Archive for the ‘Judge Staines, Ona “Oney”’ Category

Ona Judge “Never Caught . . . . “

I am looking forward to reading the first full-length nonfiction account of the escape of Ona Judge known as Oney, a dower slave belonging to Martha Washington, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar (New York: Atria Books, Simon & Schuster, 2017). Ona was the daughter of Betty, a seamstress, and Andrew Judge, a white indentured tailor at Mount Vernon. See previous posts here, here, and here. Oney became a skilled seamstress and was taken by Martha to Philadelphia, the capital of the United States during Washington’s presidency, to be her personal maid. Oney escaped, fled to New Hampshire, and married a seaman Jack Staines. Washington went to great lengths to try to recover her. Without success.

Eric Foner, a historian whom I admire, has called the book “a fascinating and moving account of a courageous and resourceful woman. Beautifully written and utilizing previously untapped sources it sheds new light both on the father of our country and on the intersections of slavery and freedom in the flawed republic he helped to found.”

Historic sites in recent years have introduced exhibitions and tours on the theme of slavery; Mount Vernon’s “Lives Bound Together” runs through September 2018.

posted February 20th, 2017 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Judge Staines, Ona "Oney",Philadelphia,Slaves/slavery,Washington, George,Washington, Martha

Hercules and the Birthday Cake for Washington

In the news recently is the recall by Scholastic Publishers of A Birthday Cake for George Washington by author Ramin Ganeshram and illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton which was released on January 5. The story is about Washington’s cook, a slave named Hercules, and his daughter Delia who bake the cake of the title. The book for young readers has been criticized because it depicts slavery in the Washington household as rather benign.
Hercules was an accomplished chef who served the president in Philadelphia and was accorded privileges denied other enslaved workers. A bit of a dandy, he ran a tight ship lording it over his underlings in the kitchen and was able to accrue a considerable amount of money by selling leftovers from the presidential table.
Washington regularly rotated his slaves back to Mount Vernon from Philadelphia because of a Pennsylvania law that allowed them their freedom after six months residence. When Hercules was returned to Mount Vernon early in 1797 and was assigned duties as a laborer, which he must have considered beneath him, he ran away.
George Washington was angered and mystified by his action just as he and Martha never could understand why Oney Judge, a slave who was one of Martha’s personal maids, also ran away in 1796 when she was in Philadelphia. In both cases Washington attempted to recover the slaves, but his efforts failed. See recent posts about Oney here, here, and here.
Although notes in the Birthday Cake book do say that Hercules ran away, that fact and his desire to escape are not dealt with in the story itself, nor are the evils of slavery. These are unfortunate errors in judgment on the part of the author and illustrator who are both African Americans. The Washingtons did not comprehend that being “well treated” is not the same as being free. And readers of the book need to understand that too. Oney said “she did not want to be a slave always.” And when asked whether she regretted her decision to run away replied “No, I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means.”

See the article on Hercules in George Washington’s Mount Vernon, also J.L. Bell’s blog post on the subject.

posted January 21st, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Book Beat,Hercules,Judge Staines, Ona "Oney",Pennsylvania,Philadelphia,Washington, George,Washington, Martha

“the ingratitude of the girl”

As a postscript to the story of Ona Judge Staines, it is revealing to consider the words and actions of her owner, the president of the United States, in regard to her enslavement and escape. In September of 1796 (Oney had fled in May), George Washington sent a letter to Secretary of State Oliver Wolcott in which he described the girl. “She has been the particular attendant on Mrs. Washington since she was ten years old; and was handy and useful to her being perfect Mistress of her needle.” Having learned that Oney was in New Hampshire, Washington asked Wolcott to seek the help of that state’s collector of customs Joseph Whipple in retrieving her.

To seize, and put her on board a Vessel bound immediately to this place, or to Alexandria which I should like better, seems at first view, to be the safest and leas[t] expensive [option]. . . .
I am sorry to give you, or anyone else trouble on such a trifling occasion, but the ingratitude of the girl, who was brought up and treated more like a child than a Servant (and Mrs. Washington’s desire to recover her) ought not to escape with impunity if it can be avoided.

Whipple managed to meet with Judge and found himself sympathizing with her. He was surprised and pleased when Oney offered to return to President Washington if he would promise to manumit her in his will. But when Whipple reported this proposal to the President, Washington was affronted.

I regret that the attempt you made to restore the Girl should have been attended with so little Success. To enter into such a compromise with her, as she suggested to you, is totally inadmissible, for reasons that must strike at first view: 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.

After his retirement to Mount Vernon, when Oney thought she would be safe, Washington continued to press for her return, as has been noted in the previous post. He sent Martha Washington”s nephew Burwell Bassett to accomplish this; Bassett even considered taking her by force, but, forewarned, Oney managed to slip away yet again.
Washington’s attitude and behavior show him to be very much a man of his time (and place—the South) with regard to slavery. A slaveholder who was ambivalent at best about the morality of enslaving human beings, he was more than willing to pursue and capture the fugitive Oney. She was, after all, valuable property and a dower slave for whose loss he would have to reimburse Martha’s heirs by her first husband. What is really rather remarkable is that Oney’s desire to be free seemed to be totally incomprehensible to the Washingtons, both George and Martha. To his credit, Washington, in his will, did manumit his own faithful slave and valet, William Lee, who had accompanied him throughout the Revolution.

