Oney Judge

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Oney Judge
Oney Judge Runaway Ad.jpg
"Advertisement," The Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, May 24, 1796 (2365).
Born ca. 1773
Mount Vernon, Virginia
Died February 25, 1848(1848-02-25) (aged 75)
Greenland, New Hampshire
Spouse(s) John Staines
Children Eliza Staines
Nancy Staines
Will Staines
Parents Andrew Judge
Betty the slave

Oney "Ona" Judge, known as Oney Judge Staines after marriage (c. 1773 – February 25, 1848), was born on George Washington's plantation, Mount Vernon in Virginia, as one of the dower slaves of Martha Custis Washington, the wife of the planter and future president.[1] A personal servant to Martha, Judge was taken to Washington's presidential households beginning in 1789; she escaped to freedom in 1796 in Philadelphia. With the aid of the free black community, she took a ship to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and lived nearby for the rest of her life.[2]

Washington's representatives contacted her twice to try to persuade her to return but, since the president would not guarantee her freedom after his and his wife's deaths, Judge refused. She married and had three children in New Hampshire. More is known about her than any other of Washington's slaves because in the mid-1840s, she was twice interviewed by abolitionist newspapers.[3]


Life of George Washington: The Farmer by Junius Brutus Stearnes (c. 1853).

Oney was born about 1773 at Mount Vernon, the plantation of George Washington, to Betty, an enslaved seamstress, and Andrew Judge, an English tailor and indentured servant. She was described later in life as "nearly white."[4] Among her family was a half-brother Austin, who was about 15 years older.[5]

Under the legal principle known as partus sequitur ventrem, which had been incorporated into Virginia colonial law since 1662, because her mother was a slave, Oney was born into slavery. Her mother Betty was part of the Estate of Daniel Parke Custis (1711–1757). She was assigned to his widow Martha Custis as part of her one-third "dower" of the estate, along with her children, and under Martha's lifetime control. Martha Custis had married Washington in 1759. After her death, Betty and her children (and other dower slaves) would revert to the Custis estate for disposition to the heirs.

At about age 10, Judge was assigned to the Mansion House at Mount Vernon, likely as a playmate for Martha Washington's granddaughter Nelly Custis. She eventually acted as the personal attendant or body servant to Martha Washington and accompanied her during travel. In an interview when she was nearly 80, Ona Judge said she had received no education at the Washingtons, nor religious instruction.[6]

Presidential household[edit]

Washington took seven slaves, including Judge, to New York City in 1789 to work in his presidential household; the others were her half-brother Austin, Giles, Paris, Moll, Christopher Sheels, and William Lee. Following the transfer of the national capital to Philadelphia in 1790, Judge was one of nine slaves Washington took to that city to work in the President's House, together with Austin, Giles, Paris, Moll, Hercules, Richmond, Christopher Sheels, and "Postilion Joe" (Richardson).[5][7]

In 1780 Pennsylvania passed An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. It prohibited importation of slaves while protecting the property rights of Pennsylvania slaveholders. It freed only the future children of the current enslaved. Nonresidents could hold slaves in the state for up to six months but, if slaves were held beyond that deadline, Pennsylvania law gave them the power to free themselves. The law exempted Congressmen from the provisions of the residency deadline.[8] When the federal government relocated for ten years to Philadelphia beginning in 1790, officials of the executive and judicial branches, among whom were many slaveholders, had to comply with the law regulating holding of slaves for more than 6 months in the state.

Washington and other slaveholders contended (privately) that, as they were residents of other states, they should not be bound by the law. Washington held that he was living in Pennsylvania solely as a consequence of Philadelphia's being the temporary seat of the federal government. His attorney general, Edmund Randolph, advised him that, by strict legal interpretation, a slave's residency in Pennsylvania could be terminated by spending one day outside the state.[9] As other slaveholders had exploited this loophole, Pennsylvania eliminated it through a 1788 amendment to the Gradual Abolition Act, prior to the federal government's arrival in the state.

