You probably knew that George and Martha Washington owned slaves. But did you know that at least of one their slaves ran away and was never recaptured? That’s right, Ona Judge was a female slave owned by Martha Washington; she ran away in May 1796 and lived the rest of her life as a free woman. What is most interesting is that the Washingtons knew where she was, and even tried to get her to willingly return to slavery – she said no.
Ona Judge was by law a dower slave; she was owned by Martha Washington and her first husband; per his will, when Martha died the slaves remained a part of the estate to be divided among their heirs. So even though George Washington is not innocent in this whole story, he didn’t actually have the legal authority to free any of Martha’s dower slaves.
In the late 1700s, Philadelphia was moving toward gradual emancipation of its slaves. They passed a law that allowed someone newly arrived in Pennsylvania to hold their slaves for a period of six months; after that they had to free them, or leave the colony. The Washingtons knew this, so when George Washington was elected president and traveled to Philadelphia to serve, he brought several slaves with him, but concocted an elaborate plan to rotate his slaves back down to Virginia at six month intervals. He believed that each time a slave left the Pennsylvania colony, that reset the six month period.
Ona Judge had been rotating back and forth between Philadelphia and the Washingtons’ Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia over a period of several years during his Presidency. In 1796, Ona Judge learned she was to be a part of a wedding gift to Martha’s granddaughter, a young woman known for her fiery temper. It is believed that this is what made her decide to run away.
Despite repeated attempts to get her back, the Washingtons never did. The book examines the historical record, including letters, runaway advertisements, census records and two interviews that Ona Judge did late in life. The author tells the story of Ona Judge’s life, both during her period as a slave to the Washington family, as well as her life as a free woman.
There is much that is not known, and my only frustration with the book is that author draws it out with a lot of unnecessary repetition. It probably would have been a more concise work of non-fiction had she not speculated over and over as to the mindset and feelings of Judge and others portrayed. But otherwise I thought it was well researched and well-written, and enjoyed learning about this fascinating woman and the little known part she played in American history.