Ona Judge Staines: She Challenged George Washington and Won Her Freedom

A plaque depicting Ona Judge Staines on the wall of the President’s House in Philadelphia
Courtesy of lwf.4pha.com

On May 24, 1796, a runaway-slave advertisement was posted in the Pennsylvania Gazette by the steward at George Washington’s house in Philadelphia. It read:

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.


Oney, as she was known to George and Martha Washington, was one of nine enslaved African Americans who served in the President’s House in Philadelphia from 1790 to 1796. Judge was the only slave who escaped from the Philadelphia Executive Mansion, although Hercules, the president’s famed chef, made an even more daring escape on Feb. 22, 1797, the president’s 65th birthday, from the Washington plantation at Mount Vernon, Va. There is no record of Hercules after his escape, but a fairly strong paper trail enables us to piece together the fate of Ona Judge, in part because of the Washingtons’ strenuous, but ultimately unsuccessful, efforts to reclaim her.

A Taste of Freedom in Philadelphia

Ona Maria Judge was born around 1774 at Mount Vernon. Her mother, Betty, was recognized as the finest seamstress on the plantation and was a “dower slave,” technically still owned by the estate of Martha Washington’s first husband, Daniel Peake Custis. Ona’s father was an English indentured servant who had worked at Mount Vernon.

Since a slave’s status followed the mother’s line, Ona was born enslaved, as was her older half brother, Austin, who had a different father and would later serve Washington as a stable hand at the Philadelphia President’s House. From an early age, Ona would have performed whatever domestic labors were required of her at Mount Vernon. By the age of 10, she began attending Martha Washington. Her main work involved sewing and making clothes; Gen. Washington praised her as a “perfect mistress of the needle.”

George Washington was elected the first president of the United States in 1789, and in 1790, when the capital moved to Philadelphia, Ona traveled with the family to their official residence. She served as the main personal attendant to the first lady, and her tasks would have included dressing and powdering her mistress, accompanying her to official receptions and other public and social duties, and being ready, at all times, to meet Martha Washington’s needs. It was important to the first family, too, that Ona was herself always seen to be impeccably well-groomed and clothed in public.


Ona, Austin and Hercules were allowed to attend a circus, the theater and other public events on their own. They also interacted with Philadelphia’s increasingly assertive free black community, which had grown from only 240 in 1780 to 1,849 in 1790 and would exceed 6,000 by 1800. She had arrived in Philadelphia just as the Free African Society and the first independent black churches were being established, and it is likely that she was inspired by the example of Absalom Jones, Richard Allen and other African-American founders. In addition, white refugees from the Haitian revolution were given refuge in the city after 1793, many of them bringing their slaves.  By 1796, over 450 Haitians had claimed their freedom under a Pennsylvania state law that enabled them to do so after a full six months’ residency.   

Ona Judge Plots Her Escape

The Washington slaves knew that the president had taken precautions to prevent them from taking advantage of this law. His plan was to send them back to Virginia before they completed six months’ residence, then return them to the Philadelphia for another period of service. Washington informed his secretary about this scheme, stating his “wish to have it accomplished under pretext that may deceive both them [the slaves] and the Public.” One historian has suggested this was “perhaps the only documented incident of George Washington telling a lie.” The primary reason for this subterfuge was financial: Ona and all but two of the Mount Vernon slaves in Philadelphia were Custis dower slaves. If they gained their freedom under this law, Washington not only would lose their labor but also would have to personally reimburse the Custis estate for their loss under his supervision.


In the spring of 1796, Washington entered the final year of his second term in office, and the staff were informed they would be returning to Mount Vernon for good that summer. The first lady, now in her mid-60s, also told Ona Judge around this time that she was to be bequeathed to a Custis family granddaughter back in Virginia, a prospect Judge dreaded, since she despised her intended new owner. Realizing that the relative freedom she had enjoyed in Philadelphia would soon become a memory, Judge carefully planned her escape.

As she recalled 50 years later, the entire household was preparing to leave for Virginia, and so it was not seen as suspicious when she began packing the “many changes of good clothes, of all sorts” mentioned in the runaway ad. Assisted by acquaintances in Philadelphia’s free black community, she stored her belongings at a friend’s house and found a merchant sloop, the Nancy, that would transport her to Portsmouth, N.H. Judge made her way to the Nancy one evening in late May while the first family was at dinner. By the time they learned of her escape, Judge had arrived in Portsmouth. She was not legally free and was at risk of recapture under the federal Fugitive Slave Law—which Washington had signed in 1793—but for the first time in her life, she was free of the demands of Martha Washington.