Washington repeatedly worked around the amendment to the state law by systematically rotating the slaves serving at the President's House in and out of the state to prevent their establishing a six-month continuous residency.[9] He also was careful to avoid spending six continuous months in Pennsylvania himself (which might have been interpreted as his establishing legal residency). He continued to say that, as he was a citizen of Virginia, he was subject to its laws regarding slavery.[10]

Washington was traveling in the South in May 1791 when the first six-month deadline approached. Martha Washington took Oney Judge and Christopher Sheels to Trenton, New Jersey, for two days to interrupt their Pennsylvania residency.[11] She had other slaves transported back to Mount Vernon prior to the deadline to prevent them from obtaining freedom.[9]


"Washington's Residence, High Street." Lithograph by William L. Breton, from John Fanning Watson's Annals of Philadelphia (1830).

Judge fled when the Washingtons were planning to return to Virginia. She feared being given to the First Lady's granddaughter as a wedding present, and thought if she returned to Virginia, she would never be free. Judge said in an 1845 interview:

"Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go, I didn't know where; for I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty. I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left Washington's house while they were eating dinner."[12]

Runaway advertisements announce Judge's escape to freedom from the President's House on May 21, 1796. The following appeared in The Pennsylvania Gazette on May 24, 1796:


Absconded from the household of the President of the United States, ONEY JUDGE, a light mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes and bushy hair. She is of middle stature, slender, and delicately formed, about 20 years of age.

She has many changes of good clothes, of all sorts, but they are not sufficiently recollected to be described—As there was no suspicion of her going off, nor no provocation to do so, it is not easy to conjecture whither she has gone, or fully, what her design is; but as she may attempt to escape by water, all masters of vessels are cautioned against admitting her into them, although it is probable she will attempt to pass for a free woman, and has, it is said, wherewithal to pay her passage.

Ten dollars will be paid to any person who will bring her home, if taken in the city, or on board any vessel in the harbour;—and a reasonable additional sum if apprehended at, and brought from a greater distance, and in proportion to the distance.

FREDERICK KITT, Steward. May 23

New Hampshire[edit]

John Langdon House, Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Over a September 1798 dinner, Burwell Bassett Jr. revealed his plan to kidnap Judge.

Judge was hidden by friends in the free black community and put aboard the Nancy, a ship piloted by Captain John Bowles,[13] which was bound for Portsmouth, New Hampshire. That summer she was recognized on the streets of Portsmouth by Elizabeth Langdon, daughter of Senator John Langdon and a friend of Nelly Custis. Washington knew of Judge's whereabouts by September 1, when he wrote to Oliver Wolcott, Jr., the Secretary of the Treasury, about having her captured and returned by ship.[14]

At their request, Joseph Whipple, Portsmouth's collector of customs, interviewed Judge and reported back to Wolcott and the President. They abandoned their plan after Whipple warned that news of an abduction could cause a riot on the docks from abolitionist supporters. Whipple said that he would not remove Judge against her will, but relayed her offer to return voluntarily to the Washingtons if they would guarantee her freedom following their deaths.[15]

Washington responded:

"I regret that the attempt you made to restore the Girl (Oney Judge as she called herself while with us, and who, without the least provocation absconded from her Mistress) should have been attended with so little Success. To enter into such a compromise with her, as she suggested to you, is totally inadmissible, for reasons that must strike at first view: for however well disposed I might be to a gradual abolition, or even to an entire emancipation of that description of People (if the latter was in itself practicable at this moment) it would neither be politic or just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference [of freedom]; and thereby discontent before hand the minds of all her fellow-servants who by their steady attachments are far more deserving than herself of favor."[16]

Washington retired from the presidency in March 1797. The next year his nephew Burwell Bassett Jr. traveled to New Hampshire in September 1798 to try to convince Judge to return. By this point, she had married a seaman named John Staines and was the mother of an infant; her husband was at sea. Judge Staines met with Bassett, but refused to return to Virginia with him. Over dinner with Senator Langdon, Bassett revealed his plan to kidnap her. By secretly sending word to Judge Staines to go into hiding, Langdon foiled Bassett's plan.[17]

Washington could have used the federal courts to recover Judge Staines— the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act (which he had signed into law) required a legal process to return an escaped slave over state lines. Any court case, however, would have been part of the public record, and attracted unwelcome attention to the case.

Following Judge's escape, Washington and his wife gave her younger sister, Delphy (born about 1779),[18] to Martha Washington's granddaughter as a wedding present. Eliza Custis and her husband manumitted Delphy and her children in 1807.[19]


Town of Greenland, Rockingham County, New Hampshire.

