Oney Judge

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Ona "Oney" Judge Staines
Advertisement in the May 24, 1795 edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, published in Philadelphia, offering a reward for Judge's return
Bornc. 1773
DiedFebruary 25, 1848(1848-02-25) (aged 75)
SpouseJack Staines
ChildrenEliza Staines
Nancy Staines
Will Staines
Parent(s)Andrew Judge
RelativesAustin (half-brother)
Tom Davis (half-brother)
Betty Davis (half-sister)
Delphy (half-sister)

Ona "Oney" Judge Staines (c. 1773 – February 25, 1848) was an enslaved biracial woman who was owned by the Washington family, first at the family's plantation at Mount Vernon and later, after George Washington became president, at the President's House in Philadelphia, then the nation's capital city.[1] In her early twenties, she absconded, becoming a fugitive slave, after learning that Martha Washington had intended to transfer ownership of her to her granddaughter, known to have a horrible temper. She fled to New Hampshire, where she married, had children, and converted to Christianity. Though she was never formally freed, the Washington family ultimately stopped pressing her to return to Virginia after George Washington's death.

Early life[edit]

Life of George Washington: The Farmer a portrait depicting George Washington and Mount Vernon by Junius Brutus Stearns, c. 1853

Judge was born about 1773 at Mount Vernon, the estate of George Washington and his family.[a] Her mother, Betty, was a slave, and her father, Andrew Judge, was a white English tailor working as an indentured servant at Mount Vernon. Though Judge was predominantly of European heritage, she was born into slavery under the premise of partus sequitur ventrem. She had a half-brother, Austin, born before 1757 (father unknown);[3] a half-brother Tom Davis[3] and a half-sister Betty Davis[3] (fathered by white indentured weaver Thomas Davis);[4] and a half-sister Delphy (father unknown).[5] Delphy, born to Betty about 1779,[3] lived until December 13, 1831.[6][7]

Betty had been among the 285 African slaves owned by Martha Washington's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis (1711–1757). Custis died without a will and so, his widow, Martha Dandridge Custis, received what was called a dower share of the estate, which meant, until her death, she was entitled to use of a third of her deceased husband's wealth, which included at least 85 slaves.[8] Though Martha had some control over these dower slaves, they were owned by the estate, so she could neither free nor sell them. After Martha wed George Washington in 1759, Betty traveled with her to Mount Vernon, along with then-infant Austin. Under the legal principle of partus sequitur ventrem, incorporated into Virginia colonial law in 1662, because Betty was a slave and property of the Custis Estate, that meant that Austin, Ona and Delphy were also owned by the Custis Estate. Upon the completion of his indenture, Andrew Judge settled in Alexandria, Virginia, some 11 miles away, and did not maintain contact with his illegitimate family.

When she was around 10 years old, Judge was brought to live at the Mansion House at Mount Vernon, likely as a "playmate" for Martha Washington's (family of George Washington) granddaughter Nelly Custis. She eventually became the personal attendant or body servant to Martha Washington. In an interview in 1846, Ona said she had received no education under the Washingtons, nor religious instruction.[9]

With the aid of Philadelphia's free black community, Judge liberated herself in 1796[10] and lived as a fugitive slave in New Hampshire for the rest of her life.

More is known about her than any other slave on the Mount Vernon plantation because she was twice interviewed by abolitionist newspapers in the mid-1840s.[11]

The presidential households[edit]

In 1789, Washington took seven enslaved Africans, including Judge, then 16, to New York City, which was then the nation's capital, 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 enslaved persons, two of whom were female, Washington took to Philadelphia to work in the President's House, together with Austin, Giles, Paris, Moll, Hercules Posey, Richmond, Christopher Sheels, and "Postilion Joe" (Richardson).[12][13]

Gradual Abolition Act[edit]

With the 1780 Gradual Abolition Act, Pennsylvania became the first state to establish a process to emancipate its slaves. However, no one was freed immediately. The process was to play out over decades and not end until the death of the last enslaved person in Pennsylvania.[14]

The law immediately prohibited importation of slaves into the state, and required an annual registration of those already held there. But it also protected the property rights of Pennsylvania slaveholders. If a slaveholder failed to register his slaves, they would be confiscated and freed; however, if a slaveholder complied with state law and registered them annually, they would remain enslaved for life. Every future child of an enslaved mother would be required to work as an indentured servant to the mother's master until age 28, after which the child would be free. A slaveholder from another state could reside in Pennsylvania with his personal slaves for up to six months, but if those slaves were held in Pennsylvania beyond that deadline, the law gave them the power to free themselves.[15] Congress, then the only branch of the federal government, was meeting in Philadelphia in 1780, and met there until 1783. Significantly, Pennsylvania exempted members of Congress from the Gradual Abolition Act.[14]

A 1788 amendment to the state law closed loopholes, such as prohibiting a Pennsylvania slaveholder from transporting a pregnant woman out of the state so the child would be born enslaved, and prohibiting a non-resident slaveholder from rotating his slaves in and out of the state to prevent them from establishing the six-month Pennsylvania residency required to qualify for freedom[16] This last point would affect the lives of Judge and the other people enslaved in the President's household.

