Episode 5: “Resisting”
In May 1796, Ona Judge self-emancipated by fleeing from President George Washington’s Philadelphia home. Her escape was just one example of the many ways that Mount Vernon’s enslaved community resisted their bondage. Some acts were subtle and easy to miss, others were much more dramatic, regardless the threat of punishment was ever present. In this episode, we follow Judge’s flight to freedom, and explore the stories of Hercules Posey and Harry Washington, to examine how enslaved people defied George and Martha Washington’s authority.
Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon
Episode 5: “Resisting”
Co-written by Jeanette Patrick and James P. Ambuske
Episode Published 12/08/2021
BRENDA PARKER: This podcast is supported by anonymous friends of George Washington’s Mount Vernon
On a Saturday afternoon, in May 1796, Ona Judge seized her freedom.
After weeks of planning, the moment was right.
In the executive mansion, President and Mrs. Washington were dining with their guests. Eating a meal prepared by their enslaved chef, Hercules Posey, and talking of returning to Mount Vernon for the summer.
The First Lady wouldn’t need her personal maid during dinner. No one would miss her until it was time to help Martha Washington get ready for bed.
It was now or never.
Judge gathered what personal items she could carry. She probably had a bag packed. She knew that her network of friends in the free Black community were waiting just outside the mansion’s walls to help her escape.
As the Washingtons ate and made merry, Judge quietly slipped out of the president’s home, breathed in the air of the nation’s second capital, and disappeared into the streets of Philadelphia.
Judge knew the risks, and the odds of success. She was ladies maid to Martha Washington; people would recognize her. She belonged to the estate of Martha’s first husband; the President was financially liable for her.
She had no doubt they would come for her.
Judge didn’t know where she was going as she stepped out on the corner of Sixth and Market Streets that day. She only knew, as she recalled years later, “that if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty.”
To the south lay Mount Vernon, continued enslavement, and family.
To the east lay Philadelphia’s dockyards, a ship called The Nancy, and freedom.
I’m Brenda Parker, Mount Vernon’s Coordinator of African American Interpretation and Special Projects
And this is Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
Episode 3: “Resisting”
Ona Judge was born at Mount Vernon in 1774 into a world of enslaved labor. Virginia law, culture, and social custom determined that she would work for the Washingtons, as members of her family did.
Here’s Jessie MacLeod, Mount Vernon’s Associate Curator, to tell us more about Judge’s early life.
JESSIE MACLEOD: Her mother Betty was a seamstress, and her father was probably Andrew Judge, who was an indentured tailor, whom Washington brought on for several years in the 1770's, and that's probably where Ona Judge gets her last name. We know that she's described as to use the period term, mulatto or mixed race, she had a very light complexion.
She had an older brother named Austin, who was a waiter in the Washingtons’ household. She had a sister named Betty Davis and a brother named Tom Davis. She was able to live with her family, they were all stationed at the Mansion House Farm, but her childhood was cut short in 1784 when at age 10, Ona Judge was assigned to be Martha Washington's ladies maid. So at that young age, she receives this assignment to basically work full-time for Martha Washington. And as a ladies maid, she would have been responsible for helping Martha dress, doing her hair, tending to her jewelry and her personal effects. She also would have done a lot of sewing and mending for Martha, and she was described later on as a perfect Mistress of her needle, so she was very talented. And you can imagine her mother, who was a seamstress, probably taught her those skills. And so she had a very intimate relationship with Martha Washington. If you think about what a personal attendant is doing, she's seeing her at all moments, in good times and bad, experiencing both happiness, but also anger, so it's an interesting relationship there.
PARKER: Like all enslaved communities, the men, women, and children under the Washingtons’ control had little incentive to work. Judge’s own daring act of self-emancipation at the age of 22, was just one of the many ways that enslaved people in Virginia, and beyond, resisted their enslavement.
Resistance took many forms. Some acts can be almost imperceptible to our modern eyes while other, more overt acts, are obvious.
