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Runaway Slave Ona Judge Staines


Escape to Greenland, NH

When the seat of government shifted from New York to Pennsylvania a year and a half later, the entire household; slaves included, moved again to Philadelphia. Towards the end of Washington's second term, the President decided to spend his summer recess back on Mount Vernon. Ona realized that she if she were to go back south to the plantation she might never gain her liberty and thus decided to escape from the Executive Mansion. Since Washington mentioned in a letter to his nephew Bartholomew Dandridge in June of 1796 how on "Monday the 13th I expect to leave this city for Mount Vernon," Ona probably escaped from her owners around this date or perhaps a few weeks earlier. While the Washingtons began packing in anticipation for their departure, Ona too packed up her things, but with different intentions. Retelling her story to for the New Hampshire abolitionist paper, "Granite Freeman" many years later in 1845, Ona confided "I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there before hand, and left while [the Washingtons] were eating dinner." Once in hiding, the fugitive's friends walked the docks looking for the first ship sailing north with a captain who would ask no questions about his passengers.

Captain John Bowles Ona gained passage upon a sloop named the Nancy, piloted by Portsmouth's Captain John Bowles. The sea captain navigated back and forth between Portsmouth and the Federal City about once a month. Together with his landside partner and manager, Thomas Leigh, of Berwick, Maine, Bowles ran a profitable freight business carrying harnesses, bridles, saddles, and other leather products to be sold in the New Hampshire. By the third day of June, the mariner was back in New Hampshire advertising his cargo of new wares and announcing his intentions to said again on the 25th of the month. However, it is not known if Ona sailed on this late May tour or if she remained in hiding until the Washingtons left town and sailed with him on either his late June or July journeys.

Did Captain Bowles realize he carried a fugitive slave on board, and that this human property belonged to the America's Commander-in-Chief, George Washington? Most likely he did know that she was a runaway, but kept her voyage-and his participation in her escape-a secret in order to keep Ona safe and protect his own neck. Many slave states equated the harboring and abetting of runaways to an illegal confiscation of property and those found guilty of could be sentenced to death.

Spotted in Portsmouth

While strolling through the streets of Portsmouth, Ona passed by Elizabeth Langdon, daughter of Senator John Langdon. As a frequent caller to Martha Washington and her granddaughter, Nelly Custis, Betsy Langdon had seen Ona numerous times. Miss Langdon tried to engage Ona in conversation but the bondswoman evaded her. It is probably from this interlude that news of Ona's whereabouts made it back to Washington, because by September, when the President returned to Philadelphia, he already knew where to search for his escaped slave.


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Wednesday, November 22, 2017 
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