I learned the story of Ona (Oney) Judge Staines from a visit to the National Park Service site called The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation. That Philadelphia exhibit opened in 2010 after years of revelation and struggle by local activists and historians to push the NPS to look more deeply at the site of the first executive mansion occupied first by George and Martha Washington from 1790-96 and then by John Addams until 1800. As part of these important efforts, activists pushed the NPS to address George Washington’s role as a slave owner and to tell the story of the nine enslaved persons who lived with him and Martha in Philadelphia during this time. Ona Judge Staines was one of those nine.
Ona Judge Staines was born in 1773 in Washington’s home of Mount Vernon, Virginia. Her mother’s name was Betty and was enslaved by the Washingtons. Her father, Andrew Judge was a white indentured servant of the Washingtons who lived and worked at Mount Vernon in the early 1770s. In a common practice, Judge signed a contract with Washington that bound him to labor as a tailor in exchange for passage from Europe to Virginia and room and board in Mount Vernon for a period of years. Andrew Judge made uniforms and other clothes for George Washington. When his contract expired he left the home. His daughter’s legal status followed that of her mother. As enslaved persons, Betty and Ona were forced to remain in Mount Vernon and work for the Washington family. Under slavery, neither Betty nor Andrew had parental rights over Ona.
As a child, Ona Judge was brought into Washington’s home to labor for Martha Washington. When George Washington assumed the position of the first President of the United States, he and Martha moved first to New York City and then to the President’s House in Philadelphia, which served as the temporary capital of the nation until 1800. The first couple moved to Philadelphia and forced nine of the 317 enslaved persons living at Mount Vernon to accompany them to the city. Ona Judge was one of the nine, along with Moll, Christopher Sheels, Hercules, Hercules’ son Richmond, Ona’s half-brother Austin, Giles, Paris, and Joe.
Philadelphia’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780 stipulated that any enslaved person in the city limits could free themselves after 30 days of residency. During the six years that George and Martha Washington lived in the city as President and First Lady, they engaged in various tactics to circumvent that law including coordinated rotations, short trips back to Mount Vernon and overnight trips to New Jersey. These planned actions were a willful evasion of city law and ensured the continued enslavement of nine people.
In May 1796, as the Washingtons prepared to move back to Mount Vernon, Ona Judge secretly passed some belongings and effects to friends of hers in Philadelphia and fled the house while the Washingtons ate dinner. She hid out with friends in Philadelphia until they were able to secure her safe passage aboard a boat called the Nancy. Captained by John Bowles, the boat sailed to Portsmouth, New Hampshire where Judge began to make a life amongst the small community of African-Americans who were living in the city.
The Washingtons immediately posted advertisements and solicited help in capturing Ona Judge and returning her to enslavement. In September 1796, a family friend of the Washingtons’ recognized her on a street in Portsmouth and returned word of her location. Washington implored several government agents to assist in her capture, including Portsmouth’s Collector of Customs, Joseph Whipple. Washington retired from the presidency in 1797 but continued to pursue Ona Judge, convincing his nephew Burwell Bassett, Jr. to travel to NH in 1798 and convince her to return. Of this visit, she was warned ahead of time and went into hiding to evade capture.
In January 1787, Ona Judge married a sailor named Jack Staines. They had three children.
Ona Judge Staines granted several interviews to various abolitionist journalists over the course of her life. She told the story of her escape, her journey to New Hamphire and her perspective on the Washingtons’ continued pursuit. It is perhaps this publicity combined with the Washington family’s fear of negative publicity that secured the relative freedom with which she lived until her death.
During her long life, Ona Judge Staines was not able to legally secure her freedom nor the freedom of her three children (also legally enslaved as their status followed that of their mother’s not their father’s), because of the legal stipulations in place through the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, passed by Congress in a vote of 48-7 on February 4, 1793 and signed into law by Washington himself on February 12, 1793, during the time he and Ona Judge Staines resided in Philadelphia. Under this Act, George and Martha Washington and later Martha’s inheritors, were legally allowed to make a claim on her and her children.
Ona Judge Staines died in Greenland, New Hampshire, February 25, 1848.
Acclaimed scholar and historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar published Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge in 2017. It is the first full-length non-fiction account of her story.