The First Family’s Desperate Search

The Washingtons were shocked, and the Gazette advertisement suggests that they initially had no idea why she had fled. Martha Washington, in particular, took Judge’s flight badly, viewing it as ingratitude and as a personal slight, and came to believe that Judge was pregnant and had been seduced by a mentally unstable Frenchman. At least, that is the story that George Washington used in his efforts behind the scenes to recapture her. Certainly there were many Frenchmen and French- and Kreyòl-speaking Haitians in Philadelphia, but there is no evidence that Judge had relations with any of them.


In late August, however, Judge’s luck ran out. The daughter of Sen. John Langdon, a close friend of the Washingtons and a frequent visitor to the Executive Mansion, came upon her on a Portsmouth street and expressed surprise that she was not attending the first lady. President Washington was soon apprised of the situation and immediately ordered Oliver Wolcott, the secretary of the treasury, to engage the Portsmouth collector of customs to retrieve her.

That action was illegal by the terms of Washington’s own Fugitive Slave Law, which required a slaveholder to use the federal courts. Washington was aware, though, that a public attempt to openly return a possibly pregnant slave to bondage would be bad publicity and might even provoke a riot. The Portsmouth collector initially agreed to comply with the request from his commander in chief, who warned him to act cautiously so as not to alarm Judge’s alleged French seducer. Judge herself, in Washington’s view, was “simple and inoffensive.”


But the collector came to quite a different conclusion about her motives once he interviewed her. She convinced him that there was no seducer, French or otherwise, and that a “thirst for compleat freedom” had been her only motivation. He reported that Judge, though, might be amenable to returning to Mount Vernon if the Washingtons promised to emancipate her upon Martha Washington’s death.

George Washington was livid, replying that, “To enter into such a compromise with her, as she suggested to you, is totally inadmissible,” since it would reward her unfaithfulness and set a bad example to his other “more deserving” slaves. The president also continued to insist on his story of a French seducer, although he may have finally abandoned that idea when informed of Judge’s plans to marry a local free black sailor, John Staines. The couple married in January 1797 and had a daughter a year later.  


Finally Free

Until recently, most Washington biographers believed that at this point George Washington abandoned his efforts to regain Judge. Perhaps the president had given up hope, but his wife had not. In July 1799, Martha Washington made one more attempt to kidnap Judge through a family member who traveled to Portsmouth, but the plot was thwarted when Sen. Langdon heard of it. Langdon was appalled and warned Judge, who managed to find refuge with another free black family several miles away in the town of Greenland.


Following Gen. Washington’s death at the end of 1799, and Martha Washington’s three years later, Ona Judge Staines was finally able to enjoy her freedom—although she and her children remained fugitive slaves according to the law. She worked for a while as a house servant and had three children with John Staines: Eliza, William and Nancy. Judge Staines was widowed in 1803, and 17 years later her son, William, left for sea, never to return. Her daughters died in the early 1830s, and Judge Staines lived her final years in Greenland as a pauper. 

Brief interviews by abolitionists in 1845 and 1846, when she was in her 70s, provide the only direct record of her thoughts and actions. She stated that she had received no formal education or religious training while enslaved and criticized the Washingtons for not properly observing the Sabbath. Asked if she regretted leaving the relative comforts she had enjoyed for a life of poverty, Ona Judge Staines insisted that she had made the right choice, having learned to read and write in freedom, and having been made a “child of God” by that means.


On Feb. 25, 2008, 160 years after her death, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter declared the first “Oney Judge Day.” Since 2010, her defiance of the president and the first lady and her remarkable escape can be explored at the historic site located on the grounds where the President’s House—and his slave quarters—once stood.

Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the African American National Biography was first published by Oxford University Press in an award-winning, eight-volume print edition in 2008; a 12-volume second edition followed in 2012. As of 2015, more than 5,500 separate AANB entries are available online as part of OUP’s African American Studies Center.


Steven J. Niven is executive editor of the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, the Dictionary of African Biography, and the African American National Biography at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is also the author of Barack Obama: A Pocket Biography of Our 44th President.

Share This Story