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Never Caught : The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge

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"When George Washington was elected president, he ... left behind his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation's capital ... In setting up his household he took Tobias Lear, his celebrated secretary, and nine slaves, including Ona Judge ... Though Ona Judge lived a life of relative comfort, the few pleasantries she was afforded were nothing compared to freedom, a glimpse of which she encountered first-hand in Philadelphia. So, when the opportunity presented itself ... Judge left everything she knew to escape to New England ... At just twenty-two-years-old, Ona became the subject of an intense manhunt led by George Washington, who used his political and personal contacts to recapture his property" Finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction

“A fascinating and moving account of a courageous and resourceful woman. Beautifully written and utilizing previously untapped sources it sheds new light both on the father of our country and on the intersections of slavery and freedom.” —Eric Foner, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Fiery Trial and Gateway to Freedom

A startling and eye-opening look into America’s First Family, Never Caught is the powerful narrative of Ona Judge, George and Martha Washington’s runaway slave who risked everything to escape the nation’s capital and reach freedom.

When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation’s capital. In setting up his household he took Tobias Lear, his celebrated secretary and eight slaves, including Ona Judge, about whom little has been written. As he grew accustomed to Northern ways, there was one change he couldn’t get his arms around: Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after six months of residency in the state. Rather than comply, Washington decided to circumvent the law. Every six months he sent the slaves back down south just as the clock was about to expire.

Though Ona Judge lived a life of relative comfort, the few pleasantries she was afforded were nothing compared to freedom, a glimpse of which she encountered first-hand in Philadelphia. So, when the opportunity presented itself, Judge left everything she knew to escape to New England. Yet freedom would not come without its costs.

At just twenty-two-years-old, Ona became the subject of an intense manhunt led by George Washington, who used his political and personal contacts to recapture his property.

With impeccable research, historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar weaves a powerful tale and offers fascinating new scholarship on how one young woman risked it all to gain freedom from the famous founding father.


Simon & Schuster
Book Format
Original Languages
Number of Pages
Erica Armstrong Dunbar
Publication Date
February, 2017
Assembled Product Dimensions (L x W x H)
9.00 x 6.00 x 0.90 Inches

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A well researched and ...

A well researched and written about a female slave (Ona Judge) who runs away from George and Martha Washington when they are in the North in the final days of his presidency. What inspires her to leave is seeing many free Blacks in the North coupled with the Washington's girting Ona to their granddaughter who she does not like. She eventually makes it to New Hampshire where she marries and spends the rest of her life. George and Martha make several attempts through agents and newspaper ads to recapture her but fail. An inspiring study about a here to for little known woman.

I found out about this...

I found out about this book from an NPR interview with the author, Erica Armstrong Dunbar. Using all the resources she can muster, she fleshes out the story of Martha Washington's personal slave Ona Judge, who escapes and goes to Portsmouth, NH. Much of the book is about Judge's and other slaves' lives with the Washingtons in New York and Philadelphia (where they had to send their slaves home every 6 months or they would be freed), and about the president's attempts to get his wife's slave back. The book made me think about how challenging it is to put one's feet in the shoes of either a black or a white person in that time period. What was it like to be a slave when there were free blacks in the same town? What did it mean about you as a white person living in that society if you owned slaves, when you believed the (specious of course) arguments that they were better off with you than not? While I wish Dunbar had been able to tell more of the lives of people in Portsmouth (towards the end of the story, I found it an interesting and engaging read.

I went to a reading la...

I went to a reading last night at the Harvard Bookstore to hear this historian and scholar discuss her book. She stumbled across the protagonist, Ona Judge, while researching "free Blacks" in Philadelphia, her hometown. On Ona hangs such a tale! Why did she run? Why were the First President and his wife so determined that Ona be captured? Where and how did she go? Dunbar has pieced together a story largely based upon two interviews Ona Judge gave in the 1840s, when she was in her 70s. Every element of this history was new to me: the persistence of slavery in the North, the fact that Black men took to the dangerous life of a seaman so frequently, once they were free, how the enslaved women were always at the mercy of the sexual urges of each white man in their household, and how being a "house slave" put NO ONE on easy street. If anyone white ever stupidly says to you, "Well, my family never owned any slaves", just give them this riveting chronicle. If it doesn't wake them up, let them go.

In January of 2018, a ...

