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Runaway Slave Ona Judge Staines


"Thirst for Complete Freedom"

Since Ona had been illegally delivered to New Hampshire, Washington immediately contacted Joseph Whipple, Portsmouth's Collector of Customs (and brother to William Whipple) to seek his help in the matter. In a letter dated September 1, 1796, the President requested that Whipple "seize her and put her on board a Vessel bound immediately to this place, or to Alexandria" with a promise to reimburse him of any costs. Honored to have his services called upon by the President, Whipple set out to locate the fugitive slave. However, during an interview with Ona, the Collector became so impressed with her character, so convinced of her "thirst for complete freedom," that he decided against returning her to involuntary servitude. Whipple wrote back to the President that he could not arrest her and force her to sail back because "popular opinion here is in favor of universal freedom" and such an action might spawn a demonstration among anti-slavery residents. He suggested that Washington use the courts rather than the Customs House to retrieve his fugitive slave.

On November 28th, 1796, Washington wrote to Whipple a second time with the hopes that more could be done to catch his escaped slave. He outlined a possible course of action for her apprehension, but cautioned the Collector not to take any action which might "excite a mob or riot...or even uneasy Sensations in the Minds of well disposed Citizens." Paying lip service to the President, Whipple assured Washington that he would try to execute his request, but doubted that it could be done without stirring anti-slavery sentiments. He also reminded the slave owner that a servant returning voluntarily is of "infinitely more value in the estimation of her employer than one taken forcibly like a felon to punishment."

Free But Not Safe

Whipple's non-intervention allowed Judge to grow roots in Portsmouth. She adjusted quickly to her new life as an independent woman, took up residence with a free black family, and found work as a seamstress to support herself. In January of 1797, Ona met and married a Black Jack by the name of Jack Staines. Although Ona assumed the life of a free-black woman, she was in constant fear that slave hunters would send her back to bondage - and rightfully so - for Washington certainly did not forget where she was hiding. Two years after Ona's escape, the retired President asked his nephew, Burwell Bassett, Jr., who was planning a business trip to New Hampshire, to try and seize the woman along with any children she may have had, and send them all back to the Virginia plantation. When Bassett revealed these intentions during his dinner with Langdon, the Senator quickly sent word about the impending kidnapping to Ona by way of his servant. The fugitive hired a wagon and fled to the neighboring town of Greenland where she and her baby went into hiding with a free black family named Jacks. Here she stayed until Bassett left and her husband returned from sea. Although she successfully eluded another apprehension, it wasn't until the Death of Washington three months after this incident, that Ona felt her freedom was finally secured.


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