Ona “Oney” Maria Judge, a well-documented slave of George Washington, was born in 1773 at Mount Vernon to an enslaved African-American mother named Betty, and a white indentured servant named Andrew Judge. At the age of ten she became one of the house servants and through her excellent seamstress work became the personal body servant of Mrs. Washington. After General Washington was elected president, Oney was one of the seven slaves brought to the country’s first capital in New York City. She was also brought along to the new capital in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia was an abolitionist city and had passed a law called “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” that demanded a slave be set free after six months of continuous residence. Washington skirted the law by sending Oney and the others back just before their six months was up and bringing them back. There was a clause in the gradual abolition law that said this was illegal but Washington was the President of the United States. Technically Oney and her half-brother were Martha Washington’s slaves from her first husband and it would be considered lost property that he would have to reimburse the previous estate. For the next five years Oney was shuttled back and forth every six months to keep her enslaved under the law.
In 1796, when Mrs. Washington’s oldest granddaughter, Elizabeth Parke Custis, was getting married, Oney was told that she would be given as a gift to the new bride. Oney decided to run away. With the aid of free blacks, Oney was able to get on a ship and make it to Portsmouth, NH. The Washingtons put an ad in the newspaper offering a $10 reward (about $193 today) for her return.
President Washington tried to get her back by ordering the secretary of the Treasury, Olive Wolcott Jr., to demand that the customs agent in Portsmouth seize and return her under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The Washingtons were outraged that she had run away. Washington wrote in a letter to Wolcott "... the ingratitude of the girl,who was brought up & treated more like a child than a servant (& Mrs. Washington's desire to recover her) ought not to escape with impu[nity] if it can be avoided."
The Portsmouth customs agent, Joseph Whipple, replied that Oney agreed to return only on the condition that she be freed upon George and Martha’s deaths. They refused but Whipple did not apprehend Oney and even argued for her emancipation.
Two years later, Washington sent his nephew to find Oney and bring her back. Oney escaped before she could be arrested.
Later, she married a free African-American sailor and had three children. Sadly her husband and all three children died before she did. Her final years were impoverished and lonely. One of her last interviews was written by Baptist Minister Thomas H. Archibald and published May 22, 1845 in the “Granite Freeman” newspaper. "When asked if she was not sorry she left Washington, as she had 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.'"