We often don’t have the words of enslaved people, as we do from Ona Judge, to tell us how they resisted. Instead we must rely on other evidence, including George Washington’s own writings, and read between the lines, to tell these stories.
Feigning illness was a common way to passively resist enslavement.
Washington’s account books contain numerous entries detailing medical treatment for people enslaved at Mount Vernon.
At times, though, he was suspicious of a person’s claims of illness or injury, especially when he was away from the plantation.
Enslaved people exploited the inability of Washington’s overseers to distinguish a real illness from a pretended one.
In the early 1790s, Ona Judge’s sister, Betty Davis, seems to have used this strategy to great effect. While we cannot discount that Davis may have been ailing, Washington’s frequent complaints about her “idleness” and “laziness” and “pretended ailments” to his farm manager suggest she used the president’s absence to her advantage.
Other evidence indicates that James, a carpenter, committed acts of self-harm over at least two decades to rob Washington of his labor. Inflicting an axe wound on his foot was one of several such recorded instances.
Enslaved people resisted in other, subtler ways. Some, including Peter Hardiman, who bred horses and mules on Mount Vernon’s farms, took his time riding between Washington’s different lands, reclaiming some time for himself.
Deliberately broken or “misplaced” tools hindered Mount Vernon’s productivity, and impacted Washington’s pocketbook. Enslaved people stole goods, tools, building materials, like nails, and fabrics, which they sold for cash, exchanged for other items, or used to clothe their own children.
Beyond Mount Vernon, enslaved resistance disrupted Washington’s business interests in the Great Dismal Swamp, on the border of Virginia and North Carolina.
MARCUS NEVIUS: The Great Dismal Swamp represented the land of opportunity on two fronts.
I am Marcus Nevius, newly promoted Associate Professor of History and African Studies at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, Rhode Island
The first was land speculation. This became the most important perspective for Washington. I'm on safe ground in saying that the swamp as a space where holding land until it appreciated such that it might be sold at a profit seemed to be to Washington especially over time, perhaps the best use of the Great Dismal Swamp. And the reason for that is because the initial project that Washington and the others who comprised the Dismal Swamp Company attempted in the 1760s was Dismal Plantation and Dismal Town, just miles to the south of what is today Suffolk. To make something of the Great Dismal Swamp, to turn a profit and this was Washington's second aim, was to deploy slave labor into the swamp... Enslaved people to initially, as was the plan in the 1760s, produced at Dismal Town and Dismal Plantation either a rice plantation or some other kind of agricultural experiment that might work in the Swamp.
Each of the company members who invested in the effort to create Dismal Plantation and Dismal Town were bound by their contract to send five enslaved people into the swamp.
We know their names, we know what values Washington and the members of the Dismal Swamp company attached to them in 1763 and 64, and we know that at least one, Harry Washington, actually became quite famous after his time in the Great Dismal Swamp. Harry Washington was, at least according to the historian, Cassandra Pybus, among the first five who were dispatched by Washington to the Great Dismal Swamp.
We know much less about the four others who Washington dispatched into the swamp. We know their names; Jack, Caesar, or Caesar, Topsom, Nan, and Tony... A boy. We can speculate that perhaps Nan and Tony were related, perhaps Tony was Nan's child. We don't know for sure whether that was the case. Life was difficult. This was a frontier society within the broader Old Dominion that would have required in the 1760s, the back-breaking labor of cutting down trees, digging up roots, digging into the swamp soils, irrigation ditches for rice, and doing all of this in a seasonal rotation that began as early as January, if the weather permitted, but certainly took off by March and extended as long as weather permitted into the fall. And at the height of the summer season, these enslaved people. Would have dealt with unimaginable clouds of mosquitoes who are voraciously hungry for human hosts... All manner of arachnids, poisonous or not, endemic to the region. Yellow flies, which are impervious to any manner of insect repellent in their efforts to bite you and to drink of your blood.
PARKER: Though Washington and the other investors hoped to build a rice plantation in the swamp, their efforts were unsuccessful.
