[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.

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