Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ona Judge Staines, A Slave Runs away to New Hampshire

A story for Juneteenth

How did a runaway slave from Philadelphia come to New Hampshire? And why was she instantly recognized? Well, she belonged to George Washington, and he had served the last part of his presidency in Philadelphia. Elizabeth, daughter of Senator John Langdon, had seen this slave woman when visiting the First Lady. The Chief Secretary to Washington was Tobias Lear, a Portsmouth native, who also knew the runaway by sight.

Ona Judge Staines was the daughter of an English indentured servant, Andrew Judge, and a black slave mother for the Washington family. She had belonged to Martha Washington’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. Children born to slave mothers were property of the slave holder. Ona was a seamstress, and Martha’s personal maid. She didn’t want to return to Virginia at the end of George Washington’s term, so she ran off and took passage on board a ship, the “Nancy”, bound for Portsmouth, New Hampshire. This advertisement appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette on 24 May 1796:


Absconded from the household of the President of the United States, ONEY JUDGE, a light mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes and bushy hair. She is of middle stature, slender, and delicately formed, about 20 years of age.
She has many changes of good clothes, of all sorts, but they are not sufficiently recollected to be described—As there was no suspicion of her going off, nor no provocation to do so, it is not easy to conjecture whither she has gone, or fully, what her design is;—but as she may attempt to escape by water, all matters of vessels are cautioned against admitting her into them, although it is probable she will attempt to pass for a free woman, and has, it is said, wherewithal to pay her passage.
Ten dollars will be paid to any person who will bring her home, if taken in the city, or on board any
vessel in the harbour;—and a reasonable additional sum if apprehended at, and brought from a greater
distance, and in proportion to the distance.
May 23

Somehow word made it back to Philadelphia that Ona was in New Hampshire. In November 1796 Washington wrote to Joseph Whipple, the Portsmouth Custom Collector, about returning his slave. Whipple obviously had anti-slavery feelings when he wrote back that a slave who returned voluntarily was “infinitely more value in the estimation of her employer than one taken forcibly like a felon to punishment."

By January 1797 Ona had married Jack Staines. Washington had asked his nephew, who was taking a trip to Portsmouth, to seize Ona and any children she might have had. The nephew, Burwell Bassett, arranged to have dinner with Senator Langdon. The Senator sent a message to Ona, who fled to Greenland, New Hampshire with her baby. She hid with a free black family, the Jacks. When Washington died three months later, she thought she was free.

In New Hampshire Ona found a marriage, religious freedom, and learned to read and paint. She had three children. She worked as a live-in maid for the Bartlett family of Portsmouth, and then removed to Greenland to live with the Jacks family, her former protectors. When she outlived her children, and could no longer work she was reduced to poverty. Ona was supported by several benevolent people of Greenland, and the town records show she received donations of firewood. She died on February 25, 1848. The Staines and Jacks family grave site is located off Dearborn Avenue in Greenland, New Hampshire.

The story of Ona Judge Staines was been made into play recently performed in Portsmouth in 2000. “Thirst for Freedom” was written by Emory Wilson. Several children’s books have been written about her, as well as a popular poem in 1900 written by poet M. O. Halls of Greenland, New Hampshire “Ona, Washington’s Runaway Slave”.

Ona, Washington's Runaway Slave

By M. O. Halls (1900)

But what I have to tell, is, how a slave was hid,
A maid of Martha Washington, a little kid,
And almost white; she had some help and found a way
To make escape upon a schooner down the bay.
The vessel came with wood; behind a pile she hid,
Until, just as the vessel sailed, she thought and did

Just what occasion prompted, slipped on board and hid
Again, and there she stayed in fear until they bid
Her to come on deck, and have no fear, for she was safe;
And all were drawn in pity to the little waif
Of fifteen years. The vessel, bound for Portsmouth, kept
Right on until she reached her port, and then she wept
For joy. Liberty is sweet (bear this in mind)
To all-to bird and beast, as well to all mankind.

A man by name of Staines took her to wife. By her
He had two daughters. 'Liza lived, and many were
The presents made to pave the way to see a slave
Of Washington. Now, when 't was known he wished to save
This chattel, she was warned and fled to this retreat.

The course pursued was very wise; he was discreet.
His letter showed the noble man he always was.
"His wife would like her back, but would not be the cause
Of any strife, take any action, give offence,"
He said, "if public feeling had become intense."
Charles Sumner, senator and statesman (this maintains,)
Was written the collector of the port 'bout Mrs. Staines.
And when the story spread, that she was wanted back,

She sought and found a shelter in the house of Jack.
The Jacks were very jealous of attentions paid
To this lone widow woman, and, when some were made
In common, took the lion's share, scoop in the whole
And treated little Staines as though she had no soul.

The ground where once the cottage stood, there by the brook,
To-day is all smoothed down, and in this garden nook,
Where once sweetwilliams, daffodils, and beds of rue,
Old fashioned flowers, perfumes mixed and drank the dew.

There's nothing left to tell the tale of daily strife,
Of constant struggle, ending only with the life.
They are all buried in a lonely, far-off spot,
Away from human kind-a lonely pasture lot.
Now let us leave this lovely, lonely, sacred dell.


For more information on Ona Judge Staines: A paper written by Evelyn Gerson on the life of Ona Judge Staines from Wikipedia Ona’s story from the website of The President’s House in Philadelphia, including an interview in 1846 that appeared in The Liberator newspaper.

Copyright 2010, Heather Wilkinson Rojo

1 comment:

  1. What a great story! The details are plentiful and really make the story come alive.