In the autumn of 1796, Oney Judge, a slave belonging to a prominent Virginian family, escaped from her master’s temporary home in Philadelphia and made her way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Her mother, Betty, was a ‘Dower Negro’ who had belonged to her master’s wife through his wife’s first marriage so technically Betty and her offspring belonged to the mistress of the house. Betty was not only a seamstress, but was expert at spinning thread and weaving cloth. She was a valuable slave who tailored clothes for her master’s family as well as the estate’s servants and slaves.
Oney’s father, Andrew Judge, was a white indentured servant from Leeds, Yorkshire who arrived from England in 1772. Judge gained his freedom after fulfilling his four-year contract and eventually moved from the plantation to try his hand at farming. It is unlikely that Judge married Betty, as such marriages were forbidden in Virginia (and most other states), even if Andrew Judge had purchased Betty’s freedom. Additionally, under Virginia law, children born to slave mothers were considered the property of the slave owner; though Andrew Judge obtained his freedom, it was not extended to his daughter. This was generally an unquestioned and accepted principle of southern plantation life.
Oney grew up as a house slave and learned all the skills necessary to support the daily activities of the home and kitchen. Under the tutelage of her mother, she had become so proficient as a seamstress, that her master described her as being a “perfect Mistress of her needle.” She did not suffer the general deprivations and punishments associated with field slaves. However, she was not given any moral instruction or education. She was intelligent enough though, and in a unique position, to observe how the children and grand children of her master and mistress were given these advantages. A great resentment started to rise within her.
In 1789, her master and his family moved temporarily to New York and Philadelphia respectively, taking many of their trusted house slaves with them, which included Oney. Oney had no choice in the matter and the prospect of abandoning the familiar surroundings of Virginia as well as her family and friends, must have been quite difficult for her.
Her mistress, finding Oney to be of gentle disposition and accomplished, promoted her from the sewing circle to the boudoir. Thus Oney Judge became her mistress’ personal attendant (ladies maid) and her duties included preparing her mistress for official receptions, traveling with her mistress on social calls and outings, and executing daily errands. She met many of the famous people who secured and shaped the new republic.
In this capacity, Oney Judge lived better than 95% of the white population of Virginia!
Because of the vast freedom of movement accorded to her in New York and Philadelphia, Oney made friends with many free blacks and white abolitionists. Fueled by the predominant Quaker sentiments of Philadelphia, her entire outlook on slavery and her own condition was radically altered.
There was no organized Underground Railroad at this time and this was well before the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
Her master’s business in Philadelphia was coming to an end, and Oney panicked that she would be forced to accompany her mistress back to their home in Virginia. The once longed-for plantation with family and friends awaiting her return, was now viewed as a virtual prison of eternal servitude.
In May, June, or July of 1796, she developed a bold plan with the sympathetic friends amongst the free blacks she had met during her stay in Philadelphia. While she was packing her mistress’ things in anticipation of the move, Oney was packing hers for one of her own. Retelling her story to the New Hampshire abolitionist paper, “Granite Freeman” many years later in 1845, Oney confided, “I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left while (her mistress’ family) were eating dinner.” Once in hiding, the fugitive’s friends walked the docks looking for the first ship sailing north with a captain who would ask no questions about his passengers.
Captain John Bowles, of Portsmouth, allowed Oney to gain passage on his ship, Nancy.
It is not known if Captain Bowles knew that Oney was a fugitive slave, but most historians strongly suspect that he did. It was a kept secret to protect her safety and his life; many slave states equated the harboring and abetting of runaways to an illegal confiscation of property and those found guilty could be sentenced to death.
Oney, now known as Ona, made her home in Portsmouth. It was a bustling seaport. Almost immediately after her flight to Portsmouth, Ona was spotted strolling in Portsmouth by Elizabeth Langdon, who was the daughter of Senator Langdon, and a frequent caller on Ona’s mistress and her mistress' daughter in Philadelphia. On numerous times, Betsy Langdon tried to engage Ona in conversation, but the fugitive evaded her. Miss Langdon most likely informed her father of the encounter and he in turn, contacted Ona’s master.
Now begins an almost improbable correspondence, negotiation, and set of events!
Since Ona’s master believed that she was illegally delivered to New Hampshire, he contacted Joseph Whipple who was Portsmouth’s Collector of customs to seek his help in this matter. In a letter dated September 1, 1796, Ona’s master requested Whipple to, seize her and put her on board a Vessel (sic) bound immediately to this place (the estate/plantation which was on a river), or to Alexandria.”, with a promise to reimburse him of any costs. Whipple set out to locate the fugitive slave. After he had located her, he was so impressed with her character and so convinced of her, “thirst for complete freedom”, that he decided against returning her to involuntary servitude! Whipple wrote back to Ona’s master that he could not arrest her and force her to sail back because, “popular opinion here is in favor of universal freedom’, and that such an act might spawn a demonstration amongst anti-slavery residents. He suggested that the master use the courts rather than the Customs house to retrieve Ona. There was more correspondence between the master and Mr. Whipple, but Mr. Whipple was determined not to do anything that would return Ona involuntarily and he politely refused the master’s request, much to the chagrin of the master.
The master kept pursuing the recapture through various people, including his nephew. During this period, while Ona still did not feel completely safe (nor should she), she met and married a free black by the name of Jack Staines and they had a child. The master’s nephew traveled to Portsmouth with the express mission to kidnap Ona and any of her children and bring them back to Virginia.
Two years after her escape, while her master’s nephew was having supper with Senator Langdon, he revealed his intentions about the impending kidnapping. Senator Langdon immediately sent word via his servant to Ona, who quickly hired a wagon and fled to the neighboring town of Greenland where she and her child went into hiding with a free black family named Jacks. Here she stayed until the nephew left and her husband returned from the sea.
She was not completely free until the death of her master and her mistress two and a half years after the final incident involving the foiled kidnapping.
She had three children, Eliza, William, and Nancy and they all lived together until her husband’s death in 1803. Sadly William left home in the 1820’s to become a sailor, but never returned from the sea. Ona’s two daughters predeceased her and she lived out her life as a pauper.
The ex-slave admitted that her life as a free woman was much more difficult than it would have been had she stayed with her mistress. However, when asked whether she ever regretted leaving the plantation estate, Ona replied, “No. I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means.”
She died on February 25, 1848
And who were Ona’s master and mistress?
George and Martha Washington of Mount Vernon.
Note: Much of this was taken from Evelyn Gerson’s Master’s Thesis and The President’s House in Philadelphia site.
The Story of Oney Judge, George Washington's Runaway Slave