At the tender age of 11, George Washington owned 10 slaves, bequeathed to him by his father. By the time of his death, he owned 123 men, women and children, and his Mount Vernon estate was tended by 323 slaves, the others owned by his wife’s estate.
Despite this, the father of our country has been seen as a progressive of sorts in the matter of slavery. Mount Vernon’s website says, “George Washington struggled with the institution of slavery and spoke frequently of his desire to end the practice” and “At the end of this [sic] life Washington made the bold step to free his slaves in his 1799 will — the only slave-holding Founding Father to do so.”
That’s the positive spin. Erica Armstrong Dunbar offers another version in her engrossing new book Never Caught, The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.
It’s a must-read for anyone interested in American history, as well as anyone who lives in New Hampshire, since Judge, who was Martha Washington’s personal assistant when she fled, found refuge in the Granite State.
The author uncovered this story 20 years ago when she doing research on 19th-century black women in Philadelphia and noticed an ad in a period newspaper offering a $10 reward for the return of a 20-year-old “absconded from the household of the President of the United States.”
That ad, and another, was published just days after the young slave vanished while General Washington and his wife were eating dinner. It was clear from the wording that the president wanted his property back; absent was any sign that the president suffered any inner conflict over the institution of slavery. The ad said any person, white or black, would receive the reward for bringing Judge back and warned “as she may attempt to escape by water, all matters of vessels are cautioned against admitting her into them.”
It’s unknown whether Captain John Bowles, who was sailing from the Delaware River to Portsmouth, N.H., the day Judge escaped, knew that his mixed-race passenger was a fugitive, or if he did, who her owner was. It was not uncommon for slaves to try to escape — in fact, Washington himself had other slaves run away — but most fugitives were male. It was rare for an enslaved woman to attempt to flee because most women who were young and healthy enough to dare that emotionally and physically grueling challenge had young children or other family members they didn’t want to leave behind. Also, the cost of failure was frightening and violent.
Judge, however, was healthy and childless, and her mother had recently died, an event that General Washington had noted rather coldly in his letters: “It is happy for old Betty, and her children and friends, that she is taken of[f] the stage; her life must have been miserable to herself, and troublesome to all those around her.”
Moreover, Judge was compelled to act by two unrelated matters, the first being the first family’s impending move back to Virginia from the temporary capital, Philadelphia, and second, Martha Washington’s intention to gift Judge to her granddaughter upon the granddaughter’s upcoming wedding.
It was both an insult and a betrayal that Martha Washington would so casually dispense with the young woman who had been born at Mount Vernon and had served her for more than a decade. And having accompanied the Washingtons to both Philadelphia and New York, Judge had encountered what Dunbar called “the contagion of freedom” among free blacks living there.
Slavery was still legal in Pennsylvania then with a caveat: after six months of residence, the owner was legally required to free the slave. This was a law the Washingtons thwarted by sending their slaves back to Mount Vernon before six months transpired. And while Pennsylvania was not yet as safe for blacks as Massachusetts or New Hampshire, it had a strong network of free blacks, led by the Rev. Richard Allen, who made escaping more possible there than in Virginia. So Judge took the chance.
Her story has been hiding in plain view for years. Much credit is due Dunbar, a professor of black studies and history at the University of Delaware, for bringing it to light. Dunbar’s language is at times lyrical, other times stilted and repetitive, but her skill at storytelling is first-rate, and she has crafted what amounts to a 19th-century thriller. We know from the spoiler of a title how this story ends, but it’s a page-turner nonetheless.
Using George Washington’s letters, period newspapers and documents, diaries and biographies, Dunbar painstakingly documents a previously overlooked yet important chapter of history. Occasionally she oversteps in projecting what Judge might have been feeling, but her decision to write the book as reported narrative, not historical fiction, made her job all the harder and overall works well.
The lives of Judge and the Washingtons are interwoven beautifully, from the opening vignette about snow that fell in Virginia in June 1773, to the death of the former slave, who upon freeing herself settled in New Hampshire and learned to read.
Until now, Judge has been but a footnote in Washington’s life, but her story deserved sunlight, and both subject and author deserve acclaim. A — Jennifer Graham