In March 1789, the U.S. Constitution was ratified, creating a federal government with three branches. New York City was the first national capital under the Constitution; it had no laws restricting slaveholding. In 1790, Congress transferred the national capital to Philadelphia for a ten-year period until the permanent national capital in Washington, D.C. on the banks of the Potomac River was completed in 1800. With the move of the national capital from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., there was uncertainty about whether Pennsylvania's slavery laws would apply to officers of the federal government. By a strict interpretation, the Gradual Abolition Act exempted only slaveholding members of Congress. But there were slaveholders among the officers of the judicial branch in the Supreme Court and in the executive branch, including the President of the United States.[14]

Washington stated privately that his presence in Philadelphia was solely a consequence of the city being the temporary seat of the federal government. He held that he remained a resident of Virginia, and should not be bound by Pennsylvania laws regarding slavery. Attorney General Edmund Randolph, an officer of the executive branch, misunderstood the Pennsylvania law and lost his personal slaves after they established a six-month residency and claimed their freedom. Randolph immediately warned Washington to prevent the President's House slaves from doing the same, advising him to interrupt their residency by sending them out of the state.[b] Such a rotation was a violation of the 1788 amendment, but Washington's actions were not challenged. He continued to rotate the President's House slaves in and out of Pennsylvania throughout his presidency. He also was careful never to spend six continuous months in Pennsylvania himself, which could be interpreted as establishing legal residency.[14]

Washington was on his Southern Tour in May 1791, when the first six-month deadline approached.[18] Giles and Paris had left Pennsylvania with him in April; Austin and Richmond were sent back to Mount Vernon prior to the deadline to prevent them from qualifying for freedom. Martha Washington took Oney Judge and Christopher Sheels to Trenton, New Jersey, for two days to interrupt their Pennsylvania residency.[19] Moll and Hercules were allowed to remain in Pennsylvania for a couple of days beyond the deadline, then traveled back to Mount Vernon with the First Lady.[14]

A 1791 proposal in the Pennsylvania legislature to amend the Gradual Abolition Act to extend Congress's exemption to all slaveholding officers of the federal government was abandoned after heated opposition by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.[14]

In 1842, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Prigg v. Pennsylvania that the 1788 amendment to the Gradual Abolition Act, including the section of it that empowered Pennsylvania to free the slaves of non-resident slaveholders, was unconstitutional.[14]


Washington's Residence, High Street, a lithograph in Annals of Philadelphia, an 1830 book by John Fanning Watson

Judge fled as the Washingtons were preparing to return to Virginia for a short trip between sessions of Congress. Martha Washington had informed her that she was to be given as a wedding present (or otherwise later bequeathed) to Martha's granddaughter Elizabeth Parke Custis Law, known for her fierce temper.[20] Judge recalled 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.[21]

Runaway advertisements in Philadelphia newspapers document Judge's escape to freedom from the President's House on May 21, 1796. This one appeared in The Philadelphia 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 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where, over a September 1798 dinner, Burwell Bassett Jr. revealed his plan to kidnap Judge

Judge was secretly placed aboard the Nancy, a ship piloted by Captain John Bowles and bound for Portsmouth, New Hampshire.[22] She may have thought she had found safe haven, but that summer she was recognized on the streets of Portsmouth by Elizabeth Langdon, the teenage 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 U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, about having her captured and returned by ship.[23]

At Wolcott's request, Joseph Whipple, Portsmouth's collector of customs, interviewed Judge and reported back to him. The plan to capture her was abandoned after Whipple warned that news of an abduction could cause a riot on the docks by supporters of abolition. Whipple refused to place Judge on a ship against her will, but relayed to Wolcott her offer to return voluntarily to the Washingtons if they would guarantee to free her following their deaths.[24]

... a thirst for compleat freedom ... had been her only motive for absconding.

— Joseph Whipple to Oliver Wolcott, October 4, 1796.

An indignant Washington responded himself to Whipple:

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.[25]

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.

