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

[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: Slaves/slavery,Staines, Ona "Oney" Judge,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: Slaves/slavery,Staines, Ona "Oney" Judge,Washington, George,Washington, Martha

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