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Runaway Slave Ona Judge Staines

Washington and his slaves at Mount vernon / Library of CongressNH BLACK HISTORY

First lady Martha Washington enslaved more Africans than any woman of her time. When Ona (Oney) Judge, Martha’s body slave, escaped from Mount Vernon in 1796, she came to Seacoast, New Hampshire. Her amazing story is told her by researcher Evelyn Gerson for




George Washington's slave escaped Virginia
to freedom in New Hampshire

Escape to NH
Life in Bondage
Coming to Greenland
& Spotted in Portsmouth
Thirst for Freedom
& Free But not Safe
Life in New Hampshire
About Evelyn Gerson
Oney Judge Grave Site? 
Washington in NH

A Thirst for Complete Freedom & Her Escape from President Washington
By Evelyn Gerson

Escape to New Hampshire

During the fall of 1796, George Washington's final months in office, Ona Judge Staines, a slave belonging to the First Family, escaped the Executive Mansion in Philadelphia (equivalent to today's White House) and made her way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The President, upon learning of her whereabouts, penned several correspondences and solicited help from friends and family in order to retrieve her. Despite these attempts, Ona eluded Washington and eventually settled in Greenland, NH.

Life in Bondage

Since Washington did not keep vital statistics for his slaves, Ona's exact date of birth is not known. However, through his inventories, letters, and diary entries, the histories of slaves can be recreated. Her father, Andrew Judge, was a white indentured servant from Leeds, England who arrived in America in 1772. Judge gained his freedom after fulfilling his four-year contract at Mount Vernon and eventually moved off the plantation to start his own luck at farming. Ona's mother, a slave named Betty, was an expert at textiles and spent much of her time spinning thread, weaving cloth, and tailoring clothes for both the Washingtons and her fellow bondspeople. Betty was a "Dower Negro," that is she belonged to the estate of Martha's first husband Daniel Parke Custis, and after the Washington nuptials in 1759, moved to Mount Vernon with her mistress. According to Virginia law, children born to slave mothers were considered property of the slaveholder, so even though Judge obtained his freedom after his contract expired, his daughter no such legal claim.

George Washington on Plantation Assigned to the Mansion House, Ona spent her days on arduous domestic tasks like spinning thread, weaving cloth, churning butter, turning tallow into soap, dipping candles, washing laundry and preparing food. Following in her mother's footsteps, the young slave became a particularly talented seamstress and this ability earned the respect of her masters. In fact, Ona's contribution to the household was so significant, that George Washington once described her as being a "perfect Mistress of her needle."

After Washington's election in 1789, he and Martha left for the inauguration in New York City with seven slaves from Mount Vernon. The 15-year-old Ona had no choice but to leave the plantation-abandoning all her family and friends-and accompany her owners to their new residence. The First Lady decided to graduate Ona from the sewing circle to the boudoir and appointed the young girl to the rank of her personal attendant. As Martha's bodyservant, Ona's new tasks included helping her mistress dress and powder for official receptions, traveling with her on social calls and outings, and executing daily errands. Several times a week Ona accompanied the First Lady on her visits to the wives of other legislators and political leaders. While the women of the Republican Court entertained Martha in their receiving rooms, their household servants entertained Ona in the kitchen with refreshments, gossip, and stories. Soon Ona's circle of friends greatly expanded and many of these new acquaintances were free-blacks who answered the slave's questions about liberty, self-sovereignty, and how to escape.


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