In New Hampshire, Oney Judge met and married John (Jacks) Staines, a free black sailor. Their January 1797 marriage was listed in the town records of Greenland and published in the local newspaper.[20] They had three children:

  • Eliza Staines (born 1798, died February 14, 1832, New Hampshire, no known offspring)
  • Will Staines (born 1801, death date & location unknown, no known offspring)
  • Nancy Staines (born 1802, died February 11, 1833, New Hampshire, no known offspring)

In freedom, she learned to read and became a Christian.[6] Oney and John Staines had fewer than 7 years together; he died on October 19, 1803. According to the historian Eva Gerson, Judge was unable to support their children and moved in with her former guardian John Jacks, Jr. and his two daughters. Her children Eliza and Nancy Staines were made wards of the town and hired out as indentured servants.[21] As a young man, Will Staines was apprenticed as a sailor.[17]

Judge Staines' daughters died fifteen years before her. Her son reportedly never returned to Portsmouth. After the elder Jacks died, Rockingham County donated firewood and other supplies to Judge and the Jacks sisters, by then too old to work.[17]

Interviews on slavery[edit]

Judge Staines's interviews in May 1845 in The Granite Freeman and January 1847 in The Liberator, both abolitionist newspapers, contained a wealth of details about her life. She described the Washingtons, their attempts to capture her, her opinions on slavery, her pride in having learned to read, and her strong religious faith. When asked whether she was sorry that she left the Washingtons, since she labored so much harder after her escape than before, she said: "No, I am free, and have, I trust been made a child of God by the means."[22]

Never freed[edit]

As a dower slave of Martha Washington, Judge was not among the 124 slaves whom George Washington owned and freed under the terms of his will following his 1799 death.[23] Instead, the 153 or so "dower" slaves reverted to the Custis Estate following Martha Washington's 1802 death. They were divided among the Custis heirs, Martha's grandchildren.[24]

Legally, as Oney Judge Staines was a fugitive, her children also were "dower" slaves, considered the property of the Custis Estate. State law protected the property rights of slaveholders; children born to fugitive slave mothers were considered slaves. The facts that their father had been a free man and the Staines children had been born in New Hampshire were not material to the slave law of Virginia.[25]

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 established the legal mechanism by which a slaveholder could recover his property, a right guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution by the Fugitive Slave Clause (Article IV, Section 2). The 1793 Act — passed overwhelmingly by Congress and signed into law by Martha's husband President George Washington; made it a federal crime to assist an escaped slave. The Act was not controversial, because, at that time, slavery existed in all but two of the thirteen states.[26]

Practically, after Washington's death, Oney Judge Staines felt secure in New Hampshire, as no one else in his family was likely to mount an effort to take her.[17] But legally, she and her children remained fugitives until their deaths before the American Civil War. Her daughters died more than a decade before her; Oney Judge Staines died in Greenland, New Hampshire on February 25, 1848.

Legacy and honors[edit]

On February 25, 2008, the 160th anniversary of Judge's death, Philadelphia celebrated the first "Oney Judge Day" at the President's House site. The ceremony included speeches by historians and activists, a proclamation by Mayor Michael A. Nutter, and a memorial citation by the City Council.[27]

"Oney Judge Freedom Day," the 214th anniversary of her escape to freedom, was celebrated at the President's House site on May 21, 2010.[28] The President's House Commemoration: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation, at 6th & Market Streets in Philadelphia, opened in December 2010. It includes a video about Oney Judge and information about all nine slaves held at the house.[29] It also honors the contributions of African Americans to Philadelphia and the US.

In popular culture[edit]

Oney Judge's life story has inspired fiction:

  • Taking Liberty (2002), novel by Ann Rinaldi
  • The Escape of Oney Judge (2007) by Emily Arnold McCully (children's book).
  • My Name Is Oney Judge (2010) by Diane D. Turner (children's book).

and drama:

  • Thirst for Freedom (2000 drama) by Emory Wilson, produced that year at Player's Ring Theater, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
  • A House with No Walls (2007 drama) by Thomas Gibbons, performed at InterAct Theater, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and regional theaters throughout the United States.

