Oney 'Ona' Judge
Ona Judge was born in 1773 on George Washingtons Mount Vernon Plantation in Fairfax County, Virginia. Her mother Betty was a slave who worked as a seamstress and her father, Andrew Judge, was a white indentured servant who worked as a tailor to George Washington. Originally her mother had been the slave of Martha Washingtons first husband Daniel Custis; at his death Martha inherited his slaves. This was known as a dower share, a provision that was arranged for the financial survival of a wife in the event of her husbands death (think of it as an antebellum pre-nup). Martha Washington inherited eighty-five slaves that included Betty, and subsequently any of Betty’s future children became slaves as well under the law. While Martha Washington inherited the slaves, once she re-married to George Washington she had no legal power to sale of free the slaves, those rights were left to him.
After fulfilling his four-year work contract at Mount Vernon, Andrew Judge moved off the plantation to start his own farm, Betty and the children he fathered with her remained enslaved by the Washingtons. By the age of nine Ona was brought to live in the ‘big house’ as a playmate for Nelly Custis, the granddaughter of Martha Washington. Eventually Ona became phenomenal seamstress like her mother as well as the personal servant of Martha Washington.
When George Washington was inaugurated in 1789, he took only a handful of slaves with him and his family to Philadelphia to work at the Presidents House, this included Ona and her siblings. Here she experienced a great deal of freedom while running errands, and this is how she became acquainted with the free black community. Philadelphia had more free blacks than it it did slaves, making Ona a minority in the city that had less than 100 legal slaves. During this time a gradual abolition law, which slowly set to abolish slavery, had been passed and Philadelphia had been the first city to enact it. To avoid his slaves establishing residency and therefore petitioning for their freedom, George Washington strategically sent them out of state every six months, ensuring that they’d never obtain resident status.
During the years that Ona spent in Philadelphia she became acquainted with the cities elite free blacks, particularly those who had obtained their freedom through the gradual abolition law. This undoubtedly fueled her desire to live as a free person.
With the information that Martha intended to gift Ona to her wicked granddaughter as a wedding gift, Ona began to make plans to escape. She was twenty-two years old.
On May 21, 1796, Ona fled the mansion while the president and First Lady were eating dinner. With help from the members of the free black community that she’d made friends with, she boarded a ship headed to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
With a free black population of some 360 citizens and no slaves, Portsmouth was unlike any place Judge had ever known. She was embraced by the free black community, who initially supported her financially as they’d done many fugitive slaves. Eventually she found work as a domestic servant.
Sometime after her arrival in Portsmouth, Ona was in town when she saw Betsy Langdon, the daughter of New Hampshire Senator John Langdon. Betsy Langdon recognized Ona from her visits tot the Washingtons house, and notified her father of this. Naturally her father informed George Washington that he knew the whereabouts of his now fugitive slave.
During this time, George Washington placed ads in newspapers requesting the return of his fugitive slave.
Trying to act discreetly, George Washington got in contact with Joseph Whipple, the collector of customs in Portsmouth and the brother of Revolutionary General William Whipple. When Whipple tracked Judge down by falsely advertising that he was seeking a female domestic for his home, he asked her about her reasons for fleeing bondage, and offered to negotiate on her behalf. He subsequently wrote to Washington that she had agreed to return, on the condition that she be freed when Martha Washington died. Ona had no intentions on honoring this agreement, she simply said what she knew Whipple wanted to hear before leaving his presence. When the message got to George Washington he was infuriated! He found her to be unfaithful (lol) and feared that her behavior would inspire his other slaves to flee.
Ona continued on with her life in Portsmouth. She married Jack Staines, a free black sailor, in early 1797.
In August 1799, Washington asked his nephew, Burwell Bassett Jr., to try and seize Judge and any children she may have had. Legally she and her offspring were still his property. Quickly word got to Ona. With her husband away at sea, Ona managed to escape to the neighboring town of Greenland, where she and her infant daughter hid with a free black family, until George Washingtons nephew left Portsmouth, empty-handed.
Four months later, George Washington died, freeing all of his slaves through his will. This did not include Marthas dower slaves. Martha Washington couldn’t even legally have emancipated her slaves upon her death, they were initially the property of her first husband and therefore her children and grandchildren would stand to inherit them.
Married less than seven years, her husband Jack died in 1803. As a widow, Ona was unable to support her children and moved in with another free black family. Her daughters Eliza and Nancy became wards of the town and were hired out as indentured servants; her son Will was apprenticed as a sailor. Both of her daughters died fifteen years before hr and it is unknown what happened to her son.
She passed away at the age of 75, on February 25, 1848