242: The Self-Empowered Woman: Ona Judge

Dear Followers,

Hard as it is to believe today, the sad truth is that most of our Founding Fathers were slaveholders.  Today I’d like to introduce you to an amazing woman who gained her freedom by escaping from her owner—Mrs. George Washington.

Ona Judge (she was also known as Oney) was born in 1773, and known as a “dower slave.”  Her mother was a seamstress and her father was a white English tailor who was an indentured servant at Mount Vernon.  When she was 10 years old, Ona was brought to the manor house, possibly to be a playmate for Washington’s  granddaughter—Nelly Custis.

Eventually, Ona became a needle work expert and was promoted to become Mrs. Washington’s “body servant.”  In 1789 she was one of seven slaves brought to New York City by the Washingtons to work in what was then the Presidential Residence. But when the nation’s capitol moved to Philadelphia, she was moved there and probably shared a room with Nelly.  

According to records, Ona accompanied Mrs. Washington on her social visits and shopping trips.  And there are ledger records that show purchases were made for her clothes, and even for trips to the circus.  At that time, however, there was a large free black population in Philadelphia, and Ona made friends with the free blacks.  

President Washington realized that slavery was unpopular in Philadelphia, and began to replace the slaves in the presidential household with indentured servants from Germany.  By 1794 there were only three slaves working at the residence.

When Mrs. Washington’s oldest granddaughter, Elizabeth Custis, married an English ex-patriot named Thomas Law in 1796, Mrs. Washington told Ona that she would be given as a gift to the bride.  In late May of that year Ona slipped away while the Washingtons were having dinner.  Her free black friends kept her hidden until she could find passage on a North bound ship, and she made her way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  

Mrs. Washington felt betrayed when she learned that Ona had escaped because she felt that Ona had enjoyed the same privileges that her granddaughter, Nelly, had enjoyed.  When Ona was spotted in Portsmouth, and the Washingtons were informed, they tried (unsuccessfully) to have her captured and returned.

Ona married a sailor, Jack Staines, and together they had three children.  Sadly, Ona outlived her husband and all of her offspring.  Washington had signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, and because of that she lived the rest of her life as a fugitive.  She died in Greenland, New Hampshire on February 25, 1848.

Currently, at Mount Vernon (“where it’s always 1799”) there is a  new popular exhibit called “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.”  Her life story is also the subject of a book, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge,” by Erica Armstrong Dunbar.  

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About Marilyn Murray Willison

The author of six non-fiction books, Willison worked as Health and Fitness Editor at the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, and wrote book reviews, health, beauty, fashion, and travel articles on a regular basis for the Los Angeles Times. Her byline has appeared in a wide variety of American newspapers and magazines.