American schoolchildren learn a lot about George Washington. They’re taught that, supposedly, he never told a lie; and that he was a deeply moral and religious man. They’re taught about all his accomplishments as the “father of our country” and that, when he died, he freed all 123 of his slaves in his will. But they are rarely taught about his relentless quest to capture Ona “Oney” Judge, a woman enslaved to his family, who ran away.
The story of Oney Judge is in turns remarkable and tragic. She was born around 1773 on George Washington’s plantation in Virginia, Mount Vernon, with a white indentured servant as a father and an enslaved seamstress as a mother. She began serving Martha Washington at an early age, and quickly became “a personal favorite” of the future First Lady’s, according to the official Mount Vernon encyclopedia. When Judge was 15 years old, the Washingtons took her away from her family to live with them in New York, then later in Philadelphia, once George began his presidency in 1789.
Judge was eventually promoted from Martha Washington’s “sewing circle” to her personal servant, which meant traveling with her on social calls and outings, historian Evelyn Gerson has noted. Those visits gave Judge an inside look at the real Washington government and actual character of the first president. “She says that the stories told of Washington's piety and prayers, so far as she ever saw or heard while she was his slave, have no foundation,” one paper reported decades later as it shared Judge’s recollections of Washington’s “card-playing and wine-drinking.”
While the Washingtons would later insist that they were bewildered by Judge’s desire to escape despite her comfortable life, several historical accounts note President Washington’s harsh treatment of slaves, and his tendency to subject those who angered him to brutal beatings and extra labor. The Englishman Richard Parkinson, who lived in Virginia near Mount Vernon, once wrote: "It was the sense of all his neighbors that [Washington] treated [his slaves] with more severity than any other man."
But it wasn’t until Martha Washington made clear that she planned to hand down Judge to her granddaughter after she died that Judge decided she needed to take action. As Mount Vernon’s official biography of Judge notes, “The promise of continued enslavement after the Washingtons' deaths cemented Judge's decision to risk her relatively comfortable position with the family.”
“I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty,” she told the Granite Freeman in 1845. "I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there before hand, and left while [the Washingtons] were eating dinner.” She then boarded a ship bound for Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Judge, Martha Washington would defensively say, was treated well inside the Washington home. The First Lady felt so personally betrayed that she incorrectly theorized to friends that Judge had been “seduced by a Frenchman” who convinced her to run away.
Despite growing anti-slavery sentiment in the North, the Washingtons took extra lengths to maintain their slave ownership while living in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, for instance, stated that any slave that entered and lived in the state for longer than six months would be freed automatically, so the First Family would rotate their slaves between the President’s Residence and Mount Vernon every half a year in order to skirt the law.
With that same goal of maintaining what they considered their property, the Washingtons placed an advertisement in a local paper offering a reward of $10 for Judge’s capture and return. “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,” the ad read. “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.”
The ad almost worked, but not quite. Just a few weeks after Judge escaped, she was spotted by Elizabeth Langdon, the daughter of Senator John Langdon, on the streets of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Elizabeth immediately recognized Judge and tipped off the Washingtons.
The president’s response was swift. He requested that Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott Jr. order a customs official in Portsmouth to retrieve Judge and return her to Virginia. This was a violation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which said slaves were required to appear before a magistrate after being captured—and which Washington himself had signed. But Washington stressed to Wolcott that Judge’s “ingratitude” made it necessary to bypass the law. Judge, he wrote in a letter to Wolcott, “was brought up & treated more like a child than a servant” and “ought not to escape with impu[nity].”
Washington’s plan was unsuccessful. While Joseph Whipple, the Portsmouth Collector of Customs, managed to locate Judge, she convinced him to let her stay. In a letter to Washington, he recalled how he was struck by Judge’s "thirst for complete freedom" and warned the president about the political consequences of transporting her.
“[P]opular opinion here is in favor of universal freedom," he wrote, advising that he go through the legal process if he wished to proceed. Whipple, according to the 2017 book Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, also suggested that the president abandon the institution of slavery altogether, starting by freeing Judge.
Instead, the Washingtons never stopped searching for Judge. But she continuously managed to evade capture. Over the next few decades, she settled down in New Hampshire, married a free, Black sailor named Jack Staines, and had three children. She also learned to read and became a devout Christian.
Judge’s final years weren’t easy. After being widowed at a young age, she also outlived all three of her children—who died early by various causes—and relied on charity in the form of firewood and food in order to survive. She died in 1848.
Despite the difficulties she faced after her escape, and all of the Washingtons’ ludicrous assertions that she had an enjoyable life as a slave, Never Caught notes that when a New Hampshire interviewer once asked Judge if she had any regrets, Judge said she didn’t.
"No, I am free, and have, I trust been made a child of God by the means," she replied.