Ona Judge – George Washington’s Runaway Slave

Washington’s Birthday is a federal holiday observed on the third Monday of February in honor of George Washington (born on February 22), the first President of the United States. Although it is commonly referred to as Presidents’ Day, the holiday is officially designated as "Washington’s Birthday" in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code.

George Washington's legacy as a champion of freedom is a false narrative, tarnished by the fact that he personally held and benefited from the labor of more than 120 slaves until his death.

Oney "Ona" Judge (c.1773—February 25, 1848), known as Oney Judge Staines after marriage, was a mixed-race slave on George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation, in Virginia. As a child, she played with the Washingtons’ granddaughter Nelly. She also did chores for the Washingtons such as churning butter, cooking, candlemaking and washing clothes. Her mother taught her to sew, and it was as a seamstress that she was most valued. George Washington called her ‘a perfect Mistress of the needle.’

Ona Judge was afforded more comforts than most slaves, however, she risked it all to escape the nation’s capital and reach freedom. When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left behind his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation’s capital, after a brief stay in New York.

Memorial Plaque that is on the Philadelphia Presidential house that Oney escaped from.

In setting up his household he took Tobias Lear, his celebrated secretary, and seven enslaved Africans, including Judge, then 16, 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).

As he grew accustomed to Northern ways, there was one change Washington couldn’t get his arms around: Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after six months of residency in the state. Rather than comply, Washington decided to circumvent the law. Every six months he sent the slaves back down south just as the clock was about to expire.

The President's House, Philadelphia, where Ona had her own room.

Washington signed into law, "The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793," which passed overwhelmingly by Congress and 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. 

Ona worked as a personal slave to First Lady Martha Washington in the presidential households in New York City and Philadelphia. George Washington’s term in office was nearing an end in May of 1796, and the family began preparing to return to Virginia. Ona plotted her escape. As she helped the Washingtons pack, she quietly passed her own possessions to her friends. Then one evening while the Washingtons were eating dinner she slipped out of the house and went into hiding. With the aid of Philadelphia's free black community, Judge escaped to freedom on May 21, 1796, and lived as a fugitive slave in New Hampshire for the rest of her life.

Washington placed an ad in The Pennsylvania Gazette on May 23, offering a $10 reward for her return. The ad described her as:

…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…

Ona’s friends walked the docks of Philadelphia until they found a ship captain who would discreetly bring her to freedom. They arranged passage for her with Capt. John Bowles on his sloop the Nancy, which traveled between Philadelphia and Portsmouth, N.H.

Captain John Bowles

Though Ona Judge lived a life of relative comfort, the few pleasantries she was afforded were nothing compared to freedom, a glimpse of which she encountered first-hand in Philadelphia. So, when the opportunity presented itself one clear and pleasant spring day in Philadelphia, Judge left everything she knew to escape to New England. Yet freedom would not come without its costs. At just twenty-two years old, Ona became the subject of an intense manhunt led by George Washington, who used his political and personal contacts to recapture his property.

More is known about her than any other of the Mount Vernon slaves because she was twice interviewed by abolitionist newspapers in the mid-1840s.

Ona was born about 1773 at Mount Vernon. Her mother, Betty, was an enslaved seamstress; her father, Andrew Judge, was an English tailor working as an indentured servant at Mount Vernon. Oney had a half-brother Austin (c. 1757 – December 1794), and later a half-sister Delphy (c. 1779 – December 13, 1831).

Betty had been among the 285 African slaves held by Martha Washington's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis (1711–1757). Custis died intestate (without a will), so his widow received a "dower share" – the lifetime use of one-third of his Estate, which included at least 85 enslaved Africans. Martha had control over these "dower" slaves but did not have the legal power to sell or free them. Upon Martha's marriage to George Washington in 1759, the dower slaves came with her to Mount Vernon, including Betty and then-infant Austin.

Under the legal principle of partus sequitur ventrem, incorporated into Virginia colonial law in 1662, the legal status of a child was the same as that of the enslaved mother, no matter who the father was. Because Betty was a dower slave, Austin, Oney, and Delphy also were dower slaves, owned by the Custis Estate. Upon the completion of his indenture, Andrew Judge settled in Alexandria, Virginia, some 11 miles away.

