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Never Caught: The story of George Washington's runaway slave Ona Judge

University of Delaware Black Studies and History Professor Erica Dunbar is the author of a new book, Never Caught.

A new book from a local professor is bringing to light a unique story about slavery and a Founding Father. It’s the story of Ona Judge, a runaway slave.


Her owner? Founding Father George Washington.


University of Delaware Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Black Studies and History Erica Dunbar stumbled upon Ona Judge’s story years ago while researching a separate project.


“It struck me as curious that there was an ad from George Washington’s house for a runaway woman named – and they called her Oney Judge," Dunbar said.


Dunbar vowed to return to Ona’s story – following the Washingtons’ endless pursuit of Judge through George Washington’s letters and diaries detailing his efforts to recapture her.


“Through the use of appointed officials, the secretary of the treasury," Dunbar said. "The customs collectors, portsmen – through family members….”


Judge escaped to New Hampshire – where she remained in limbo - not free, but never caught. In 1845 and 1847, she shared her story in abolitionist newspapers of the time, the Granite Freeman and the Liberator.

According to Dunbar, Ona Judge was the Washingtons’ only runaway slave to leave behind a record of her life and her escape.


The story also sheds light on Washington's engagement in illegal practices; Dunbar says while Washington was in Philadelphia, he used loophole in Pennsylvania’s gradual emancipation law to keep Judge and others from being freed.


“And so George Washington found himself really in a kind of particular bind because at that point he’s living in Philadelphia in the 1790s with nine enslaved people," Dunbar said.

He rotated Judge and other slaves back and forth from his Mount Vernon estate every six months.
Being a woman also makes Judge's story even more significant, as 90% of fugitive slaves at the time – and the narratives they left behind - were men.

Dunbar details Ona Judge’s story of escape to freedom in Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge. She’ll be discussing the book Tuesday night at the Delaware History Museum. The event is free and open to the public.


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