NEVIUS: That aim failed miserably in the 1760s for two reasons; the first and foremost was enslaved people's resistance. The records of the 60s and early 70s and into the 80s, frankly, are replete with company agents who were dispatched to oversee Dismal Town and Dismal Plantation and other locations in the Swamp - writing too company managers including Washington to say, "enslaved people aren't working here, they're not maintaining the ditches, they are not maintaining the crops, they care little about anything more than subsistence on and so forth. And frankly, they flee into other distant parts of the swamp at every turn, and they returned to us almost on a whim"
PARKER: Washington sold his interest in the Great Dismal Swamp in the 1780s, to focus his attention on Mount Vernon and his western lands.
If resistance was a fact of life, so, too, was the threat of punishment.
Punishment was a means of controlling enslaved populations and coercing them to labor or behave in certain ways.
Like resistance, punishment at Mount Vernon, or as Washington called it, “correction,” could take many forms.
On occasion, Washington threatened the skilled artisans and tradesmen working on Mansion House Farm with demotion, if they did not do as he expected.
In 1793, he instructed his farm manager to tell Billy Muclus, a bricklayer, that if his work did not improve, then he would be sent to the fields “and placed under one of the Overseers as a common hoe Negro.”
Surviving documents indicate that Washington may have had enslaved people placed in shackles on at least one occasion.
In 1766, when he sold Tom to a ship bound for the Caribbean, Washington advised the ship’s captain to keep Tom in restraints to prevent his escape. According to historian Mary V. Thompson, the logical implication is that Washington had done the same, before dispatching Tom to the ship.
Another serious form of punishment involved physical assaults.
In the 18th century, whipping was a common form of legal punishment in the American colonies for a variety of crimes. And as an army officer, Washington ordered whippings for soldiers who committed military offenses.
However, on Virginia plantations, and elsewhere, enslavers did not need to secure criminal convictions to beat their enslaved people. Whipping was another means of social control at places like Mount Vernon, designed to make examples of “troublesome” people for the rest of the community.
In the early 1790s, farm manager Anthony Whitting whipped Charlotte, a seamstress. Charlotte’s case tells us much about the use of physical punishment. It also helps us to understand the new policies Washington put in place after the Revolutionary War to govern such whippings.
And it allows us to see the possibility that Charlotte used her close relationship with Martha Washington in strategic ways.
Here’s Mary V. Thompson to tell us about Charlotte and Anthony Whitting.
MARY THOMPSON: They get into an altercation, disagreement about something, and Charlotte is really angry. She'd been whipped by this manager and she was furious. This happened when the Washingtons are away in Philadelphia during the presidency. And he'd beaten her with his riding crop, and she was so mad.
When the manager whips her, she gets mad and she said, "I'm going to tell Mrs. Washington." Now Mrs. Washingtons in Philadelphia. One of the things also that's happening in this time period, the early 1790's, is that we know Washington had changed the rules. His secretary said that he determined that nobody should be punished until the case had been looked into, and the word he uses is defendant and the defendant found guilty of some bad deed. So it's instead of the overseer getting really mad and just flying off the handle and hitting somebody, they have to go to Washington, they have to investigate what's going on, and then if the person was found guilty, then they would be punished. They're putting distance between an action and a possible punishment or reaction. And Charlotte says after she's been whipped, she was so angry she was gonna go to Mrs. Washington, because A, there had been this change in policy and also she hadn't been whipped in 14 years, and we know she's got a temper, we know she does get into disagreements with people.
Charlotte's trying to get her message to Martha Washington before Anthony Whitting, the farm manager can get his story to George Washington. And George Washington, in his response said, "She was insolent. She was rude to you." He told the manager, "You did the right thing." He said, "Insolence, we can't put up with that." And you know, I see the Old General saying, he's looking at chain of command and all kinds of stuff that could be messing his chain of command up and... So he tells the guy, everything's fine, and then months later, the farm manager dies of consumption and Washington writes a letter and he says, "I really liked this guy, I thought he was a wonderful manager, and I really wanna find somebody that's just like him, to be the next farm manager."