Washington retired from the presidency in March 1797. In August 1799 he wrote to his nephew, Burwell Bassett Jr., requesting help in capturing Judge.[26] Bassett traveled to New Hampshire in September, and tried to convince her to return. By this point she was married to a seaman named Jack Staines (who was away at sea) and was the mother of an infant. Bassett met with her, but she refused to return to Virginia with him. Bassett was Senator Langdon's houseguest that night, and over dinner he revealed his plan to kidnap her. This time Langdon helped Judge Staines, secretly sending word for her to immediately go into hiding. Bassett returned to Virginia without her.[27]

Following Judge's 1796 escape, her younger sister, Delphy,[28] became the wedding present to Martha Washington's granddaughter. Eliza Custis Law and her husband manumitted Delphy and her children in 1807, after they were already living with her husband William Costin in Washington City.[29]


Greenland in Rockingham County, New Hampshire, where Judge married her husband Jack Staines in January 1797

In New Hampshire, Judge met and married Jack Staines, a free black sailor. Their January 1797 marriage was listed in the town records of Greenland and published in the local newspaper.[30] 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, Judge Staines learned to read and became a Christian.[9] She and her husband had fewer than 7 years together; he died on October 19, 1803.[31] As a widow, Judge Staines was unable to support her children and moved in with the family of John Jacks Jr.[27] Her daughters Eliza and Nancy became wards of the town and were hired out as indentured servants; her son Will was apprenticed as a sailor.[27]

Judge Staines's daughters died fifteen years before she did. Her son reportedly never returned to Portsmouth. After the elder Jacks died, Rockingham County donated firewood and other supplies to Judge Staines and the Jacks sisters, all by then too old to work.[27]

Interviews on slavery[edit]

Interviews with Judge Staines were published in the May 1845 issue of The Granite Freeman and the January 1847 issue of The Liberator, both abolitionist newspapers. They 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."[32]

Never freed[edit]

George Washington died on December 14, 1799; he directed in his will that his 124 slaves be freed after his wife's death.[33] Martha instead signed a deed of manumission in December 1800,[34] and the slaves were free on January 1, 1801.[35] The 153 or so dower slaves at Mount Vernon remained enslaved, as neither George nor Martha could legally free them without reimbursing the Custis estate.

Following Martha Washington's death in 1802, the dower slaves reverted to the Custis estate, and were divided among the Custis heirs, her grandchildren.[36]

Judge Staines remained a dower slave all her life, and legally her children also were dower slaves, property of the Custis estate, despite the fact that their father, Jack Staines, was a free man. Article IV, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution guaranteed the property rights of slaveholders whose slaves had escaped; this superseded Staines' parental rights.[37] Under the principle of partus sequitur ventrem, a child's status as slave or free followed that of the mother.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 — passed overwhelmingly by Congress and signed into law by Washington — established the legal mechanism by which a slaveholder could recover his property. The Act made it a federal crime to assist an escaped slave or to interfere with his capture, and allowed slave-catchers into every U.S. state and territory.[38]

Following Washington's death, Judge Staines probably felt secure in New Hampshire, as no one else in her family was likely to mount an effort to take her.[27] But legally, she and her children remained fugitives until their deaths. Her daughters predeceased her by more than a decade, and it is not known what happened to her son.

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.[39]

"Oney Judge Freedom Day," the 214th anniversary of her escape to freedom, was celebrated at the President's House site on May 21, 2010.[40] 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.[41] It also honors the contributions of African Americans to Philadelphia and the U.S.

On June 19, 2021, known as Juneteenth, a Virginia State Historical Marker honoring Judge was unveiled on Mount Vernon Memorial Highway near the Mount Vernon estate in Fairfax County, Virginia.[42][43]

In popular culture[edit]




  • Oney Judge's Escape from the Washingtons (2008), the third episode of Drunk History on Comedy Central[47] in which stand-up comedian Jen Kirkman recounts Judge's life for the Funny or Die web video series
  • The Freedom Quest of Oney Judge (2015), a video by HERO Live! in Colonial Williamsburg for students in fourth to eighth grades that uses 21st century technology and dramatizations with reenactors to play the roles of historical figures[48]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The February 18, 1786 Mount Vernon slave census lists "Oney" as Betty's child and "12 yrs. old".[2]
  2. ^ "This being the case, the Attorney General conceived, that after six months residence, your slaves would be upon no better footing than his. But he observed, that if, before the expiration of six months, they could, upon any pretense whatever, be carried or sent out of the State, but for a single day, a new era would commence on their return, from whence the six months must be dated for it requires an entire six months for them to claim that right."[17]


