The Less You Know About History –
The Easier It Is To Believe You’ve Always Been On The Right Side of It.
By William Natale
I love history. Like the Bible, it’s a fascinating read about people you may or may not have heard of but who came, saw, and conquered or perhaps were conquered. Their stories are real, genuine, and sometimes a bit fabricated — as a legend often is. And to those whose names stand out because they accomplished the impossible, we often make them even greater with fairy tale accolades and word of mouth recollections that have been passed down from one generation to the next, that may or may not be true. But in Americana folklore, such anecdotes are part of the fabric of the Red, White & Blue learned at an early age that we then share with our offspring as a bedtime story.
Examples that readily come to mind feature two of America’s acclaimed presidents, Washington and Lincoln. George supposedly could not tell a lie and fessed up to cutting down the cherry tree and Lincoln knew the value of a penny and once walked miles to return one that had been an overpayment, which earned him the moniker honest Abe while working for a general store as a clerk. I’m not sure there’s any way to verify either tale but it doesn’t really matter, it’s part of the lore of both men that Americans proudly recite to their children who recite that same story to their children and so on and so on.
The stories I want to share may be something you’re aware of if you’re well read and love history as much as I do, but suffice it to say, you probably didn’t learn about such tales when you attended elementary and/or high school in the good old U.S. of A. Most of the stories I will share with you, I only discovered later in life and only after reading or discovering via travels that have taken me to all but two states, Alaska and Maine. Many of the stories I will present show our heroic leaders and our country in a light that is less than golden…that might explain why you haven’t heard of them, but they’re enlightening nevertheless and should be told.
SLAVERY – AMERICA’S ORIGINAL SIN
Despite the eloquent language of America’s Declaration of Independence which elicited in language that definitively noted that “All men are created equal,” to King George III, we all know those words at that time in history applied only to men that were white and privileged. What you might not know is that the British could easily have squashed the rebellion in the month after what we now refer to as Independence Day—July 4, 1776.
Only one month later in August, General William Howe with the assistance of his brother, Admiral Richard Howe soundly defeated Washington and his forces at the Battle of Long Island. The Brits easily could have captured the officer corps, including the Commander in Chief, with a hanging that would be fitting for those who were less than loyal to the Crown. But William Howe was sure that he could convince G.W. to return to the good graces of the Mother Country and thus found it more advantageous to spare a leader that was revered by the colonists and might be more valuable alive than dead in bringing what we now refer to as patriots back into the fold of Britannia. You can read more about this at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/king-speaks-for-first-time-since-independence-declared.
As interesting as that tidbit might be, that’s not really the story I want to focus on. I would much rather talk about the irony that a black man, by the name of Crispus Attucks, an American stevedore of African and Native American descent is widely regarded by many historians as the first person to be shot and killed at the Boston Massacre some six years earlier, earning the distinction as the first American killed in the American Revolution. That wasn’t something I learned in school, but rather from my travels later in life when I went to Boston with a son who really just wanted to see Fenway Stadium and its Green Monster Wall where the Red Sox play. During that trip I also learned that all of the Founding Fathers but John Adams of Massachusetts, our second president and a man who was critical to the success of America becoming free, owned slaves. What I didn’t know before the trip, which also included seeing Philadelphia and D.C., was that George Washington had inherited at the ripe old age of 11, some ten slaves from his father’s estate. That was far from strange for the time. Slavery was a source of cheap labor that was essential in a colonial American economy that was agrarian based. The Industrial Revolution had yet to take a foothold and thus owning slaves was indicative of wealth, good fortune, and an inherent evil essential to a robust economy during that era.
The story I’m about to share is one that I doubt you’ll find in textbooks of the 20th — and in some areas of America – missing in action in the 21st Century. Possibly that may change but whether it does or not, it’s a tale you might find interesting.
George Washington was an active slaveholder for 56 years. To his credit, GW did free the 123 slaves he owned upon his death in 1799…the only slaveholding Founding Father to do so. However, even that fact fails to note a caveat that GW slaves would only truly gain their freedom after Martha’s death – which had Martha not decided to sign a deed of manumission on January 1, 1801 (freeing GW’s slaves), wouldn’t have occurred for another year upon her death in 1802. So, the only slave out of hundreds at Mount Vernon that actually was freed immediately after GW’s death was William (Billy) Lee.
GW was able to accomplish this slave emancipation due in part to the Virginia legislature making it legal and possible in 1782 for slaveholders to manumit their slaves, without a special action of the governor and council. There was a total of 317 slaves owned by both Martha Custis Washington and her second husband George who she married as a widow. The 194 slaves that did not receive emancipation were then, per the will of Martha’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, disseminated like any other piece of property bequeathed per a legal instrument to the grandchildren of D.P. Custis. Some of the slaves from that group were actually rented out to neighbors but eventually all the slaves not freed returned to their “rightful” owners, the descendants of their benefactor/ancestor.
As previously noted, the only Founding Father that did not own slaves was John Adams who abhorred the idea of owning another person. Jefferson supposedly claimed he would do the same, but it didn’t happen. The story of GW freeing his slaves can be found in most schoolroom textbooks. In effect it’s a tribute to the man’s generosity, which it truly was at the time.