And he and Martha Washington come back to Mount Vernon for a vacation, and after he's been there a while he's saying, "I don't think this guy was a very good manager. I don't want anybody like him." And you're sort of thinking... I wonder if Charlotte got to tell Martha something, and maybe Martha told George, and maybe George started asking more questions. And that's how his ideas changed about this one person. We don't know, but it kind of, maybe looks like it.
PARKER: If Charlotte did, in fact, make her case to Martha Washington, it demonstrates another form of resistance.
It shows her awareness of the new rules governing physical punishment, and her willingness to point out to her enslavers when their own standards had been violated. And it reveals how Charlotte may have shaped Martha’s, and ultimately George’s, thinking about the men who managed Mount Vernon.
But, Charlotte’s was not the only act of courageous resistance by Mount Vernon’s enslaved community. Self-emancipation, dangerous as the attempt may be, could lead to freedom.
Ona Judge was not the first enslaved person to flee from the Washingtons. And she would not be the last.
Neptune and Cupid, fled from Dogue Run farm in August 1761, along with Parros and Jack.
Washington placed an advertisement in the Maryland Gazette seeking information on their whereabouts. According to it:
Jack was around 30 years old. He was born in Africa, stood about 6 feet tall, and had cuts on his face, the cultural markings of his native African community. He spoke good English.
Cupid and Neptune, spoke only broken English.
Parros spoke the best English of all. He had lost most of his native dialect, which may suggest that he had been in the colonies for a long time.
Such advertisements, though designed to aid in their recapture, offer historians valuable insights on the lives of enslaved. Jack, Cupid, and Parros were recaptured and back at Mount Vernon by 1762. Neptune reappears in Washington’s records by 1765.
The four men left Dogue Run at a time of relative peace in the colonies. The Seven Years’ War had all but ended in North America. British Americans, like Washington, looked forward to a new era of prosperity in the British Empire.
But, as we know, an imperial civil war broke out between Britain and the American colonies in 1775.
And few events offered better opportunities to self-emancipate, than war.
Much was uncertain about the future when the war began, but as we heard in a previous episode, one thing is for sure:
CASSANDRA PYBUS: Slavery complicates the Revolutionary narrative hugely, the fact that most of the heroes of the revolution of slave holders complicates the narrative
My name is Cassandra Pybus, and I am a retired professor of history. I'm a writer of some more than a dozen books
PARKER: Political debates over rights and liberties, a growing awareness of recent court rulings against slavery, and the chaos of the war itself created possibilities for enslaved people to self-emancipate.
A proclamation issued by Virginia’s Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, in November 1775 offered enslaved people freedom in exchange for serving the British crown. It was but one way that the British weaponized slavery against the American rebels.
PYBUS: Certainly in places like Norfolk, Virginia and all the way around the Chesapeake, that they know about slavery in Britain, they know about the ruling about there can be no slavery in Britain, and that they're wise to the fact that if they can get on a British warship that could take them to Britain, they would be free. Now, that would be even before Lord Dunmore's proclamation.
They just come, and once they start coming, even in, they come to him in Williamsburg, even before he's gone onboard his ships, and once they start coming, he realizes that they are a very useful resource to him, not even necessary as a labor force, but as a kind of undermining morale, or of course, especially slave owners who pride themselves on the fact that they look after their slaves, and their slaves love them, and that they wouldn't wanna go off to dreadful King George. And so he's canny enough to see that this is a real piece of moral leverage, which of course it remains for the British all the way through the war and considerably all through the negotiation. But, This isn't in the forefront of his mind. They've come, they started to come to him long before he makes that proclamation and they're coming in quite big numbers, and then of course... After the proclamation is kind of deluged by them, but they're coming before that.
PARKER: How did Washington and other Virginians react to British actions?