  1. ^ Dunbar, Erica Armstrong (February 16, 2015). "George Washington, Slave Catcher". New York Times. Retrieved February 16, 2015.
  2. ^ Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds., The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 4, (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia), p. 278.
  3. ^ a b c d 1786 Mount Vernon slave census from Founders Online (National Archives).
  4. ^ Brendan Wolfe, "Oney Judge (ca. 1773-1848)," Encyclopedia Virginia, posted April 19, 2017.[1]
  5. ^ Austin, from Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington.
  6. ^ "A Community Divided". George Washington's Mount Vernon. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  7. ^ In 1800, Delphy married William Costin and moved to Washington, D.C. Costin was named as cousin of Mary Simpson (c. 1752-March 18, 1836), of New York in her will.
  8. ^ The 85 dower slaves is a minimum number, because the Custis Estate Inventory lists some of the women's names with the notation "& children," but not the number of children. See Edward Lawler Jr., "President's House Slavery by the Numbers," Archived 2009-02-19 at the Wayback Machine from
  9. ^ 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
  10. ^ Runaway advertisement, The Philadelphia Gazette & Universal Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia), May 24, 1796.
  11. ^ 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".
  12. ^ The President's House in Philadelphia, US
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g Edward Lawler Jr. "Washington, the Enslaved, and the 1780 Law". President's House of Philadelphia. US Retrieved 11 February 2011.
  15. ^ "Pennsylvania's Gradual Abolition Act (1780)" Archived 2015-12-22 at the Wayback Machine, President's House of Philadelphia, US
  16. ^ 1788 amendment, President's House of Philadelphia, US
  17. ^ Tobias Lear to George Washington, 24 April 1791.
  18. ^ Archibald Henderson, "Washington's Southern Tour, 1791," The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, Vol. 26, No. 1 (January, 1925), pp. 59–64.
  19. ^ Gen. Philemon Dickinson House
  20. ^ Susan P. Schoelwer, ed. Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington's Mount Vernon. Mount Vernon, VA: MVLA, 2016. (page 21)
  21. ^ "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
  22. ^ Gerson, Evelyn. "Ona Judge Staines: Escape from Washington". Retrieved 2012-11-17.
  23. ^ George Washington to Oliver Wolcott, Sept. 1, 1796
  24. ^ Joseph Whipple to Oliver Wolcott, October 4, 1796, Library of Congress
  25. ^ Washington to Whipple, November 28, 1796.
  26. ^ George Washington to Burwell Bassett, Jr., August 11, 1799 from National Archives.
  27. ^ a b c d e Eva Gerson, "Ona Judge Staines: Escape from Washington" Archived 2011-05-14 at the Wayback Machine, 2000, Black History, SeacoastNH
  28. ^ Jackson & Twohig, Diaries, vol. 4, p. 278. Note: Delphy is listed as "6 yrs. old" in the February 18, 1786 Mount Vernon slave census.
  29. ^ 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.
  30. ^ Fritz Hirschfeld, George Washington and Slavery: A Documentary Portrayal (University of Missouri, 1997), pp. 112-17.
  31. ^ 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
  32. ^ "Washington's Runaway Slave", The Granite Freeman, Concord, New Hampshire (May 22, 1845), President's House, Independence Hall Association, US, accessed 11 February 2011
  33. ^ "Rediscovering George Washington . Last Will and Testament - PBS". PBS. 6 February 2005. Archived from the original on 6 February 2005. Retrieved 3 November 2016.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  34. ^ George Washington Pamphlets. 1885-01-01.
  35. ^ "George Washington and Slavery · George Washington's Mount Vernon". 2015-09-05. Archived from the original on September 5, 2015. Retrieved 2016-05-14.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  36. ^ The numbers of Washington slaves and Custis slaves come from the 1799 Mount Vernon slave census. Archived 2005-04-27 at the Wayback Machine, George Washington Papers, University of Virginia
    Without documentation, the names of which dower slaves were distributed to which Custis grandchild have to be inferred by comparing names in Mount Vernon records with Custis family records. This has created a frustrating obstacle for genealogists and people trying to research their family history.
  37. ^ 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).
  38. ^ Finkelman, An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity
  39. ^ Stephan Salisbury, "City honors Washington's slave - and 'power of archaeology'", The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 26, 2008, at President's House of Philadelphia, US
  40. ^ "Slave's escape commemorated at President's House", The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 21, 2010
  41. ^ "The President's House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation", City of Philadelphia, accessed 11 February 2011
  42. ^ "Ona Judge Historic Marker Unveiling at Mount Vernon". Fairfax County, Virginia government. June 15, 2021. Retrieved June 30, 2021.
  43. ^ "Ona Judge Historic Marker Unveiling". Fairfax County, Virginia government. June 19, 2021. Retrieved June 30, 2021.
  44. ^ "Tea Talk details life of escaped slave Ona Judge Staines", Fosters
  45. ^ A House with No Walls, The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage
  46. ^ Philadelphia Folklore Project, "Parallel Destines," Works in Progress, vol. 23, no. 1-2 (Spring 2010), pp. 4-5, 24-26, 29.
  47. ^ "Drunk History vol. 3".
  48. ^ "Colonial Williamsburg HERO Live! : The Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site". Retrieved 2015-11-19.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]