What I never learned about, nor did my siblings during our study of American history, was the tale about a twenty-two-year old slave owned by Washington by the name of Ona Judge. Ona fled from the Washington estate known as Mount Vernon. I visited Mount Vernon as a young boy with my siblings and my parents; there was no mention of Ms. Judge. Ona actually was one of the dower slaves that Martha inherited upon her first husband’s death. At an early age of only 9 Ona, also known as Oney, was moved into the mansion at Mt. Vernon and trained to become a talented seamstress that garnered the attention of Martha, who eventually made the young lady her personal maid.
When the Washington family moved to New York in 1789 for the inauguration and subsequently to Philadelphia (the capitol prior to D.C.) with a free black community of some 6,000 citizens, Ona found herself one of only 100 slaves that lived within Philly’s city limits. Pennsylvania invoked an abolition law in 1780 that forced slave owners, even the then President, to transport their enslaved souls out of state prior to establishing six months of residency which automatically would have granted Ona the freedom she sought. During her 5 years in Philadelphia (despite her moves in and out of state), Ona Judge got a chance to become acquainted and interact with the free blacks who greatly influenced her and may have given her strength and hope to one day be free. When Ona learned in 1796 that she was to be given away by Martha as a wedding gift, Ms. Judge realized that she could not influence her own destiny no matter how subservient and loyal she had been to her mistress. So on May 21 of 1796, while Martha and the Father of our Country were dining and partaking of a sumptuous supper, Ona with the help of some of the free blacks she had met slipped out of the house and boarded a boat commanded by Captain John Bowles to freedom and the coastal port of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where there were no enslaved people. She was taken in by the community accustomed to aiding fugitive slaves.
While in Portsmouth, she was spotted by a woman, the daughter of a New Hampshire Senator John Langdon, who recognized her as Martha’s servant from the time she had visited Mount Vernon. The Senator felt obligated to contact Washington as to the whereabouts of his fugitive slave. Washington did not want this matter to go public and enlisted discreetly the help of Joseph Whipple, the collector of customs in Portsmouth to track down Ona. Joseph, a brother of one of Washington’s generals during the Revolutionary War, did locate Ms. Judge and asked her why she had fled and if she would peaceably return to her master’s house. The one thing Whipple wanted to protect was the president’s reputation for a matter that could turn nasty, especially among citizens who admired the president but as Northerners were hardcore abolitionists. Whipple was able to negotiate a commitment from Ona that she would return to the Washington residence providing that upon Martha’s death, she would be emancipated.
You can read more about this in the Erica Armstrong Dunbar book, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.
As the title of Ms. Dunbar’s book notes, Ona never was returned to Martha or George due in part to GW’s unwillingness to agree to a condition she negotiated with Whipple—that she be freed upon Martha’s passing. Washington was convinced if he agreed to such a condition, it would trigger his other slaves to take the same course as Ona and the Father of our Country saw no point in rewarding a fugitive for what he considered criminal conduct. Washington, who had second thoughts about slavery which he expressed openly to another hero of the Revolution, Lafayette – hardened after Ona Judge’s flight to freedom and the president continued to pursue the slave. Fortunately for Ona, Washington’s influence had waned as his presidency came to an end and public opinion in New Hampshire, dead set against slavery, caused Whipple to actually do little to help GW get Ona back.
In 1797, Ona married a free black sailor by the name of Jack Staines; that afforded her a bit of protection, but it did not discourage GW from continuing to pursue and “rightfully” return Martha’s property. GW turned to a nephew, Burwell Bassett Jr., about to embark on a trip to New Hampshire for business to not only seize Ona but any child she may have borne; since her lineage would be considered legally a valuable asset owned by the Washingtons.
Staines was out to sea at the time of Bassett’s trip and thus would have been unable to protect his wife and their infant but providence intervened through the good grace of Senator Langford, who became aware of the plot when Bassett dining at the Congressman’s home noted his intentions. Langford via one of his servants got word to Ona who then escaped to Greenland, New Hampshire, a neighboring town where she and the infant were hidden by a free black family.
Washington died in 1799 and true to his word, he did free all of his slaves. But Ona Judge Staines was technically the property of Martha who outlived her husband for another 3 years until 1802, and by law was forbidden to free any of the dowered slaves that she had inherited upon the death of her first husband. Those slaves were part of an inheritance that was set in ink on parchment to be received by grandchildren. The beneficiaries of that endowment could have continued to pursue Ona Judge Staines, who lived with her husband Jack until his death in 1803, but did not.
Ona was free but fell on hard times and eventually wallowed in poverty. Before she passed away in 1848, Ona had learned to read and write, something forbidden to those in bondage. When asked by an abolitionist paper that interviewed her if she ever regretted leaving the luxurious household of Martha and George, she replied, “No, I am free, and have, I trust been made a child of God by the means.”
Ona Judge Staines got the better of the most powerful man in America and realized her dream, to be free, which outshines all the riches and glory one might attain in ironically the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”
William Natale is the author of Woolly Wurm, (a children’s book); 1968 – A Story As Relative Today As It Was Then, (about the Chicago race riots of 1968); and his latest, The Resurrection of Boraichee, (which deals with the reincarnation of a literary professor who returns to life as a dog assigned to live with an American family caught in the opioid crisis).