In January of 2018, a review of a new book featuring George Washington and his runaway slave named Ona "Oney" Judge caught my attention. I picked up a copy to review for Black History Month in 2019. NEVER CAUGHT - The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave Ona Judge is a narrative non-fiction. The book is heavily footnoted and supplemented with a lengthy bibliography and index. In a twist from most historical works on Washington that focus on his evolving beliefs about the concept of slavery, Never Caught flips the script. Erica Armstrong Dunbar examines what it means to be born a free person into a world where you are trapped in slavery. A world where every effort is taken to strip you of your humanity and rights as a human being. In narrating the unearthed facts of Ona Judge Staines life, Dunbar exposes the raw facts of slavery -man's inhumanity against man. "I met Ona Judge Staines in the archives. . . I was conducting research. . . about nineteenth-century black women in Philadelphia and I came across an advertisement about a runaway slave. . . called "Oney Judge". She had escaped from the President's House. . . How could it be that I never heard of this woman." (Erica Armstrong Dunbar) Quick. Tell me the first ten things that come to mind about the first president of the United States of America. Bet they include: He was married to Martha. Lived in Mount Vernon, Virginia. Had false teeth (ivory not wood). Was trained as a surveyor. Fought in the American Revolution. Became our first President. Never lived in Washington D.C. because it didn't exist in his lifetime. Never told a lie (that is a lie). Served two terms in office. We celebrate a national holiday on his birthday. What? No mention that George at the tender age of eleven, following his father's untimely death, inherited a 280-acre farm with ten slaves? By the time he married Martha, he personally owned over 100 slaves. Martha Parke Custis, widow of Daniel Park Custis, brought 84 dower slaves from the Custis estate to Mount Vernon upon her marriage. Dower slaves are part of an estate and can only be inherited by members of that estate. George and Martha controlled them but did not own them and could not set them free. Upon Martha's death, the dower slaves would be passed along like fine china or an heirloom chair to living members of the Custis estate. George Washington was reputed to be a "kinder" slave owner which meant he fed and provided for his slaves somewhat better than others. His hot-temper has been sanitized in history and ask the slaves that were housed in the smoke house in the new capital if they had five-star accommodations. A favorite dower slave of Martha's, known only as Mulatto Betty, gave birth in 1773 to a daughter named Ona Marie and fathered by Andrew Judge, a white indentured servant. Ona's "carefree" childhood ended when she was nine years old. She was sent to work full-time in the mansion to become Martha Washington's personal servant and to receive training as a seamstress from her mother. She excelled at both tasks earning her a "most favored slave" status. As our first President-elect headed north to New York and the nation's new capital, he knew slavery laws in the northern states were unraveling; the early smells of manumission and freedom floating in the air. He hand-picked slaves he thought he could trust not to run away if they learned that freedom was a possibility - Ona Judge, now in her teens, was high on that list. Ona played her part carefully. She yearned for freedom. Yearned for a life where her safety and wellbeing wasn't subjected to the whims of a trigger tempered slave owner. For safeties sake she outwardly projected submission and affection for the Washington family; a family riddled with grief, misery, and poor health. Perhaps in some way she believed the Washington's had special feelings for her; they did allow her more liberties to travel within the northern city unaccompanied. It is more likely allowing her to dress nicely was meant to reflect more on their social status than on her well-being. She learned the truth about her place in their lives when the national capital moved to Philadelphia. Pennsylvania law "required emancipation of all adult slaves who were brought into the commonwealth for more than a period of six months." The President, financially strapped back on the plantation feared the lost property value of freed slaves. To protect his investments, Washington devised a shifty system of uprooting his Philadelphia slaves and rotating back to Mount Vernon before the six months deadline. What the others thought about their repeated uprooted lives we do not know. We do know that Ona knew of the progress toward freedom around her. She guardedly watched for that one split second in time where she could chance leaving. When Ona learned that she would be given as a wedding present to Washington's volatile granddaughter during the next rotation back to Virginia, she knew it was now or never. Taking her life in her hands, she reached out to the free blacks in Philadelphia for help and fled. Ona, now twenty-two-years old and illiterate, headed out into the scary world alone as a fugitive willing to face death or capture. Her harrowing journey took her to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She found menial labor and despite the back-breaking work, enjoyed her veiled freedom. One can only imagine the horror she felt the day she was recognized on the street by a friend of Washington. Once notified she had been located, Washington put on a full court press, illegally using the power of his office, to have a local government official convince her to return of her own volition. After failing at that attempt, Washington repeatedly sought to locate and physically return her. His tiny slave outwitted him at every turn. Ona fled to Greenland, New Hampshire and stayed out of the grasp of capture for over fifty years. She married, had children, kept a low profile and missed her biological family still back at Mount Vernon. Shortly before her death February 25, 1848, Ona, nearly 80 years old and still a fugitive slave of the Custis estate, gave interviews with two abolitionists newspapers. Both interviews appear in the appendix. They are believed to be a unique opportunity to view life as a slave in the Washington presidency. "When asked if she is not sorry she left Washington, as she has labored so much harder since, than before, her reply is 'No, I am free, and I have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means'". Highly recommend reading for young adults and those interested in history. A chance to look behind the curtains of the first First Family. A chance to learn about a young black woman determined to be remembered as a human being and a child of God.

Dunbar delves into the...

Dunbar delves into the private life of the Washington family and their relationship with enslaved workers. Ona Judge is the private slave of Martha, creating her clothing and doing errands Martha demands. But when serving as president the Washingtons live in New York City and later Philadelphia, both northern cities that were working to abolish slavery. The Washingtons had to rotate their slaves to bypass the 6 month rule in Pennsylvania regarding freedom for slaves. But the breaking point came when Ona found out that she was to be given to Martha's granddaughter upon her marriage. Dunbar had the difficulty of working with very few primary documents and only an interview of Judge late in life. The book outlines the differences in slavery in the north and in the south and Washington's complicity in the practice. This is not the book you want to read if you hold the Washingtons in the highest regard. They don't come off very well, as it should be, and it shows politicians in the poorest of light.

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