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A house slave of George Washington, she escaped by ship to Portsmouth in 1796. Washington attempted to get her back without a fuss, but was unsuccessful. She married John Staines of Portsmouth in 1797, and later lived on Dearborn Road until her death in 1848. The following passage is taken from “A Pleasant Abiding Place: A History of Greenland, N.H., 1635-2000”, by Paul C. Hughes and Paul F. Hughes, an unpublished manuscript available in-house use only at the Weeks Public Library.
A drama which would affect Greenland for many decades began in the summer of 1796. On Sept. 1, a letter from George Washington, President of the United States, was sent via Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott to Joseph Whipple, Collector of the Port of Portsmouth. It referred to a house slave of the Washingtons’ named Ona Maria Judge:
Enclosed is the name, and description of the Girl I mentioned to you last night. She has been the particular attendant on Mrs. Washington since she was ten years old; and was handy and useful to her, being perfect Mistress of her needle.
We have heard that she was seen in New York by someone who knew her, directly after she went off. And since by Miss [Elizabeth] Langdon [daughter of John], in Portsmouth; who meeting her one day in the Street, and knowing her, was about to stop and speak to her, but she brushed quickly by, to avoid it.
By her being seen in New York (if the fact be so) it is probable she went immediately to Portsmouth by Water from this city [Philadelphia]; but whether she travelled by land, or Water to the latter, 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.
Whether she is Stationary at Portsmouth, or was there en passant only, is uncertain; but as it is the last we have heard of her, I would thank you [Wolcott] for writing to the Collector of that Port [Whipple], and him for his endeavours to recover, and send her back: What will be the best method to effect it, is difficult for me to say. If enquiries are made openly, her Seducer (for she is simple and inoffensive herself) would take alarm, and adopt instant measures (if he is not tired of her) to secrete or remove her. To seize, and put her on board a Vessel bound immediately to this place, or to Alexandria [Va.] which I should like better, seems at first view, to be the safest and least expensive. But if she is discovered, the Collector, I am persuaded, will pursue such measures as to him shall appear best, to effect those ends; and the cost shall be re-embursed and with thanks besides.
If positive proof is required, of the identity of the person, Miss Langdon who must have seen her often in the Chamber of Miss Custis and I dare say Mrs. Langdon, on the occasional calls on the girl by Mrs. Washington, when she has been here, would be able to do this.
I am sorry to give you, or any one else trouble on such a trifling occasion, but the ingratitude of the girl, who was brought up and treated more like a child than a Servant (and Mrs. Washington’s desire to recover her) ought not to escape with impunity if it can be avoided.
Joseph Whipple replied to Wolcott on Sept. 10, “to assure you that I shall with great pleasure execute the President’s wishes in the matter… I have just ascertained the fact that the person mentioned is in this Town.” It was only on Oct. 4 that Whipple felt able to report to Wolcott at length:
On the 10th Ultimo in answer to your letter of the 1st I advised you of the President’s servant’s being in this town. — Having discovered her place of residence, I engaged a passage for her in a Vessel preparing to sail for Philadelphia avoiding to give alarm by calling on her until the Vessel was ready, — I then caused her to be sent for as if to be employed in my family — After a cautious examination it appeared to me that she had not been decoyed away as had been apprehended, but that a thirst for compleat freedom which she was informed would take place on her arrival here or [at] Boston had been her only motive for absconding. — It gave me much satisfaction to find that when uninfluenced by fear she expressed great affection & reverence for her Master & Mistress, and without hesitation declared her willingness to return & to serve with fidelity during the lives of the President &his Lady if she could be freed on their decease, should she outlive them; but that she should rather suffer death than return to Slavery & [be] liable to be sold or given to any other persons. — Finding this to be her disposition & conceiving it would be a pleasing circumstance to both the President & his lady should she go back without compulsion, I prevailed on her to confide in my obtaining for her the freedom she so earnestly wished for — She made preparation with cheerfulness to go on board the the Vessel which was to have sailed in a few hours and of her own accord proposed concealing her intention of returning from her acquaintance lest they should discourage her from her purpose. — I have recited this detail to show the girl’s good disposition when expressing her uncontrolled sentiments and acting without bad advisers — I am extremely sorry to add, as I conceive the girl is a valuable Servant to her Mistress, that the Vessel being detained by a contrary wind, in the course of the next day her intentions were discovered by her acquaintance who dissuaded her from returning and the vessel sailed without her. —
I am informed that many Slaves from the Southern States have come to Massachusetts & some to New Hampshire, either of which States they consider as an asylum; the popular opinion here in favor of universal freedom has rendered it difficult to get them back to their masters: — In the present case if the President’s servant continues inflexible & will not return voluntarily, which at present there is no prospect of, I conceive it would be the legal & most effectual mode of proceeding that a direction should come from an Officer of the President’s Household to the Attorney of the United States in New Hampshire & that he adopt such measures for returning her to her master as are authorized by the Constitution of the United States, — and I shall be happy to facilitate the business to the utmost of my power in obedience to whatever shall be the pleasure of the President – and it is with great regret that I give up the prospect of executing the business in that favourable manner that I at first flattered myself it would be done.
