During George Washington’s final months as president, a 20-year-old slave named Ona Judge Staines slipped out of the President's House in Philadelphia. The president discovered she was living in Portsmouth, N.H., and tried to get her back. He enlisted the help of family, friends and local officials, using persuasion, threats and finally attempted kidnapping.
Andrew Judge, Ona’s father, was a white Englishman who came to America in 1772 as an indentured servant. He gained his freedom by fulfilling his four years of service at Mount Vernon. Judge moved off the plantation to start a farm.
Ona’s mother was a slave named Betty, a skilled spinner, weaver and seamstress. When Ona was born, in 1773 or 1774, the law said the child of a slave was the property of the slaveowner.
Ona, known as Oney, stayed with her mother at Mount Vernon. She was described as light-skinned, heavily freckled and slight of build. 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.’ She received no education or religious training.
After Washington was elected president of the United States in 1789, he and Martha moved to New York with seven slaves, including the teen-aged Ona. Her mother stayed behind.
The next year they moved to Philadelphia, where the seat of government had shifted. Martha Washington promoted Ona to personal attendant and gave her light duties: to dress the First Lady for state occasions and accompany her on social calls and shopping trips. They went to the circus together. While Martha socialized with her friends in their homes, Ona socialized with the hostess’s servants.
While moving about Philadelphia, Ona met and made friends with free African-Americans. A Pennsylvania law passed in 1780 gradually abolished slavery, allowing nonresidents to keep their slaves for six months. After that, slaves could free themselves. George and Martha Washington evaded the law by traveling outside of Pennsylvania at least one day every six months. They also rotated their slaves in and out of the states so they wouldn’t establish a six-month residency.
Ona yearned for freedom.
George Washington’s term in office was nearing an end in May of 1796, and the family began preparing to return to Virginia. Ona feared she’d never get her liberty if she went back with them. She also learned the Washingtons planned to give her to their imperious granddaughter, Eliza Custis. As an old woman, Ona recalled, “I wasn’t going to be her slave.”
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.
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.
Ona found refuge in the seacoast city, where the people ‘were in favor of universal freedom.’ She found friends in Portsmouth’s small African-American community. But that summer in the marketplace she encountered someone she knew from Philadelphia: Elizabeth Langdon, the daughter of the U.S. senator from New Hampshire, John Langdon. Ona, badly frightened, brushed past Elizabeth, but it was too late. Elizabeth, a friend of Nelly Custis, recognized her from visits to Washington’s house. She knew the Washingtons were looking for Ona.
Somehow word got back to President Washington, who had signed the Fugitive Slave Act three years earlier. That law required Portsmouth officials to arrest Ona and send her back to her owner.
Washington on Sept. 1, 1796, wrote to John Whipple, Portsmouth collector of customs, through secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott. Washington assumed Ona had been seduced into flight by someone with the means to pay for her journey – probably a deranged Frenchman:
… it is certain the escape has been planned by some one who knew what he was about, and had the means to defray the expence of it and to entice her off: for not the least suspicion was entertained of her going, or having formed a connexion with any one who could induce her to such an Act.
Washington was also irritated by Ona’s ‘ingratitude,’ for she ‘was brought up and treated more like a child than a Servant.’ Mrs. Washington wanted her back, and Ona ‘ought not to escape with impunity if it can be avoided.’
Washington left the means to return Ona up to Whipple. Whipple wasn’t keen on enforcing the law. He replied he had invited her to his home on the pretense of offering her a job. She had not been decoyed, he wrote, and had a thirst for ‘compleat freedom.’ He added she had expressed great affection and reverence for the Washingtons and was willing to return if they would free her upon their deaths.
Ona even agreed to return to the Washingtons on board a ship that day, but the winds delayed departure, wrote Whipple. By the time the ship sailed, her friends talked her out of going back. It isn’t known whether Whipple made up that story to appease Washington or if Ona really was willing to return. He also made it clear the prevailing sentiment in New Hampshire and Massachusetts opposed slavery and would make it hard to return Ona.
Washington refused to grant Ona her freedom. He was averse to bad publicity, though, and cautioned Whipple against using violent measurers to return her ‘as would excite a mob or riot.’
Whipple on December 22 replied to Washington that he would try to persuade Ona to return, but that she was engaged to be married to a man of mixed race, John Staines. That was the last letter about Ona he wrote to the president.
Ona married John Staines, a seaman, on Jan. 14, 1797, and settled in Portsmouth. Washington’s term ended on March 4, and he returned to Mount Vernon without Ona.
But Washington did not give up. In September 1798, he sent his nephew, Burwell Bassett, to bring Ona back. By then, Ona had an infant then, and her husband