A National Book Award Finalist for Nonfiction, Never Caught is the eye-opening narrative of Ona Judge, George and Martha Washington’s runaway slave, who risked everything for a better life—now available as a young reader’s edition!
In this incredible narrative, Erica Armstrong Dunbar reveals a fascinating and heartbreaking behind-the-scenes look at the Washingtons’ when they were the First Family—and an in-depth look at their slave, Ona Judge, who dared to escape from one of the nation’s Founding Fathers.
Born into a life of slavery, Ona Judge eventually grew up to be George and Martha Washington’s “favored” dower slave. When she was told that she was going to be given as a wedding gift to Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Ona made the bold and brave decision to flee to the north, where she would be a fugitive.
From her childhood, to her time with the Washingtons and living in the slave quarters, to her escape to New Hampshire, Erica Armstrong Dunbar (along with Kathleen Van Cleve), shares an intimate glimpse into the life of a little-known, but powerful figure in history, and her brave journey as she fled the most powerful couple in the country.
Never Caught, the Story of Ona Judge CHAPTER ONE AMERICA’S DAUGHTER ONA’S STORY BEGINS IN VIRGINIA around 1773, when the United States is not yet the United States, and slavery is considered acceptable by many of the white people who live in what comprises the first thirteen colonies. Strangely enough, the American colonies and the American slaves were engaged in a similar quest for freedom. In 1773 the colonists in America—those people who lived in what would be the original thirteen states of the US—decided they wanted to be free from the British government making all their laws. The enslaved people of America, who had been brought over from Africa and the Caribbean as part of the slave trade, wanted to be free to live as they chose. These fights for freedom as a country and as a race of people would become as much a part of Ona’s life as waking up in the morning and breathing.
But first Ona needs to be born.
Ona’s parents were Betty, a woman born into slavery in Virginia, and Andrew Judge, a white indentured servant from England whose labor had been bought by George Washington for forty-five dollars. (An indenture agreement meant that in return for Andrew’s transport to America, as well as food, clothing, shelter, and a small cash allowance, Andrew’s labor was owned for the next four years of his life by whoever purchased his agreement. Still, Andrew had small freedoms as an indentured servant that the enslaved population did not share.) Betty and Andrew were not married. It was illegal for a black person to marry a white person. In fact, it was illegal for slaves to be married at all.
Betty had originally been owned by Daniel Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s first husband, who died after only seven years of marriage. By this point in America, slavery was as entrenched as the roots of the biggest, oldest tree. Like the Custises, Martha’s family (the Dandridges) owned slaves, as did Martha’s second husband’s family, the Washingtons. When Daniel died, his property was split three ways between Martha and their children. This property included both land and the humans owned by the Custises—one of whom was Betty, Ona’s mother. (This is the reason why Betty was always classified as a “dower” slave—meaning that she would always be the property of Martha Washington and her heirs, no matter whom Martha married after Daniel.)
After Martha married George Washington, she brought at least eighty-four slaves with her to Mount Vernon, about one hundred miles away from the main Custis estate. Betty was chosen to go and was allowed to take her two-year-old son, Austin. This was a big deal, because slave families were often split up after the death of the original owner. It may have also indicated that Betty had already established herself as one of Martha’s more valued slaves. Certainly by 1773 she had become an important part of Martha Washington’s team of seamstresses.
Betty was the person whom many other seamstresses in the Washington household went to when they needed to learn how to hem a skirt or weave a certain fabric. She was also known as the person who could take a piece of expensive material from London and dye it the exact color Martha wanted without ruining the garment. The creation of clothing was an important job for anyone during colonial times, when fabric, not finished clothes, was what was available at a store, and every household needed someone who could use a needle and thread to stitch together garments for everyone—black and white—to wear. Betty’s expertise at sewing and spinning kept her out of the fields of George Washington’s five working farms. Instead she earned a place working in the spinning house. The spinning house was a building near the mansion where George and Martha lived, where the enslaved seamstresses did their work. Martha herself liked to sew, so sometimes Betty was a part of a larger sewing circle in the mansion, alongside her owner.
Andrew Judge, Ona’s father, was also an expert at sewing. Usually George Washington did not prefer white indentured servants. He complained that they were unreliable and lazy, yet George seemed to like and trust Andrew. He was one of George Washington’s preferred tailors, eventually creating the blue uniform George wore when he was named commander in chief of the American forces in 1775.
