George Washington and His Runaway Slaves

Updated on March 20, 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.

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

When George Washington's father died in 1743, the 11-year-old boy inherited 10 slaves and a 250 acre farm. According to the Mount Vernon website, Washington did not participate in the business of buying and selling humans until adulthood, when he purchased eight slaves to join the others on his farm.

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, not including the 200 slaves Martha now owned. Washington wrote in his will that 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.

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

Pictured above is the presidential house in Philadelphia. When the Washingtons moved to Philadelphia in 1790, the first president and first lady brought nine slaves with them
Pictured above is the presidential house in Philadelphia. 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 the District of Columbia. 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 their 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, bringing them back to Philadelphia at a later date.

A Brief History of Ona Judge

Who Was Ona Judge

Ona Judge was born in 1773 on the Washington's plantation at Mount Vernon in the turbulent years before the American Revolution. 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 her tasks–so much so, that she was one of nine family-owned slaves that the Washingtons brought with them to the nation's temporary capitol in Philadelphia.

Evidently, Ona felt comfortable living in Philadelphia until Martha Washington decided to give her 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 President Washington to reclaim his wife's property.

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

Hercules Follows Suit

Much to Washington's embarrassment and anger, Ona Judge was not the only slave to escape from the rather small Philadelphia household. The second escapee was an extraordinarily 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 Escape

The biggest escape from the Washington plantation occurred in April 1781 during the height of the Revolutionary War, when 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 approximately 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 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 1783, and one more was caught in New York after the Revolution ended.

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 them free. Whether this unusual act was done out of gratitude, simple convenience or some combination of the two, the reason for this is still debated today.

In the end, both Hercules and Ona Judge were granted a derivative of freedom by President 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 her to return to Virginia.

Furthermore, in the Washington household, there appears to be a major difference in the fates of slaves owned by George and slaves owned by Martha. Not only were Washington's slaves freed, but they were given the money for their education and general well-being. Many of Martha's slaves found themselves working in the household of Robert E. Lee at the outbreak of the Civil War.

Another View of Washington and Slavery

Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge
Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge
In this non-fictional account of George Washington's runaway slave Ona Judge, 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 and arduous.


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

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Harry Nielsen


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      • CaribTales profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        2 years 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 imageAUTHOR

        Harry Nielsen 

        2 years 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 

        2 years 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.


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