Black History Menu Sponsor Banner
Page Menu

Read the Greenland poem about Ona
Ona's Story is Dramatic New Play

Slaves at work Enslaved by Washington
she found freedom in NH

  • Escape to NH
  • Life in Bondage
  • Coming to Greenland
  • Spotted in Portsmouth
  • Thirst for Freedom
  • Free But not Safe
  • Life in New Hampshire
  • Ona Legend in Poetry

    A Thirst for Complete Freedom & Her Escape from President Washington
    By Evelyn Gerson

    top of page

    Escape to New Hampshire

    During the fall of 1796, George Washington's final months in office, Ona Judge Staines, a slave belonging to the First Family, escaped the Executive Mansion in Philadelphia (equivalent to today's White House) and made her way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The President, upon learning of her whereabouts, penned several correspondences and solicited help from friends and family in order to retrieve her. Despite these attempts, Ona eluded Washington and eventually settled in Greenland, NH.

    top of page

    Life in Bondage

    Since Washington did not keep vital statistics for his slaves, Ona's exact date of birth is not known. However, through his inventories, letters, and diary entries, the histories of slaves can be recreated. Her father, Andrew Judge, was a white indentured servant from Leeds, England who arrived in America in 1772. Judge gained his freedom after fulfilling his four-year contract at Mount Vernon and eventually moved off the plantation to start his own luck at farming. Ona's mother, a slave named Betty, was an expert at textiles and spent much of her time spinning thread, weaving cloth, and tailoring clothes for both the Washingtons and her fellow bondspeople. Betty was a "Dower Negro," that is she belonged to the estate of Martha's first husband Daniel Parke Custis, and after the Washington nuptials in 1759, moved to Mount Vernon with her mistress. According to Virginia law, children born to slave mothers were considered property of the slaveholder, so even though Judge obtained his freedom after his contract expired, his daughter no such legal claim.

    George Washington on Plantation Assigned to the Mansion House, Ona spent her days on arduous domestic tasks like spinning thread, weaving cloth, churning butter, turning tallow into soap, dipping candles, washing laundry and preparing food. Following in her mother's footsteps, the young slave became a particularly talented seamstress and this ability earned the respect of her masters. In fact, Ona's contribution to the household was so significant, that George Washington once described her as being a "perfect Mistress of her needle."

    After Washington's election in 1789, he and Martha left for the inauguration in New York City with seven slaves from Mount Vernon. The 15-year-old Ona had no choice but to leave the plantation-abandoning all her family and friends-and accompany her owners to their new residence. The First Lady decided to graduate Ona from the sewing circle to the boudoir and appointed the young girl to the rank of her personal attendant. As Martha's bodyservant, Ona's new tasks included helping her mistress dress and powder for official receptions, traveling with her on social calls and outings, and executing daily errands. Several times a week Ona accompanied the First Lady on her visits to the wives of other legislators and political leaders. While the women of the Republican Court entertained Martha in their receiving rooms, their household servants entertained Ona in the kitchen with refreshments, gossip, and stories. Soon Ona's circle of friends greatly expanded and many of these new acquaintances were free-blacks who answered the slave's questions about liberty, self-sovereignty, and how to escape.

    top of page

    Escape to Greenland

    When the seat of government shifted from New York to Pennsylvania a year and a half later, the entire household; slaves included, moved again to Philadelphia. Towards the end of Washington's second term, the President decided to spend his summer recess back on Mount Vernon. Ona realized that she if she were to go back south to the plantation she might never gain her liberty and thus decided to escape from the Executive Mansion. Since Washington mentioned in a letter to his nephew Bartholomew Dandridge in June of 1796 how on "Monday the 13th I expect to leave this city for Mount Vernon," Ona probably escaped from her owners around this date or perhaps a few weeks earlier. While the Washingtons began packing in anticipation for their departure, Ona too packed up her things, but with different intentions. Retelling her story to for the New Hampshire abolitionist paper, "Granite Freeman" many years later in 1845, Ona confided "I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there before hand, and left while [the Washingtons] 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 Ona gained passage upon a sloop named the Nancy, piloted by Portsmouth's Captain John Bowles. The sea captain navigated back and forth between Portsmouth and the Federal City about once a month. Together with his landside partner and manager, Thomas Leigh, of Berwick, Maine, Bowles ran a profitable freight business carrying harnesses, bridles, saddles, and other leather products to be sold in the New Hampshire. By the third day of June, the mariner was back in New Hampshire advertising his cargo of new wares and announcing his intentions to said again on the 25th of the month. However, it is not known if Ona sailed on this late May tour or if she remained in hiding until the Washingtons left town and sailed with him on either his late June or July journeys.