Several quoted passages appear in Here is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History by Andrew Carroll (New York: Crown Archetype, 2013), 29-31. The paragraph from George Washington’s letter to Joseph Whipple, November 28, 1796, is from The Writings of George Washington, 35:297, as quoted in an article titled “William Lee & Oney Judge: a Look at George Washington & Slavery” by Mary V. Thompson that appeared in Journal of the American Revolution.

posted December 10th, 2015 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Judge Staines, Ona "Oney",Slaves/slavery,Washington, George,Washington, Martha

[Oney] “did not want to be a slave always”

In New Hampshire, ONEY JUDGE lived with a free black family and began a new life, working as a seamstress. She learned to read and became a Christian. In 1797, she married Jack Staines, a seaman, and had a child. In an interview fifty years later Oney explained why she had escaped. She said she left the Washington household in Philadelphia because she feared that if she were returned to Mount Vernon as was planned she would never be able to get away. She was also unhappy because Martha Washington told her she had promised to give her as a wedding present to her eldest granddaughter Elizabeth Custis. Oney said “she did not want to be a slave always.” She recollected the frightening attempts to return her to the life she had fled

Gen. Washington sent on a man by the name of Bassett [Burwell Bassett Jr., Washington’s nephew], to prevail on her to go back. He saw her, and used all the persuasion he could, but she utterly refused to go with him. He returned, and then came again, with orders to take her by force, and carry her back. He put up with the late Gov. [John] Langdon, and made known his business, and the Governor gave her notice that she must leave Portsmouth that night, or she would be carried back. She went to a stable, and hired a boy, with a horse and carriage, to carry her to Mr. [John] Jack’s, at Greenland, where she now resides, a distance of eight miles, and remained there until her husband returned from sea, and Bassett did not find her.
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. . . . She says that the stories told of Washington’s piety and prayers, so far as she ever saw or heard while she was his slave, have no foundation. Card-playing and wine-drinking were the business at his parties, and he had more of such company Sundays than on any other day.

Although Oney Judge Staines eluded capture, her life proved more difficult than the one she had left. She outlived her husband and three children by many years, and died a pauper in 1848. Did she regret her decision to run away? “No, I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means.”

See In the Words of Women, pages 216-19. Also see an article titled “Washington’s Runaway Slave, and How Portsmouth Freed Her.” by Rev. T.H. Adams, in The Granite Freeman, Concord, New Hampshire (May 22, 1845) and an interview by Rev. Benjamin Chase, published as a Letter to the Editor, in The Liberator, January 1, 1847. Both appear on a website called The President’s House in Philadelphia.

posted December 7th, 2015 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Judge Staines, Ona "Oney",Slaves/slavery,Washington, George,Washington, Martha


ONA JUDGE, called Oney, was a slave in the household of George and Martha Washington. The child of a dower slave Betty (belonging to Martha) and a white indentured servant, Oney was Martha’s personal maid who powdered her mistress’s hair and helped her dress. She was also a skilled seamstress. Oney and six other house slaves accompanied the Washingtons in their move from Mount Vernon to New York, and then to Philadelphia when those cities were capitals of the new nation and George Washington was its president.
In Philadelphia, the First Family rented a large house with rooms on the second floor “sufficient for the accomodations of Mrs. Washington & the children & their maids” including Oney. Account books make mention of some of the expenses for the slaves: in February 1791, Martha Washington gave “Austin, Hercules [the cook], Moll & Oney 1 doll[ar] each & Chris. ½ doll. to buy things to send home” and, on June 6, 1792, gave money to “Austin, Hercules & Oney to go to the Play.” Going to the theater was a pastime the Washingtons greatly enjoyed.
Though treated relatively well, Washington’s slaves were not free, their lives otherwise constrained. To circumvent Pennsylvania’s 1780 law, which provided for the emancipation of slaves of citizens after a six-month residency, George Washington routinely cycled his slaves back and forth between Mount Vernon and Philadelphia. He was not willing to risk the loss of his wife’s dower slaves, particularly as he would have had to reimburse her estate for them. Oney and Moll were trusted and seem to have had some freedom of movement in the city.
In 1796, Oney Judge walked out of the mansion on High Street and secured passage on a vessel bound for Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where she hoped to live among other free blacks. The Washingtons were not happy to see her go and posted an ad in the Pennsylvania Gazette offering a reward for her capture and return. The ad reads:

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, about 20 years of age and delicately formed.
She has many changes of good clothes. of all sorts, but they are not sufficiently recollected to be described—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—but as she may attempt to escape by water, all masters of vessels are cautioned against admitting her into them, although it is probable she will attempt to pass for a free woman, and has, it is said wherewithal to pay her passage.
Ten dollars will be paid to any person who will bring her home, if taken in the city, or on board any vessel in the harbour;—and a reasonable additional sum if apprehended at, and brought from a greater distance, and in proportion to the distance.

More about Oney Judge in the next post.

In the Words of Women, pages 217-18. Advertisement and additional information from University of Delaware online magazine.

posted December 3rd, 2015 by Janet, comments (1), CATEGORIES: Judge Staines, Ona "Oney",Slaves/slavery,Washington, George,Washington, Martha

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