In 1773, however, George would have been surprised to learn that soon he would be leading the American military forces against the British. Although he was a well-known colonel and respected military man, George would have said his main occupation was farming. He was well aware of the political events that were stirring up the anger of the American colonists; he too felt strongly that Americans should not be ruled across an ocean by King George III of England. He knew that many colonists wanted to form a new country with their own form of democratic government. Yet like many of his friends and acquaintances, George had protected British control of American land. Like his father and grandfather, George was also a member of the colonial government in Virginia. Turning publicly against his ancestors and the reigning monarch would be a massive and dangerous step.
Neither George nor the country was quite ready to take such a step. But change was in the air, and it was Mother Nature herself who, by throwing a snowball, got the attention of not only George, but Betty, too.
In June 1773 the unimaginable happened. It snowed in Virginia. Farmers like George Washington needed to rely on familiar weather patterns, but it was anything but familiar for snow to fall this far south in June. Mount Vernon’s crops were at risk, and the people on the plantation were confused. Many of the enslaved saw the late snow as an omen bringing something bad upon the people of Mount Vernon. Other enslaved people believed the snow meant that something good was about to happen. Both turned out to be right.
Eight days after the snow fell, Patsy, the daughter of Martha Washington and her first husband, became terribly ill. Only seventeen, Patsy had been plagued by seizures that had begun during her teenage years. There was no effective treatment for Patsy’s condition. Instead the doctors who cared for Patsy would treat her with bloodletting—drawing out her blood as a way to stop the seizures. It never worked.
It was shortly after four o’clock on June 19 when Patsy excused herself after dinner to get a letter from her bedroom. When she didn’t come back, her soon-to-be sister-in-law, Eleanor Calvert, went to check on her. Patsy lay on the floor of her room, in the middle of a violent seizure. Though Eleanor called for help immediately, there was very little anyone could do. Within two minutes Patsy was dead.
George Washington, Patsy’s stepfather, was devastated. Martha Washington was almost destroyed. When she had been married to her first husband, Martha had borne four children: Daniel, Frances, Jacky, and Patsy. The oldest two children had died when they were toddlers. To lose another child was pushing Martha off an emotional cliff.
In a letter written to his nephew, George Washington stated, “I scarce need add [that Patsy’s death] has almost reduced my poor Wife to the lowest ebb of Misery.”
Everyone at Mount Vernon was aware of Martha’s pain, especially the enslaved women whom she had chosen to work near her in the mansion. Betty, Ona’s mother, was one of these women.
Only seven years younger than Martha, Betty had already watched Martha as she’d endured the deaths of her first husband and first two children. She understood how painful it was for Martha to lose another child, especially because by this time Betty had two other children besides Austin, and she knew how desperate she would have been if any of them had died.
She may have stood near Martha’s bedside, comforting her in her terrible grief while at the same time helping the household prepare for Patsy’s funeral. It would not have been relevant to Martha that Betty was pregnant at this time; the fact that she and Andrew Judge were going to have a baby was not and could not be Betty’s priority.
We do not know what kind of relationship Andrew and Betty had. They may have fallen in love. They may have had the kind of relationship that is the opposite of love, the kind of nonconsensual encounter where a man uses his strength and privilege to overpower the woman. The truth is that Andrew Judge could have raped Betty, and she would have been unable to do anything about it. His status as a white man would have protected him, just as it did the white male owners who commonly raped the women they owned.
Still, it is also possible that Betty entered into this relationship with aims of her own besides romantic love. Perhaps she believed that having a relationship with Andrew could lead to her own freedom and that of her children, because she knew that in a few years Andrew would become a free man. At that time he could potentially offer to buy all of them from the Washingtons. We will never know Betty’s feelings. All we do know is that Andrew Judge did eventually claim his freedom, but he did not take Betty and his child with him. If he loved Betty, it was not enough to keep him from leaving.
Still, in 1773, Andrew was living at Mount Vernon. And sometime during or close to that year, after the strange snowfall and after Patsy’s funeral, Betty gave birth to their daughter. They named her Ona Maria Judge. While there are few records about the births and deaths of slaves, this girl child, of mixed race, would, as a young woman, walk that tightrope of freedom for African Americans long before her bold descendants-in-spirit, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, made their own escapes from slavery.
Like her mother, Betty, Ona learned how to persevere in the face of extreme hardship. Like her father, Ona would eventually free herself no matter who she left behind. Finally, like America itself, Ona would risk everything so that she, too, could achieve those rights written in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Erica Armstrong Dunbar is the Charles and Mary Beard Professor of History at Rutgers University. She also serves as Director of the Program in African American History at the Library Company of Philadelphia. Her first book, A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City was published by Yale University Press in 2008. She is also the author of Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave Ona Judge.
Kathleen Van Cleve teaches creative writing and film at the University of Pennsylvania. She has written three books, including the award-winning middle grade novel Drizzle and lives in Philadelphia with her husband and sons.