It was not until Nov. 28 that President Washington, apologizing for “an absence of some weeks at Mount Vernon,” replied to Joseph Whipple’s letter of Oct. 4:
I regret that the attempt you made to restore the Girl (Oney Judge as she called herself while with us, and who, without the least provocation absconded from her Mistress) should have been attended with so little Success. To enter into such a compromise with her, as she suggested to you, is totally inadmissable, for reasons that must strike at first view: for however well disposed I might be to a gradual abolition, or even to an entire emancipation of that description of People (if the latter was in itself practicable at this moment) it would neither be politic or just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference; and thereby discontent before hand the minds of all her fellow-servants who by their steady attachments are far more deserving than herself of favor.
I was apprehensive (and so informed Mr. Wolcott) that if she had any previous notice more than could be avoided of an attempt to send her back, that she would contrive to elude it; for whatever she may have asserted to the contrary, there is no doubt in this family of her being seduced, and enticed off by a Frenchman, who was either really, or pretendedly deranged, and under that guise, used to frequent the family; and has never been seen here since [the] girl decamped. We have indeed, lately been informed thro’ other channels that she went to Portsmouth with a Frenchman, who getting tired of her, as is presumed, left her; and that she had betaken herself to the needle, the use of which she well understood, for a livelihood.
About the epoch I have mentioned she herself was very desirous of returning to Virginia; for when Captn. Prescot was on the point of sailing from Portsmouth to Federal City [D.C.] with his family, she offered herself to his lady as a waiter, told her she had lived with Mrs. Washington (without entering into particulars), and that she was desirous of getting back to her native place and friends. Mrs. Prescot either from not wanting a Maid Servant, or presuming that she might have been discarded for improper conduct, declined (unlucky for Mrs. Washington) taking her.
If she will return to her former service without obliging me to use compulsory means to effect it her late conduct will be forgiven by her Mistress, and she will meet with the same treatment from me that all the rest of her family (which is a very numerous one) shall receive. If she will not you would oblige me, by resorting to such measures as are proper to put her on board a Vessel bound either to Alexandria or the Federal City. Directed in either case, to my Manager at Mount Vernon; by the door of which the Vessel must pass, or to the care of Mr. [Tobias] Lear [Washington’s secretary] at the last mentioned place, if the Vessel should not stop before it arrives at that Port.
I do not mean however, by this request, that such violent measures should be used as would excite a mob or riot, which might be the case if she has adherents, or even uneasy Sensations in the Minds of well disposed Citizens; rather than either of these should happen I would forego her Services altogether, and the example also which is of infinite[ly] more importance. The less is said beforehand, and the more celereity is used in the act of shipping her when an opportunity presents, the better chance Mrs. Washington who is desirous of receiving her again) will have to be gratified.
We had vastly rather she should be sent to Virginia than brought to this place, as our stay here will be but short [Washington’s second term was nearing its end]; and as it is not unlikely that she may, from the circumstances I have mentioned, be in a state of pregnancy.
A few unspoken assumptions in Washington’s letters to Whipple stand out; a more sensitive reader might well find others. It is assumed that Oney Judge, having been well treated by the Washingtons, could have no reason to run away (“without the least provocation”); the possibility that she might have found slavery objectionable in itself, regardless of her treatment, isn’t considered. It is also assumed that she must have been “seduced” into escaping, being too “simple” to be able to decide to leave, or to leave, by herself. But the “Frenchman,” if he existed (which Whipple himself doubted), seems never to have been identified; the fact of Oney’s pregnancy in 1796 is dubious, as her first child may have been born in 1797 or 1798. The implication that she and her fellow slaves, or their ancestors, had voluntarily entered in to some sort of contract with their owners, to which Oney had been “unfaithful,” leads one to wonder just when this is supposed to have occurred. It is also noteworthy that Whipple’s suggestion that Oney’s return be negotiated through the courts, as if she had the rights of a United States citizen, is quietly ignored.
