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George Washington and His Runaway Slaves

Updated on March 12, 2018
harrynielsen profile image

New World history is a rich field that is constantly being analyzed for new material. The complexity of these tales never fails to amaze me.

Washington's Plantattion

As a slaveholder George Washington was a demanding overseer.
As a slaveholder George Washington was a demanding overseer. | Source

A Few Observations on Our First president and His Slaves

In 1743, George Washington inherited his first slaves at age eleven, when his father died. In agreement with the will of Augustine Washington, young George inherited the 250 acre farm along with 10 slaves. According to the Mount Vernon website, Washington did not purchase his first slave until he reached adulthood, at which time he purchased eight more persons of color.

George Washington's responsibility as an overseer increased dramatically in 1759, when he married the wealthy widow, Martha Custis. When Martha arrived on the banks of the Potomac, she brought with her 84 slaves. By Virginia law, these laborers would remain with Martha until she died, they died or were sold to someone else.

When Washington died in 1799, he owned 123 slaves, while Martha held almost 200 individuals in bondage. According to Washington's will, his slaves were to be freed upon Martha's passing, while Martha would keep her own entourage and then pass them on to her heirs, when she passed away. In accordance with the agreement, Washington's slaves were indeed freed, but the date was moved forward to avoid potential difficulties for Martha.

During Washington's lifetime many slaves tried to escape. Some were successful and some were not. One man who gained his freedom in this manner was a cook, owned by George Washington, named Hercules, Another important historical episode revolved around Ona Judge, Martha's personal seamstress, who accompanied the First Lady to Philadelphia in 1790 and then fled to New England six years later..

The Presidential House in Philadelphia

When the Washingtons moved to Philadelphia in 1790, the first president and first lady brought nine slaves with them
When the Washingtons moved to Philadelphia in 1790, the first president and first lady brought nine slaves with them

Crossing the Mason-Dixon Line

When George Washington was elected to be our first president in 1789, the nation's capital was in New York, not Washington. Shortly thereafter, the capital got relocated to Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, a state, which had abolished slavery in 1780.

This presented a complex set of legal problems for the Washingtons, as any person or family that moved into the state, were required to set all slaves free within six months of their arrival. Washington maneuvered around this state law by having his slaves return to Virginia before the six month grace period was up and then bringing them back to Philadelphia at a later date.

A Brief History of Ona Judge

Who Was Ona Judge

Ona Judge was born on the Washington plantation at Mount Vernon, in the turbulent years right before the Revolution in 1773. Her mother was an African-American slave named Betty, while her father was an indentured, white servant, named Andrew Judge.

Like her mother, "Oney", as she was often called, was trained as a seamstress. And like her mother, she excelled at the tasks; so much so, that she was one of nine family-owned slaves that the Washingtons brought with them to the new nation's capitol in Philadelphia. (New York was actually the first national capital).

Evidently, Oney felt comfortable living in Philadelphia, that is until her owner, Martha Washington, decided to give Oney away to her grand daughter as a wedding president. This unilateral decision by the First Lady, most likely precipitated Ona's flight to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where she married a free black sailor and remained there, despite the efforts of George to reclaim his wife's property.

Hercules the Slave

George Washington owned a slave, who went by the name of Hercules. Hercules was a talented cook, who even had his portrait done by Gilbert Stuart
George Washington owned a slave, who went by the name of Hercules. Hercules was a talented cook, who even had his portrait done by Gilbert Stuart

Hercules Follows Suit

Much to Washington's embarrassment and anger, Oney Judge was not the only slave to escape from the rather small Philadelphia household. The second escapee was an extraordinary gifted cook, who went by the name of Hercules.He had been born a slave at Mount Vernon and married another slave named Alice. Together, the couple had three sons, including one, who worked with his father in Philadelphia

The culinary efforts of Hercules were so well appreciated that he was allowed to sell his extra wares on the streets of Philadelphia. Hercules was also allowed to walk throughout the city, where he could freely mingle with a sizable population of freed blacks.

This freedom must have had a profound effect on the cook, for upon his return to Mount Vernon, Hercules successfully escaped the plantation, possibly making his unnoticed exit on Washington's birthday. Furthermore, Hercules was able to legally obtain his status as a free man of color through a process called manumission.

The Biggest Outbreak

The biggest outbreak from the Washington plantation occurred in April of 1781 during the height of the Revolutionary War. At this time 17 slaves from Mt. Vernon, 14 men and three women, left the plantation and boarded a British ship, called the HMS Savage. The group of approxamately 17 did not have far to go, for the ship was anchored in the Potomac River, just offshore from their Mount Vernon home. The escape attempt was largely successful, as the British did not immediately return any of the new arrivals. However, several of the men were re-captured in Philadelphia in 1783and one more was caught in New York after the Revolution ended.

A Modern Viewpoint

Some Observations from the 21st Century

Of the many U.S., presidents, who owned slaves, Washington, was the only one, who ever set any of his servants free. Whether this unusual act was done out of gratitude, simple convenience or some combination of the two, the underlying reason for this undertaking is still debated today.

Perhaps, Washington saw the handwriting on the wall, but just as likely, is the fact that the first president was part a trend, which was more popular in the late 1700s than in the early years of the 19th century, when the invention of the cotton gin, produced a cotton renaissance and a large increase in the institution of slavery.

In the end, both Hercules and Ona Judge were granted some sort of freedom by President George Washington. Hercules was granted an actual decree manumission, while in Ona's case, it was more of a de facto abandonment of any effort to kidnap her and force a return to Virginia.

Furthermore, in the Washington household, there appears to a major difference in fate for the two groups of slaves. Not only were Washington's slaves freed, but also, there were funds available, for their education and general well-being. Compare this to the descendants of Martha's slaves, many of whom found themselves part of the Robert E. Lee household at the outbreak of the Civil War.

Another View of Washington and Slavery

Never Caught

Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge
Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge

n this non-fictional account of George Washington's runaway slave, Author Erica Armstrong Dunbar shows just how difficult life could be for an American slave, trying to find freedom. After the American Revolution some former slaves were freed and even given land, if they had served in the military, but for others like Ona Judge, the path to freedom was long arduous.


Sources Oney Judge Manumission Washington's Runaway Slaves Hercules (chef)

© 2018 Harry Nielsen


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    • CaribTales profile image

      Dora Weithers 2 days ago from The Caribbean

      Thanks for these interesting facts on slave life under the Washingtons. Never knew that his wife was so much involved. So glad this all ended.

    • harrynielsen profile image

      Harry Nielsen 3 days ago from Durango, Colorado

      This article began as a story about Ona Judge, who actually belonged to Martha Washington. However, there was so much material that I ended up expanding the focus of the article.

    • justthemessenger profile image

      James C Moore 3 days ago from The Great Midwest

      Interesting read. I had already heard about Washington's freeing his slaves upon his death. However, I didn't know some of them had escaped. I'm going to read up on some of your sources.