Ona Judge’s freedom meant more to her than anything, in spite of what those who chose to enslave her believed. Her life was, in fact, not good as an enslaved woman. Contrary to what many slave owners of the time believed or used as the rationale and excuse to continue to participate in keeping human beings as property, she was not better off being a slave than being free.

Ona was enslaved by a prosperous family on their plantation in the colony of Virginia. At age ten Ona, called Oney, was taken into the home and trained to be a personal slave of the white mistress of this wealthy homestead. As a personal slave, she slept inside the mansion, always at her mistress’s beck and call. She cared for her clothing, cleaning her shoes and coat when she returned from the outside, making sure all was crisp and mended and ready for her needs. She combed her mistress’s hair mornings and evenings and before special events. She brought her tea, fanned her when she was hot, brought shawls when she was chilled. Oney waited on her mistress day and night for all and any of her abundant and never-ending needs.

Oney had no time to herself and no personal life, no personal space, no privacy. If Ona would grow up to have a love life, it was not hers to pursue and if, once matured into a woman, she became pregnant and had a child, the child would not belong to her. It would become the property of her owners, just as Oney was their property. Her body and her life were their personal property, real estate, to be sold, bartered or abandoned at their choosing. To her owners, Ona had a specific cash value which they recorded on their ledgers and calculated in their wills.

On the evening of Saturday, March 21, 1796  at the age of  22, while her owners were eating dinner in their fancy dining room with their fancy guests, the one time in the day when Ona had a minute to herself, Ona did the most dangerous thing a woman of her time could do. She said ‘no’ to her enslavement and took her own freedom, regardless of the risks and costs. She fled, ran away.

Silhouette of Oney Judge at Mt. Vernon website

Oney ran away to Portsmouth, New Hampshire where she was taken into and helped by the community of free blacks. Though she surely had her share of happy moments, including marrying Jack Staines, a sailor, in 1797, and having three children with him, her life after taking her freedom was full of difficulty, challenge and sadness, including losing him and two adult children. 

Her life as a runaway was one of intense hardship, but Ona never once regretted her decision. This she told to a reporter who interviewed her at the age of 72, when it was finally safe for her to tell her story. “I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by that means”(Quoted in Dunbar, 206).

And why was anyone interested in Ona Judge’s story? There had to be many others like her. Why do we even know about her? Because she had run away from the household of some very famous people.

Ona Judge had run away from the household of Martha and George Washington, who never succeeded in getting her back, though they sure tried.

Read Nasty Women Writers’ post: Mary Ball Washington: The “First Mother” of the United States of America

Oney was so brave, it’s hard to even imagine. Over and over again, she had to call on that courage within to continue to live her life, to stay alive and to remain free. To claim her freedom, she understood she would never see her family again. And she also understood she may be putting them at risk by running away. She also risked getting caught and tortured, beaten, raped or re-sold on the slave market to new and unknown white owners who may treat her worse than the previous ones. 

Ona Judge was the legal property of Martha Washington. Martha Parke Custis was a very wealthy woman when she married George Washington. After the death of her first husband she “stood in control of over 17,500 acres of land, making her one of the wealthiest widows in the colony of Virginia, if not throughout the entire Chesapeake”(Dunbar 6).

She also owned 84 enslaved Africans. Martha kept ownership of these slaves when she married and on until her death. Her slaves were noted as separate from those belonging to George. This was common at the time. Many white women were owners of and engaged actively in the purchase and sale of Africans.

Read Nasty Women Writers post: Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers – They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South 

Ona was the daughter of Betty, one of the enslaved Africans belonging to Martha Washington, and Mr. Judge, a white indentured servant, who eventually earned his freedom and abandoned his daughter. Ona was one of hundreds of slaves on the Mt. Vernon estate, many to whom she was related, including six siblings.

When George Washington was voted to be first President of the United States, he needed to move part of his household to the temporary location of the capital in New York City. When the family relocated to New York in 1789 for George Washington to assume the position as President of the United States of America, seven slaves were taken with them, including 16-year-old Ona Judge, leaving behind her mother and all other family members except for her brother Austin who was also moved with the family. In New York, Ona had her first exposure to free blacks.

“Unwilling to even think about abandoning the use of black slaves, the president and first lady were careful in their selection of men and women who traveled with them from Mount Vernon. Their selections involved only those slaves who were seen as “loyal” and therefore less likely to attempt escape”(Dunbar 25).

After a Year in New York City, in 1790, it was decided that a new capital would be built along the Potomac River but until then, the new temporary home for it would be in Philadelphia. Here the Washington’s slave owning ways were truly put to a challenge. New York City was one thing, but Philadelphia was another story.   

Philadelphia was a hotbed of the abolitionist movement and there, in that city were not only a lot of free blacks, but a lot of people who wanted to see them all freed.

“The commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts had already loosened the shackles of slavery through gradual abolition laws, while New York struggled with such decisions”(Dunbar 24).

“Inevitably, Ona Judge became acquainted with the free black Philadelphians, some of whom, when she made the decision to flee, would become the most supportive friends imaginable”(Dunbar 77).

During their time in Philadelphia, the Washingtons were notified that there was a  Pennsylvania law that “required the emancipation of all adult slaves who were brought into the commonwealth for more than a period of six months”(Dunbar 62). The Washingtons set out to avoid this law by sending their adult slaves back and forth to Mount Vernon every six months.

A sign hanging in the reconstructed President’s House at Independence National Historical Park that tells the story of Oney Judge.