PYBUS: Washington, and others see them as a pirates, basically, and that's not too far short of the mark either. They've got a lot of Pirateers with the naval fleet, and those pirateers are usually the ones who are picking up, as they call them, refugee slaves or refugees, not even using the word "slave" and they see that as pirateering, you know being pirates. And so it's very convenient to be able to say, As Washington does, that the British came and stole our slaves.
PARKER: Harry Washington was one enslaved man who took advantage of the chaos to escape Mount Vernon. George Washington purchased Harry in 1763.
PYBUS: He was an African-born enslaved man. And he obviously came to Washington as a young man. I've gone through a sizeable list of the various plantations, there’ve been a few Harrys, but I think I've been able to track this particular one. And my sense is that he probably came in on one or two shipments from Santa Gambia Now, he then worked on various plantations, but interestingly enough, he was part of the work group that Washington sent to the Great Dismal Swamp.
He eventually ends up working at the Mount Vernon plantation, probably as a kind of more domestic servant. He's known to be a man Washington describes him as an ostler, which I take it to mean that he basically looks after the horses, but he could possibly also have other duties around the Mount Vernon house as opposed to the plantation.
PARKER: Harry Washington fled once before, in 1771, but was returned to Mount Vernon. In August 1776, he fled again. This time to Lord Dunmore, to join the Royal Governor’s Ethiopian Regiment, which was made up of people who had self-emancipated. Later he went with Dunmore to New York and became a member of the Black Pioneers.
PYBUS: The Pioneers were a, kind of a subordinate military unit that the British had had in previous wars. They did all of the laboring work that needed to be done to support the army. They sometimes would be armed and would be involved in military conflict where necessary, but their real role was a logistical one. And so given the stress on the British and Hessian forces, they needed to have all of those trained military personnel doing the fighting as it were, and so they recruited amongst refugee, enslaved refugees and put them on payroll as Black pioneers. My research into the very scrappy military records from the American War suggests that most military units had a Pioneer Squad attached to them, and so. This is where a lot of the able-bodied men go and they get paid
PARKER: In the Spring of 1781, five years after Harry Washington escaped to join British forces, the HMS Savage sailed up the Potomac River. The warship’s captain threatened to destroy Mount Vernon unless Lund Washington, George’s cousin and farm manager, gave him supplies. Eventually, Lund relented, much to George’s disgust.
But several enslaved people, including Sambo Anderson, made the most of the Savage’s appearance. They boarded the ship and made their escape.
Many aspects of the Savage incident remain unknown, waiting to be uncovered. We are not sure what happened to most of the people who attempted self-emancipation during the war. At some point, Peter, Lewis, Tom, Peter, Stephen, James, and Wally all fled. No further records exist. Daniel Payne and Deborah Squash self-emancipated as well and were transported to Nova Scotia, Canada by the British at the end of the Revolution.
We do know, though, that seven, including Frederick, Frank, Gunner, Sambo Anderson, Thomas, Lucy, and Esther, were returned to Mount Vernon, sometime after the siege of Yorktown in late 1781.
We know more about what happened to Harry Washington.
He became one of the thousands of American Loyalists who left the colonies after the war. He went first to Nova Scotia and then to Sierra Leone. His story illustrates how slavery remained a point of contention between the Americans and British even at the war’s end, particularly between General George Washington and his counterpart, General Sir Guy Carleton.
PYBUS: It's quite interesting to look at the documentation around the Treaty of Paris to see how the clause about the returning the Slaves has been inserted at the very last minute, and it's inserted, of course, by South Carolinian. And this does complicate things because at the evacuation of Charleston, it's maid perfectly clear that the British consider that the slaves are not to be returned to their owners, although some loyalist owners do manage to claim their slaves.
And Carleton's position is that these people fled to our protection and it's our duty to protect them, and so he doesn't really appreciate having a clause in the treaty that says that he has to return American property, and so he unapologetically puts it to Washington in his meeting on this subject that he understands the term property to mean people who were property at the time that the treaty was signed. And so all of those tens of thousands of enslaved workers who have run to the British prior to that time, he does not consider to be American property, I think exactly what he says is, Never would the British government have agreed to reduce themselves to the necessity of violating their face to the Negros, delivering up the Negros to their former master would be a dishonorable violation of the public faith.
