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Ona Judge: the Woman Who Escaped President Washington’s Enslavement

By Alison Cooper

Schools throughout the nation teach our Founding Fathers with glowing admiration. Take George Washington. What are the images or stories you associate with the first president of the United States? You might imagine him bravely crossing the Delaware River, an emblem of American patriotism. Perhaps you think of his wooden teeth. Or maybe you recall the story of how as a child he chopped down a cherry tree and when questioned about his misdeed, he declared “I cannot tell a lie.”

But what we’ve been taught about this historic man was skewed, an oversimplified, patriotic portrait. In all you might hear about our nations first president, you will rarely hear about his status as a slave owning man. The paradox of our first presidents owning slaves is one that embodies the paradoxes of American freedom in the time of our founding fathers.

Imagine instead a more truthful telling of our nations first president by learning the truth of our Founding Father’s slave ownership alongside a captivating tale of one woman’s escape from slavery and her lifelong pursuit of freedom.

We rarely, if ever, read of Ona Judge’s name in our history textbooks, even though her story is far more interesting than the myths of Washington (some that are just too good to be true).

How did one woman run away from the most powerful man in the nation? And how did she manage to remain free for the rest of her life, despite his endless efforts to return her to slavery? And how did Philadelphia play a key role in Ona’s escape?

Erica Armstrong Dunbar, an incredible historian out of Rutgers who devoted years to researching writing to reveal the story of Ona to the public, writes in her book Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave Ona Judge that even though Ona lived as a fugitive for the rest of her life, she wanted her story to be shared. This is the story of how Ona escaped enslavement by the most powerful family in the country and found liberation.

Ona’s Origin Story

Born in 1773 to Betty, one of George and Martha Washington’s slaves, and a white indentured servant, the tailor Andrew Judge (who made Washington’s iconic military uniform). Because their relationship is not well documented, Erica Armstrong Dunbar speculates about its depth, nature, and whether it was consensual. Perhaps Betty saw freedom in Andrew. After four years of servitude, he would become a freedman with the ability to buy back Betty and their children. Their relationship may have even been romantic.

That being said, though they both belonged to the Washingtons either through enslavement or indentured servitude, the power dynamic between Andrew and Betty was imbalanced. Andrew Judge had power over enslaved Betty as a white man with the potential to use his “power to command or force a sexual relationship.”

“What we do know,” historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar writes, “is that their union, whether brief or extended, consensual or unwanted, resulted in the birth of a daughter.” That daughter was Ona Judge.

Enslavement Under the Washingtons

Because she was born to an enslaved woman, Ona’s fate was sealed. She would work for the Washingtons at the plantation Mount Vernon in Virginia. Once she became of working age at ten years old, Ona began working tirelessly for Martha Washington. She became one of Martha’s prized bondwomen.

When George Washington was elected president, Ona was one of the handful of slaves taken to New York City, the new capital. Both her and her half-brother Austin were separated from their mother Betty, a common and cruel practice that fractured an innumerable amount of families during slavery.

In New York, Ona sealed her position as Martha’s top servant, a role which loaded her with even more work and responsibility. Her responsibilities were tremendous. From tailoring and laundering the First Lady’s clothing to caring for their two grandchildren to preparing their home for the daily social events and much more, Ona went above and beyond for Martha Washington.

But life in the North was different from that on the plantation in Virginia. Stirrings of abolition had already started in New York City, Philadelphia, and beyond. “Freedom and opportunity,” explains Erica Armstrong Dunbar, “were at play in many Northern states that boasted growing free black populations.” Some states, such as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, were even passing abolition laws allowing slaves emancipation and/or restricting the ownership of slaves.

With the move to New York City, Ona would see a different world, one where the dream of living without enslavement was a reality.

Glimpses of Freedom In Philadelphia

After a year and a half of living in New York City, the Washingtons and their slaves returned to Mount Vernon. Though just sixteen years old, Ona had already experienced a rich world outside of the plantation, one where black men and women could live free.

We can only speculate what impression returning to the South might have had on Ona. On one hand, she was reunited with her family, but on the other, the plantation was far removed both in distance and ideology from what she saw in New York City. And Ona’s vision of freedom would not be forgotten.