As Martha’s personal slave, Ona accompanied Martha on her outings, was in possession of nice clothing and came to know the homes of the wealthy and important—experience for herself the inner workings of this class. In these outings, she was able to meet other Africans who were enslaved as well as those who were free. She made many connections on these outings that would prove important later. She also worked with white servants in her new home and saw their lifestyle. Though they were servants, they were free and earning money for their labor. There was a qualitative difference in their lives that Ona wanted for herself.

But the event that made her decide to finally commit to the dangerous and risky decision to flee for good, was discovering that Martha Washington was about to give her to her Granddaughter Eliza Custis as a wedding gift. Eliza had a terrible reputation and Ona did not want to belong to her or live with her.

It was common at the time to bequeath your slaves, human beings, in a will, or give them as wedding gifts, tearing apart families, removing mothers from children or children from mothers and separating siblings forever without a thought.

The hurt Ona felt over being given away by someone to whom she had been loyal, made her realize and remember that she was only a piece of property to Martha Washington, nothing more, and that her life was not her own. She was helped by the black community in Philadelphia and given passage on a boat bound for Portsmouth, New Hampshire. At this time, the underground railroad was not yet in existence. But there were people who were working to help runaway slaves and assure they retain their freedom once they took it.

When she arrived in Portsmouth, it was different than anywhere she had ever been. There were only 5000 people total and very few blacks, fewer than 800 and less than 200 of them enslaved(Dunbar 120). At that time, there were “fewer black people in the entire city of Portsmouth than there were slaves living at Mount Vernon”(Dunbar 121), the plantation onto which Ona had been born.

The free blacks of Portsmouth, who had most probably been notified of her arrival, helped Ona out. She found temporary housing and paid domestic work quickly. The work was very difficult and strenuous. Much different than the work she was accustomed to.

“Yet, Judge had few choices but to become a domestic and a laundress, choosing to endure physically punishing work in New Hampshire, rather than accept her life as a slave. That Judge elected to become a domestic, that she chose to endure physically punishing work in New Hampshire, rather than remain a slave, says everything we need know about how much she valued freedom”(Dunbar 124).

Cover of Dunbar’s book on Ona Judge

It’s really difficult to learn how hard Ona’s life was in Portsmouth after she escaped enslavement. Bad enough to continue to be chased and at risk of being returned to her owners and slavery, that she endured such poverty and loss is upsetting. I want her story to be happier, but that is my own wish for the world to have met her differently. I want a happy ending but this was the truth of her reality: Her husband, Jack, died in 1803 in circumstances unknown to history and Ona’s two adult daughters preceded her in death, both in their thirties, after she had to give them up to indentured servitude for a number of years because of the severe impoverishment she was unable to overcome. 

I feel sadness and frustration, the need for some sort of remuneration. What could that possibly be? What would that look like? I have no idea but I wish she had better options than the ones she was born into. Alas.

It is also difficult to speak exactly to what Oney Judge felt or experienced, as very little was written down or recorded, but Erica Armstrong Dunbar, in her book, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, does her best to piece Ona’s life back together within the historical context of the time. We have no actual pictures of Ona, but some have created paintings based on descriptions, as the one on the top of this post.

In 1793, “the fugitive slave laws allowed slave owners to cross state lines to retrieve their human property”(Dunbar 125).When Ona arrived in the state, New Hampshire was on its way to abolishing slavery. It had existed there for more than 150 years(Dunbar 124).

A few months after her arrival in Portsmouth, Ona ran into Elizabeth Langdon, the daughter of the Senator of New Hampshire, John Langdon, on a street in Portsmouth. The Langdon family knew the Washingtons well. Elizabeth had spent time in their Philadelphia home where Ona was enslaved and Ona had served her as she spent time visiting the Washington’s grand-daughter, Nell. They recognized each other as they passed by. It took some time for Elizabeth to place Ona, but when she did, she reported the sighting to her father who informed George Washington(Dunbar 133).

The Washingtons wanted their slave back. They reached out to a customs officer in Portsmouth to find her. He put out word that he was looking for a domestic with qualifications that Ona met. She went to his home to apply for the job but quickly realized he knew who she was. Ona pretended to acquiesce to his plea for her to return to her owners voluntarily. She then fled, leaving him waiting for her at the train depot(145). He decided not to pursue her any longer and wrote to the man who had asked him to find her, saying he had not been able to.

Runaway ad for Oney Judge

In 1799, another man showed up at her door while her husband was at sea, telling her he had come to collect her. She again fled, this time to Greenland, New Hampshire where a free black family took her in and hid her.

Twice the Washingtons asserted their power and notoriety to try to force local New Hampshire residents and city officials to return her. Twice, Oney ran away from them and was taken in by locals who protected her.

In Portsmouth and nearby Greenland, New Hampshire where she lived out the remainder of her life, she is a local legend.

“Rockingham county did not have a multifarious population and as a result the seacoast area’s African-Americans fused together to confront cultural isolation. To overcome social marginalization, prejudice, scant housing, lack of economic opportunity, and pejorative white attitudes that faced their small community, Portsmouth area blacks, like the Jack-Staines domestic partnership, relied upon bonds of mutual dependence”(http://www.seacoastnh.com/oney-judge-burial-site/).

In 1847, “on New Year’s Day, Ona Staines’s story appeared in the leading abolitionist newspaper of the era, the Liberator. Her name and life’s story were finally known to thousands of readers across the nation, permanently linking her to the crusade for black freedom in the years leading up to the Civil War”(Dunbar 185).

Oney Judge Staines is a Nasty Woman Activist.

©Theresa C. Dintino 2020

Dunbar, Erica Armstrong. Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit Of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.

“Oney Judge Burial Site?” SeacoastNH.com,(http://www.seacoastnh.com/oney-judge-burial-site/)