At about age 10, Oney was brought to live at the Mansion House at Mount Vernon, likely as a playmate for Martha Washington's granddaughter Nelly Custis. She eventually became the personal attendant or body servant to Martha Washington. In an interview when she was nearly 75, Oney said she had received no education under the Washingtons, nor religious instruction.

Ona 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 to the First Lady's granddaughter. Ona 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."

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 & Universal Daily Advertiser 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

Runaway Advertisement for Oney Judge. The Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 24 May 1796.

Ona Judge was secretly placed aboard the Nancy, a ship piloted by Captain John Bowles and bound for Portsmouth, New Hampshire. 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 Secretary of the Treasury, about having her captured and returned by ship.

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 explained to Wolcott Ona had expressed great affection and reverence for the Washingtons and was willing to return voluntarily to the Washingtons if they would guarantee to free her following their deaths. 

"… 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.

Washington retired from the presidency in March 1797. His nephew, Burwell Bassett Jr., traveled to New Hampshire on business in September 1798 and tried to convince her to return. By this point, she was married to a free black 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 Ona, secretly sending word for her to immediately go into hiding. Bassett returned to Virginia without her.

Washington and His Slaves

George Washington died on December 14, 1799; he directed in his will that his 124 slaves be freed after his wife's death. Martha instead signed a deed of manumission in December 1800, and the slaves were free on January 1, 1801.

Following Martha Washington's death in 1802, the dower slaves reverted to the Custis estate and were divided among the Custis heirs, her grandchildren. The 153 or so dower slaves at Mount Vernon remained enslaved, as neither George nor Martha could legally free them.

Oney Judge remained a dower slave all her life, and legally her children also were dower slaves, the 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; this superseded Staines's parental rights.

Following Washington's death, Oney Judge Staines probably felt secure in New Hampshire, as no one else in his family was likely to mount an effort to take her. 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.

Interviews with Ona 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."

Oney Judge Staines died in Greenland, New Hampshire, on February 25, 1848.

Unfortunately, as a child, I was brainwashed through propaganda and taught to celebrate, respect and view racist slave owners such as George Washington and Christopher Columbus as heroes even though they stole the freedom, dignity, and lives of others for their own benefit. 


Another slave of Washington's, Hercules who was greatly admired for his culinary skills, escape to freedom from Mount Vernon on February 22, 1797, Washington's 65th birthday. Hercules was the head cook at the mansion in the 1780s, cooking for the Washington family and their guests. Washington appreciated Hercules' skills in the kitchen so much that he brought him from Mount Vernon to Philadelphia to live and work in the presidential household.

Portrait of George Washington's slave and chef Hercules, by Gilbert Stuart.

Hercules was later legally manumitted under the terms of Washington's will. Hercules was probably born around 1755, and was either the child of Washington's slaves or was purchased following Washington's 1759 marriage to the widow Martha Custis. He would have grown up on the plantation. He chose Alice, one of Martha Washington's "dower" slaves, as his wife, and they had three children: Richmond (born 1777), Evey (born 1782), and Delia (born 1785).

Miniature exhibit featuring George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate, where Hercules escaped from, as it would have looked in 1799.

Louis-Philippe, the future king of France, visited Mount Vernon in the spring of 1797. According to his April 5 diary entry:

The general's cook ran away, being now in Philadelphia, and left a little daughter of six at Mount Vernon. Beaudoin ventured that the little girl must be deeply upset that she would never see her father again; she answered, "Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now."

Hercules remained in hiding. In 1798, the former-President's House steward, Frederick Kitt, informed Washington that the fugitive was living in Philadelphia:

"Since your departure I have been making distant enquiries about Herculas but did not till about four weeks ago hear anything of him and that was only that [he] was in town neither do I yet know where he is, and that it will be very difficult to find out in the secret manner necessary to be observed on the occasion."

At Martha Washington's request, the three executors of Washington's Estate freed her late husband's slaves on January 1, 1801. It is possible that Hercules did not know he had been manumitted and legally was no longer a fugitive.Because Alice had been a "dower" slave – owned by the estate of Martha Washington's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis – the children of Hercules and his wife were legally the property of the Custis Estate. The children remained enslaved and were among the "dowers" divided among Martha Washington's four grandchildren following her 1802 death.

Part of the Court.rchp.com 2017 Black History Month Series

Some edited portions republished under license from the African American Intellectual History Society and Wikipedia: Ona Judge and  Hercules

Other Sources include: