Washington’s Runaway Slave
from The Granite Freeman, Concord, New Hampshire (May 22, 1845); reprinted in Frank W. Miller’s Portsmouth New Hampshire Weekly, June 2, 1877, under the title “Washington’s Runaway Slave, and How Portsmouth Freed Her.” Author: Rev. T.H. Adams
There is now living in the borders of the town of Greenland, N.H., a runaway slave of Gen. Washington, at present supported by the County of Rockingham. Her name at the time of her elopement was ONA MARIA JUDGE. She is not able to give the year of her escape, but says that she came from Philadelphia just after the close of Washington’s second term of the Presidency, which must fix it somewhere in the [early?] part of the year 1797.
Being a waiting maid of Mrs. Washington, she was not exposed to any peculiar hardships. If asked why she did not remain in his 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 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 should never 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.”
Washington made two attempts to recover her. First, he sent a man by the name of Bassett to persuade her to return; but she resisted all the argument he employed for this end. He told her they would set her free when she arrived at Mount Vernon, to which she replied, “I am free now and choose to remain so.”
Finding all attempts to seduce her to slavery again in this manner useless, Bassett was sent once more by Washington, with orders to bring her and her infant child by force. The messenger, being acquainted with Gov. [then Senator John] Langdon, then of Portsmouth, took up lodgings with him, and disclosed to him the object of his mission.
The good old Governor. (to his honor be it spoken), must have possessed something of the spirit of modern anti-slavery. He entertained Bassett very handsomely, and in the meantime sent word to Mrs. Staines, to leave town before twelve o’clock at night, which she did, retired to a place of concealment, and escaped the clutches of the oppressor.
Shortly after this, Washington died, and, said she, “they never troubled me any more after he was gone. â€¦
The facts here related are known through this region, and may be relied on as substantially correct. Probably they were not for years given to the public, through fear of her recapture; but this reason no longer exists, since she is too old and infirm to be of sufficient value to repay the expense of search.
Though a house servant, she had no education, nor any valuable religious instruction; says she never heard Washington pray, and does not believe that he was accustomed to. “Mrs. Washington used to read prayers, but I don’t call that praying.[“] Since her escape she has learned to read, trusts she has been made “wise unto salvation,” and is, I think, connected with a church in Portsmouth.
When asked if she is not sorry she left Washington, as she has labored so much harder since, than before, her reply is, “No, I am free, and have, I trust been made a child of God by the means.[“]
Never shall I forget the fire that kindled in her age-bedimmed eye, or the smile that played upon her withered countenance, as I spake of the Redeemer in whom there is neither “bond nor free,” bowed with her at the mercy seat and commended her to Him “who heareth prayer” and who regards “the poor and needy when they cry,” I felt that were it mine to choose, I would not exchange her possessions, “rich in faith,” and sustained, while tottering over the grave, by “a hope full of immortality,” for tall the glory and renown of him whose slave she was.
1846 interview with Ona Judge Staines
by the Rev. Benjamin Chase. Letter to the editor, The Liberator, January 1, 1847.. As quoted in Slave Testimony, Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies, John W. Blassingame, ed. (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1977), pp. 248-50
I have recently made a visit to one of Gen. Washington’s, or rather Mrs. Washington’s slaves. It[sic] is a woman, nearly white, very much freckled, and probably, (for she does not know her age,) more than eighty. She now resides with a colored woman by the name of Nancy Jack â€¦ at what is called the Bay side in Greenland, in New-Hampshire, and is maintained as a pauper by the county of Rockingham.
She says that she was a chambermaid for Mrs. Washington; that she was a large girl at the time of the revolutionary war; that when Washington was elected President, she was taken to Philadelphia, and that, although well enough used as to work and living, she did not want to be a slave always, and she supposed if she went back to Virginia, she would never have a chance of escape.
She took a passage in a vessel to Portsmouth, N.H. and there married a man by the name of Staines, and had three children, who, with her husband, are all dead. After she was married, and had one child, while her husband was gone to sea, Gen. Washington sent on a man by the name of Bassett [Burwell Bassett, Jr., Washington’s nephew], to prevail on her to go back. He saw her, and used all the persuasion he could, but she utterly refused to go with him. He returned, and then came again, with orders to take her by force, and carry her back. He put up with the late Gov. [John] Langdon, and made known his business, and the Governor gave her notice that she must leave Portsmouth that night, or she would be carried back. She went to a stable, and hired a boy, with a horse and carriage, to carry her to Mr. Jack’s [John Jack, a free black], at Greenland, where she now resides, a distance of eight miles, and remained there until her husband returned from sea, and Bassett did not find her.
She says that she never received the least mental or moral instruction, of any kind, while she remained in Washington’s family. But, after she came to Portsmouth, she learned to read; and when Elias Smith first preached in Portsmouth, she professes to have been converted to Christianity.
She, and the woman with whom she lives, (who is nearly of her age,) appear to be, and have the reputation of being imbued with the real spirit of Christianity. 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. Card-playing and wine-drinking were the business at his parties, and he had more of such company Sundays than on any other day. I do not mention this as showing, in my estimation, his anti-Christian character, so much as the bare fact of being a slaveholder, and not a hundredth part so much as trying to kidnap this woman; but, in the minds of the community, it will weigh infinitely more.
Great names bear more weight with the multitude, than the eternal principles of God’s government. So good a man as Washington is enough to sanctify war and slavery; but where is the evidence of his goodness?
This woman is yet a slave. If Washington could have got her and her child, they were constitutionally his; and if Mrs. Washington’s heirs were now to claim her, and take her before Judge Woodbury, and prove their title, he would be bound, upon his oath, to deliver her up to them. Again — Langdon was guilty of a moral violation of the Constitution, in giving this woman notice of the agent being after her. It was frustrating the design, the intent of the Constitution, and he was equally guilty, morally, as those who would overthrow it.
Mrs. Staines was given verbally, if not legally, by Mrs. Washington, to Eliza Custis, her grand-daughter.
These women live in rather an obscure place, and in a poor, cold house, and speak well of their neighbors, and are probably treated with as much kindness and sympathy as people are generally in their circumstances; but not with half so much as it is the duty and interest of people, in better outward circumstances, to treat them.
I greatly enjoyed my visit to them, and should rather have the benediction they pronounced upon me at parting, than the benediction of all the D.D.’s in Christendom.