While the Washingtons vacationed, an important political debate was coming to a head. For years debates between the North and South had been brewing over the location of the capital. Finally, a resolution was passed. The capital of the nation would move to Philadelphia.

Work done by enslaved men and women soon started on the new capital. Meanwhile, the Washingtons and a group of nine slaves, including Ona Judge, took up residence at the President’s House located at 6th and Market. The mansion became a place of governance for the next decade.

During her six years in Philadelphia, Ona watched the free black population thrive, building communities and businesses of their own. The city was transforming into a hopeful future for previously enslaved people. The city’s enslave population was changing due to the growing abolition movement comprised of newspapers and groups such as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society who helped emancipate enslaved men, women, and children. In fact, during her time in Philadelphia, Ona was one of 100 slaves enslaved peoples compared to the 6,000 freed blacks lived in the city during that time, according to Gary Nash and Jean R. Soderlund’s book Freedom By Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and its Aftermath. making Ona part of a minority group within the city.

Antislavery movements in the city put pressure on the slave-owning first family. According to the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, all adult slaves brought to Pennsylvania for more than six months must be emancipated. To dodge the law, every six months, the Washingtons transported their slaves back to Mount Vernon.

More than ever before, Ona was closely monitored by the Washingtons out of fear of losing her due to the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery or her own escape. And yet, as the family prepared to travel to Mount Vernon, Ona was nowhere to be found.

How Ona Liberated Herself

Ona’s escape became urgent when Martha Washington’s niece, Eliza, married. She was about to be sold to Eliza and her new husband Thomas Law. As Erica Armstrong Dunbar explains, “Although human bondage was horrific under any owner, there was always room for slaves to make comparisons.” The Washingtons were more or less stable, predictable owners. But Eliza and Thomas Law were known for their irritability, volcanic tempers and shady reputations.

Ona must have feared abuse worse than she already suffered. She must have worried that she might be the next target of Thomas Law’s sexual violence. She began to plot her escape, planning for months. But she couldn’t foresee the lengths President Washington would go to dissuade and punish runaway slaves and the abolitionists who helped them.

President Washington passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793, which created a legal structure for the capture and return of fugitive slaves. This law allowed slave-owners to seize a runaway slave, put them on trial in front of a judge, and if proven through written or oral “proof of ownership,” they would be returned to their slave-owner.

Celebrated in the South and condemned in the North, the Fugitive Slave Act provided a dangerous environment to attempt to escape from enslavement. If Ona were to flee, she had to be successful or else face the auction block, sold off to the highest bidder.

Nonetheless, she knew the fate that lied ahead if she worked for Eliza and Thomas Law: violence, rape, and the impossibility of an escape. Her freedom was worth the risk.

As the Washingtons made preparations for their return to Mount Vernon, so too did Ona plan for her escape. “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,” she explained in an interview with The Granite Freeman Concord, New Hampshire.

And on Saturday, May 21, 1796, the moment finally came. While the Washingtons dined on their supper, Ona disappeared.

Life After Bondage

Just two days after Ona Judge’s escape, the Washingtons put an advertisement in The Philadelphia Gazette. Offering a $10 reward (roughly $300 in 2019) plus further expenses, the Washingtons urged white citizens to lookout for a “mulatto girl” who passed for a “free woman” and to return her at once.

Speed was crucial. Ona was now the most wanted fugitive slave in the country. She escaped Philadelphia via the Delaware River, the very same river that would become synonymous with President Washington’s valor, patriotism and pursuit of American freedom.

Ona boarded a boat to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, commanded by Captain John Bowles, whose identity Ona kept secret until a decade after his death for fear that he would be prosecuted. As she told Reverend T.H. Adams in an interview for The Granite Freeman: "I never told his name till after he died, a few years since, lest they should punish him for bringing me away." With Captain Bowles help, she had a new start as a fugitive and a liberated woman.

Once in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Ona found a place to live and work thanks to her network of free blacks. She worked as a domestic laborer, as this was the only jobs allotted to black women at the time. The work was full of long, grueling days spent scrubbing floors and laundry, preparing meals, and assisting in the fields.