An interview with Ona Maria Staines (as she was then) by “T. H. A.” of Stratham (Probably a misreading of the initials of Joseph A. Adams [1818-1860]) was printed in the Granite Freeman of May 1845, when she was close to 80 years of age, and had been living on today’s Dearborn Road in Greenland for several decades. Whether accurately or not, Ona mentioned no help from any white “Seducer,” but gave the impression that she and her black friends in Philadelphia had been perfectly capable of accomplishing her escape
Being a waiting maid of Mrs. Washington, she was not exposed to any particular hardships. If asked why she did not remain in his [sic] service, she gives two reasons, first, that she wanted to be free; secondly, that she understood that after the decease of her master and mistress, she was to become the property of a grand-daughter of theirs, by the name of Custis, and that she was determined never to be her slave.
Being asked how she escaped, she replied substantially as follows, “Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go, I didn’t know where; for I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I never should get my liberty. I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left Washington’s house while they were eating dinner.”
She came on board a ship commanded by Capt. John Bolles, and bound to Portsmouth, N.H. In relating it, she added, “I never told his name till after he died, a few years since, lest they should punish him for bringing me away.”
The man Ona meant was Capt. John Bowles. He took the sloop Nancy to Philadelphia in May 1796, returning around June 1, according to the Portsmouth papers. This must have been the trip on which Ona came to New Hampshire. Bowles became a successful merchant and a Portsmouth town officer, and died in 1837, aged 73.
Joseph Whipple addressed his last letter on the subject of Ona Judge to President Washington on Dec. 22, 1796:
I sincerely lament the ill success of my endeavours to restore to your Lady her servant on the request of Mr Wolcott — It had indeed become a subject of Anxiety to me on an Idea that her services were very valuable to her mistress and not readily to be replaced.
My mode of proceeding then, was adapted to my feelings on the Occasion, for I conceived that a Servant (in her employment especially) returning voluntarily [is] of infinitely more value in the estimation of her employer than one taken forceably like a felon to punishment — wherefore I gave her notice — this notice however was not given until the Vessel [it was] intended to convey her in was on the point of sailing — nor would it then have been given had I not drawn from her an Acknowledgement of a desire to return before she knew I was authorized to send her back, — It was the circumstance of her Acquaintance discovering her intention that defeated it.
I will now Sir agreeably to your desire send her to Alexandria if it be practicable without the consequences which you except — that of exciting a riot or a mob — or creating uneasy sensations in the minds of well disposed Citizens — the first cannot be calculated before hand — it will be governed by the popular opinion of the moment –or the circumstances that may arise in the transaction. The latter may be sought into and judged of by conversing with such persons without discovering [i. e., revealing] the Occasion — So ffar as I have had opportunity I perceive that different sentiments are entertained on this subject. — At present there is no Vessel bound for Alexandria or Philadelphia — when there is [one] for the former place, I shall (if practicable without such disagreeable consequences as I may think repugnant to your wishes) execute your directions. — I have deferred answering your letter some days to find out the present retreat of the Girl and yesterday discovered that she was lodged at a Free-Negro’s — that she is published for marriage agreeable to our laws in such cases to a Mulatto. I have applied to the officer who certifies the publication and requested of him to withhold the certificate. — The farther measures that may be proper I will give the utmost attention to. —
It has been remarked that there are many Servants who have escaped from the Southern States into Massachusetts and some to New Hampshire; — If the practice encreases it will be very injurious to many valuable Estates at the Southward, and such numbers of persons unused to providing for themselves will become miserable and a nuisance to the public. — It were to be wished for the good of Society as well as for the individuals interested that some means could be adopted of a public nature to prevent this growing evil and that the abolition of this species of servitude should be as gradual as has been heretofore contemplated. — I shall in all cases in which my services may be acceptable to you be happy in rendering them & in executing your commands.
The fact remains, however, that Whipple had not carried out the Washingtons’ wishes and returned Ona to Virginia — one wonders how eager he really was to do so — nor was he able to suppress entirely the publication of her intentions of marriage with the “mulatto” he mentioned, John Staines. Greenland’s town records contain a notation by Thomas Philbrook, town clerk, dated Jan. 8, 1797: “This may Certify that Mr. John Staines and Miss Oney Judge was Published in this Town.” Their marriage was performed by Dr. Samuel Haven in Portsmouth, and announced in the Jan. 14 Gazette. The Washingtons are reported to have attempted to induce Ona to return to them subsequently, but without success, and the Staineses settled down in Portsmouth. Two daughters were born to them, Eliza, in 1797 or 1798, and Nancy, probably in 1802.