Other genres:

  • Parallel Destinies (2010) by choreographer Germaine Ingram, composer Bobby Zankel, and visual artist John Dowell is a dance/theater piece, a work-in-progress at the Philadelphia Folklore Project.
  • Stand-up comedian Jen Kirkman recounts Oney Judge's life in the Funny or Die produced web video.[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The February 18, 1786 Mount Vernon slave census lists "Oney" as Betty's child and "12 yrs. old". Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds., The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 4, (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia), p. 278.
  2. ^ Runaway advertisement, The Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia), May 24, 1796.
  3. ^ Two 1840s interviews with Oney Judge, President's House, US History. In the interviews, her first name is spelled "O-N-A", but all prior references spell it "O-N-E-Y".
  4. ^ Rev. Benjamin Chase, "1846 interview with Ona Judge Staines", The Liberator, 1 January 1847, at President's House website, US History, accessed 1 April 2012
  5. ^ a b The President's House in Philadelphia, US
  6. ^ a b Rev. T.H. Adams, "Washington's Runaway Slave", The Granite Freeman, 22 May 1845, at President's House website, US, accessed 1 April 2012
  7. ^ Postilion Joe's wife Sarah took the surname Richardson after she was freed by Washington's will. As a "dower slave," Joe could not be freed by Washington.
  8. ^ "Pennsylvania's Gradual Abolition Act (1780)", President's House of Philadelphia, US
  9. ^ a b c Edward Lawler Jr.,. "Washington, the Enslaved, and the 1780 Law". President's House of Philadelphia. US Retrieved 11 February 2011. 
  10. ^ 1788 amendment, President's House of Philadelphia, US
  11. ^ Gen. Philemon Dickinson House
  12. ^ "Washington's Runaway Slave", The Granite Freeman, Concord, New Hampshire (May 22, 1845); carried at President's House in Philadelphia, Independence Hall Association, accessed 11 February 2011
  13. ^ Gerson, Evelyn. "Ona Judge Staines: Escape from Washington". Retrieved 2012-11-17. 
  14. ^ George Washington to Oliver Wolcott, Sept. 1, 1796
  15. ^ Joseph Whipple to Oliver Wolcott, October 4, 1796, Library of Congress
  16. ^ Washington to Whipple, November 28, 1796.
  17. ^ a b c d Eva Gerson, "Ona Judge Staines: Escape from Washington", 2000, Black History, SeacoastNH
  18. ^ Jackson & Twohig, Diaries, vol. 4, p. 278. Note: Delphy is listed as "6 yrs. old" in the February 18, 1786 Mount Vernon slave census.
  19. ^ Washington, D.C. Land Records, Liber H, #8, p. 382; Liber R, #17, p. 288, as quoted in Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), p. 383, n.13.
  20. ^ Fritz Hirschfeld, George Washington and Slavery: A Documentary Portrayal (University of Missouri, 1997), pp. 112-17.
  21. ^ Evelyn Gerson, A Thirst for Complete Freedom: Why Fugitive Slave Ona Judge Staines Never Returned to Her Master, President George Washington (M.A. thesis, Harvard University, June 2000), p. 130
  22. ^ "Washington's Runaway Slave", The Granite Freeman, Concord, New Hampshire (May 22, 1845), President's House, Independence Hall Association, US, accessed 11 February 2011
  23. ^ Last Will and Testament of George Washington, George Washington Collection, PBS
  24. ^ The numbers of "Washington" and "dower" slaves come from the 1799 Mount Vernon slave census., George Washington Papers, University of Virginia
    The names of the "dower" slaves inherited by each of the Custis grandchildren have never been published, which has created an obstacle for genealogists and people trying to research their family history.
  25. ^ The legal status of a child born following an enslaved mother's escape to another (free) state was the same as if that child had been born in the mother's native (slave) state. The U.S. Constitution protected the property rights of the slaveholder, which superseded the rights of the child's father. See U.S. Supreme Court, Jones vs. Van Zandt (1847).
  26. ^ Finkelman, An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity
  27. ^ Stephan Salisbury, "City honors Washington's slave - and 'power of archaeology'", The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 26, 2008, at President's House of Philadelphia, US
  28. ^ "Slave's escape commemorated at President's House", The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 21, 2010
  29. ^ "The President's House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation", City of Philadelphia, accessed 11 February 2011
  30. ^ "Drunk History vol. 3".

Further reading[edit]

  • Mechal Sobel's The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth Century Virginia, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987
  • Prof. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History Random House, 2007 (p.128)

External links[edit]

Sister projects[edit]

Works related to George Washington's correspondence with Joseph Whipple at Wikisource