Still, as Erica Armstrong Dunbar notes, that Ona “elected to become a domestic, that she chose to endure physically punishing work in New Hampshire, rather than remain a slave, says everything we need to know about how much she valued freedom.”

Though she lived a liberated woman, Ona still had to be cautious. She was one of the most wanted fugitive slaves in the country.

Washington’s Hunt For Ona

President Washington was infuriated to learn of her escape. Not only did he lose a slave, but her escape also created a further problem: a public relations catastrophe. By rotating slaves every six months, he avoided the North’s anti-slavery legislation. Further, he could maintain his slaves and still appear sympathetic to the abolitionist movement. If he pursued Ona even though the law was on his side, he would be exposed as a slave owner, and the public’s reaction could be disastrous for his reputation and political career

Not only did he have a public relations problem, but her liberation set a bad precedent for his other slaves. If Ona could disappear and become free, why not them? He had to act.

As the search continued, a senator’s daughter spotted Ona in Portsmouth. But only later she realized that Ona was President Washington’s fugitive. Ona’s location and identity compromised, Washington developed a plan. He recruited Joseph Whipple, a customs collector in Portsmouth, to act as an intermediary. Whipple would meet with Ona to hire her as domestic worker.

Through subterfuge, Whipple planned to capture Ona and return her to the first family. But Whipple, not being the cleverest or most loyal ambassador, exposed his true intentions by inquiring a little too much about Ona’s past and her previous “employer.”

His cards revealed, Whipple tried to reason with her to return to the Washingtons. In fact, he was sympathetic towards Ona and freed black slaves. He guaranteed that she would be treated fairly and would return to her role as the First Lady’s favorite servant.

Ona reluctantly agreed to meet Whipple at the ship. But she knew that she would never choose to return to her life as an enslaved woman. The only way she would be moved would be by force. Besides, she wanted to start a new life of her own through marriage and a family. She duped Whipple, just as he deceived her, and never showed up to board the boat back to the Washingtons. Though her freedom remained secure for now, the President would not yet cease hunting for her.

A Family of Her Own

Although separated from her brothers and sisters who remained enslaved in Mount Vernon, Ona sought to create her own family. She became engaged to Jack Staines, a free black sailor. Their marriage served to protect her freedom. A marriage certificate, recognized by the state, guaranteed that if Jack Staines died, Ona would be the legal beneficiary of his estate.

News of the couple’s engagement traveled around Portsmouth, including to President Washington’s reluctant accomplice, Joseph Whipple. In a conversation with the Portsmouth clerk, Whipple exposed Ona’s identity as the first family’s infamous fugitive. This made the couple’s marriage certificate impossible in the city.

Yet the crafty couple bypassed Whipple’s roadblock. They traveled outside the city where Ona’s fugitive status was unknown. Jack and Ona married on January 14, 1797. Soon after, they grew their family. The couple had three children: Eliza, Nancy, and William. The family lived in poverty for their entire lives, but their liberation meant everything to Ona.

Speaking Truth to Power

The Washingtons never quit hunting for Ona. They called on their political allies, bounty hunters, and slave catches to return her. For years, Ona lived in fear that she may be recaptured and forced back into slavery. Only President Washington’s death in 1799 sealed the end of his failed pursuit. As Ona explained to The Granite Freeman, "they never troubled me any more after he was gone.”

Against all odds, Ona escaped the most powerful man in the nation. She—and her freedom—survived.

Liberated from the fear of recapture, Ona knew the importance and value of her story. Towards the end of her life, she was interviewed for two abolitionist newspapers, The Granite Freeman and The Liberator. These interviews offer a fascinating first-hand testimony of her life.

Ona once said she would rather suffer death than return to slavery. After fifty-two years of struggling for her liberation, on February 25, 1848, Ona Judge Staines died a free woman.

You can learn more about Ona Judge’s fascinating story on Beyond the Bell Tour’s Badass Women of Philadelphia Tour. To learn more about President Washington and slavery in Philadelphia, check out our Philly Classic Tour. Availability, booking, and further information can be found on our website. You can also check us out on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.