    Did Captain Bowles realize he carried a fugitive slave on board, and that this human property belonged to the America's Commander-in-Chief, George Washington? Most likely he did know that she was a runaway, but kept her voyage-and his participation in her escape-a secret in order to keep Ona safe and protect his own neck. Many slave states equated the harboring and abetting of runaways to an illegal confiscation of property and those found guilty of could be sentenced to death.

    top of page

    Spotted in Portsmouth

    While strolling through the streets of Portsmouth, Ona passed by Elizabeth Langdon, daughter of Senator John Langdon. As a frequent caller to Martha Washington and her granddaughter, Nelly Custis, Betsy Langdon had seen Ona numerous times. Miss Langdon tried to engage Ona in conversation but the bondswoman evaded her. It is probably from this interlude that news of Ona's whereabouts made it back to Washington, because by September, when the President returned to Philadelphia, he already knew where to search for his escaped slave.

    top of page

    "Thirst for Complete Freedom"

    Since Ona had been illegally delivered to New Hampshire, Washington immediately contacted Joseph Whipple, Portsmouth's Collector of Customs (and brother to William Whipple) to seek his help in the matter. In a letter dated September 1, 1796, the President requested that Whipple "seize her and put her on board a Vessel bound immediately to this place, or to Alexandria" with a promise to reimburse him of any costs. Honored to have his services called upon by the President, Whipple set out to locate the fugitive slave. However, during an interview with Ona, the Collector became so impressed with her character, so convinced of her "thirst for complete freedom," that he decided against returning her to involuntary servitude. Whipple wrote back to the President that he could not arrest her and force her to sail back because "popular opinion here is in favor of universal freedom" and such an action might spawn a demonstration among anti-slavery residents. He suggested that Washington use the courts rather than the Customs House to retrieve his fugitive slave.

    On November 28th, 1796, Washington wrote to Whipple a second time with the hopes that more could be done to catch his escaped slave. He outlined a possible course of action for her apprehension, but cautioned the Collector not to take any action which might "excite a mob or riot...or even uneasy Sensations in the Minds of well disposed Citizens." Paying lip service to the President, Whipple assured Washington that he would try to execute his request, but doubted that it could be done without stirring anti-slavery sentiments. He also reminded the slave owner that a servant returning voluntarily is of "infinitely more value in the estimation of her employer than one taken forcibly like a felon to punishment."

    top of page

    Free But Not Safe

    Whipple's non-intervention allowed Judge to grow roots in Portsmouth. She adjusted quickly to her new life as an independent woman, took up residence with a free black family, and found work as a seamstress to support herself. In January of 1797, Ona met and married a Black Jack by the name of Jack Staines. Although Ona assumed the life of a free-black woman, she was in constant fear that slave hunters would send her back to bondage - and rightfully so - for Washington certainly did not forget where she was hiding. Two years after Ona's escape, the retired President asked his nephew, Burwell Bassett, Jr., who was planning a business trip to New Hampshire, to try and seize the woman along with any children she may have had, and send them all back to the Virginia plantation. When Bassett revealed these intentions during his dinner with Langdon, the Senator quickly sent word about the impending kidnapping to Ona by way of his servant. The fugitive hired a wagon and fled to the neighboring town of Greenland where she and her baby went into hiding with a free black family named Jacks. Here she stayed until Bassett left and her husband returned from sea. Although she successfully eluded another apprehension, it wasn't until the Death of Washington three months after this incident, that Ona felt her freedom was finally secured.

