“Absconded”

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.
FREDERICK KITT, Steward

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.


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