.”20

With Whipple unwilling to assist further, Washington turned to Burwell Bassett Jr., Martha Washington’s nephew. A family member was perfect for this unsavory task that Washington wished to keep under the radar. Upon arriving in Portsmouth, Bassett made himself comfortable at Senator John Langdon’s home.21 Bassett then went to the Staines’s house and knocked on the door. When Ona opened the door, perhaps with her one-year-old daughter, Eliza, in her arms, she may have recognized him from her time at Mount Vernon. Either way, she quickly discovered his purpose for traveling to Portsmouth. Bassett insisted Ona return to Virginia and “used all the persuasion he could” but Ona “utterly refused to go with him.”22 He even promised that the Washingtons would free her once she returned to Virginia, to which she replied “I am free now, and choose to remain so.”23

As an elite white southerner, Bassett was accustomed to African Americans obeying his every command. Stunned by Ona’s lack of cooperation, he returned to Langdon’s house to regroup. Washington had given him “orders to take her by force, and carry her back” if necessary and he shared these plans with Langdon.24 Langdon’s family had a long history of slave ownership, so Bassett assumed the senator would support his mission. However, Landgon’s family had freed their slaves and rehired them as paid workers, even if they didn’t consider themselves abolitionists.25 Langdon “entertained Bassett very handsomely, and in the meantime sent word to Mrs. [Ona] Staines to leave town before twelve o’clock at night.”26 Upon receiving the message, Ona hired a horse and carriage to take her to Greenland, New Hampshire, where she hid in safety at “Mr. Jack’s.”27 This attempt was the last time Ona heard from her former owners, as Washington died shortly thereafter and “they never troubled me any more after he was gone.”28

South Church, Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1903. Built c. 1824-1826. Ona probably attended this church to hear Reverend Samuel Haven's sermons.

South Church: Portsmouth, NH, 1903, Grenville Norcross Collection, Historic New England.

A few years later, Ona gave birth to a second daughter, Nancy, and then a son. While the records of her son’s life are inconclusive, it’s possible his name was William and he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a sailor. In 1803, Jack Staines died and Ona moved in with the Jack family to share household expenses. In the 1830s, both of Ona’s daughters also passed away and she became increasingly involved in her church community and perhaps the abolitionist movement.29 In late 1845 and early 1846, Ona gave two interviews to abolitionist newspapers in New Hampshire. Ona took the opportunity to share her thoughts on the institution of slavery, proclaiming, “that she never received the least mental or moral instruction, of any kind, while she remained in Washington’s family.”30 She also criticized the Washingtons’ piety, saying she never saw or heard any indication of “piety and prayers” while she was enslaved. Instead, “Card-playing and wine-drinking were the business at his parties; and he had more of such company Sundays than on any other day.”31 The newspapers included these arguments to criticize the institution of slavery and its many cruelties. Ona died on February 25, 1848, in Greenland, New Hampshire as a free woman.32

Thank you to Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar for her work on Ona Judge. This article would not be possible without her scholarship.