    top of page

    Life in New Hampshire

    Ona, her husband, and their children; Eliza, Nancy, and William lived together until Jack's death in 1803. Seeking to support and provide shelter for her family, Ona accepted a position as a live-in maid for the Bartlett family of Portsmouth. Perhaps the dynamics of this situation too closely resembled her days as a slave because soon after she moved to Greenland, and took up residence with the family of John Jacks, her former guardians. By the time Ona and her children moved in, the matriarch Phillis had died leaving an aged John Jacks in the care of his two daughters, Nancy and Phillis, Jr. New boarders meant additional income and more hands to work in the home and garden.

    The two families became interdependent in order to survive, but prospering in the small town of Greenland was difficult since work was scarce for people of color. William left home in the 1820s to become a sailor and never returned from sea. Eliza and Nancy contributed to the household income by working as servants in the homes of neighbors, but sadly these women died too young to care for their elders later in life. As age set in for Ona and the sisters Jack labor became physically unbearable. Outliving her daughters by fifteen years, aged Ona became a pauper, supported by the benevolent people of her community. Numerous receipts in the town vault of Greenland show that the women received yearly donations of firewood and other sundries.

    Although Ona suffered much personal loss and economic hardship, freedom provided her with experiences and opportunities that she never would have had as a slave. For example, Ona lived with her family without the fear of being separated at Washington's whim. She frequently attended religious services at the church of her choice. She learned how to read. She had complete control over her time and could decide how to spend it, taking up hobbies like painting. She could come and go as she pleased. The ex-slave admitted that her life as a free woman was much more difficult than it would have been had she stayed with the Washingtons. However, when asked if she ever regretted leaving Mount Vernon, 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.

    Copyright © 2000 By Evelyn Gerson
    Copyright © 2000 design & cyber publication
    Top illustration of Washington slaves at Mount Vernon
    from Library of Congress


    Almost ten years have passed since I first stumbled upon the story of Ona Maria Judge Staines. As an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire, I learned about her from two short paragraphs within Mechal Sobel's The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth Century Virginia (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), an assigned reading for a class with Professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. I couldn't believe that growing up in NH I had NEVER once heard this story mentioned in any of my history lessons. With Professor Sobel planting the seed of curiosity and Professor Ulrich enthusiastically encouraging my research, I began on a quest to learn more about this very brave, determined woman. I also wanted to know HOW she successfully defied the President since he was ostensibly the most allianced, respected, and powerful man of his day (and he knew exactly where she hid). So my research has been twofold: to unearth Ona's life and then explore the significance of this incident. Ona is an elusive character--because she carried the "dual burden" of being a woman and person of color she slips in and out of primary documents. But I like this challenge and it allows me to savor even the smallest discovery about her life.

    Ona was a very strong woman of color and can be admired for outwitting her master, George Washington. Every time I tell her story people immediately are impressed with the fact that she challenged him winning the prize of liberty. Moreover, Ona is truly an inspiration: she traded a life of relative comfort for one of hardship and poverty in order to be free. Towards the end of her days when asked if she ever regretted leaving the First Family, she paused but answered "No." I think the lesson here is that there is no fulfillment without sacrifice and we all need to remain true to our convictions. Now that my Master's Thesis is almost done, I look forward to sharing her story with others. Though I apologize to Ona for delivering her tale almost a decade after first embarking on this journey, I am hoping that the years have better equipped me as both a writer and historian to better deliver her story.
    -- EG in San Francisco, CA

    Click for MORE Seacoast Black History

    top of page

    [ New | Site Map | Talk | Store | Sponsors ]

    [ Black History Home | Article List | Theme Sites Home ]

    line rule


    Site label
    Portsmouth, New Hampshire 03801 Email:

    line rule