It's an amazing slight of hand when you think about the fact that Washington has come up to meet him with all the kind of pomp and circumstances of the victorious commander of the American forces. He owns the high ground and he just has it pulled out from under him with this very icy British assertion of the morality of the situation. Never would the king's ministers to do something so dishonorable to people of any complexion and basically... And then snub him the second day and say, “Well, I've told you what my position is, I don't need to tell you that again, you know, end of story," and it's a huge battle to get any of those people back.
In the unlikely event of the British government put a different construction on the treaty, he promised that they would get compensation, and that's how come you have the situation where there are Congress-appointed inspectors inspecting the ships leaving New York. And listing the names of previously enslaved people, one of whom, of course is Harry Washington, and that's how we know about him, and this register is supposed to be used as the basis of negotiations for compensation, but it has in fact become a much more important document for us
The British made a list of everybody in a book they then called The Book of Negros. It's a multi-volume book, as you could imagine, and it lists the detail of every person of color leaving New York on the British Ships and they sometimes claimed to be born free or made free. But generally, the story is I was enslaved to General Washington on his Mount Vernon Plantation. I don't think that's exactly what Harry Washington said, but he clearly says he was born in Africa, that he had been previously enslaved to General Washington and that he ran off eight years earlier and that he was carrying General Birch certificate of freedom, the certificates that the army gave them
In Nova Scotia, he gets a land grant and starts becoming a farmer in the area of Nova Scotia known as Birchtown. He's part of the big Methodist congregation dominates that town, although there are Baptists there also, and I think that coming initially from Africa and then having lived in the south, living in the harsh winters of Nova Scotia was a hard on everybody. It isn't just an African, African Americans who suffered in Nova Scotia. It was just really hard. And when the opportunity came, in the form of a British Naval officer to relocate to the British colony that would be established on the coast of Africa in Sierra Leone... That the passage would be paid for, that they would be given land free of any taxes and when they got there was a very attractive option, and almost the entire Methodist congregation of Birchtown took up that offer, and so Harry and his wife went to Sierra Leone and took up land there, and Harry became a very successful farmer there. And he also, and this is the ironic thing about it perhaps, became very active in the move of amongst the Methodist congregation, particularly to who mere mostly from Virginia to resist the authoritarian management of Sierra Leone by The Sierra Leone company and they basically stage a rebellion against the rules and regulations that are being imposed on them, using the language of the founding fathers, in many respects about their rights as free men and women.
PARKER: George Washington began to question slavery during and after the Revolutionary War. Besides its moral implications, Washington began to believe that slavery was at odds with the British agricultural practices that he was implementing at Mount Vernon. He also worried how slavery would affect his public reputation.
We’ll have more, when Intertwined returns, after the break.
JEANETTE PATRICK: Hi I’m Jeanette Patrick one of the co-creators of Intertwined. If you would like to explore the topics discussed in this episode, learn more about our guests, or get a list of related readings, please visit George Washington podcast dot com.
Thank you for listening. Now, back to Intertwined.
PARKER: Though he privately hoped that Virginia would pass a gradual abolition law, as many northern states began to do in the 1780s, Washington remained keen to prevent enslaved people from self-emancipating, and recapture those who did.
However, these laws, and Washington’s own presidency, gave freedom-seekers like Ona Judge and Hercules Posey, opportunities to escape.
Let’s return to Judge’s story with Jessie MacLeod
MACLEOD: Ona Judge is taken by the Washingtons to first, New York in 1789. And then to Philadelphia the following year. And so she goes from Mount Vernon in Virginia, a place that she is almost certainly never left to two of the biggest cities in America. And you can imagine what an experience that would have been like for her, how different her world would have become being taken to those places. And so all of a sudden, she's working in the Presidential household for two of the most important and most recognizable people in the country. And while she was there, she would have been doing a lot of the same things that she did at Mount Vernon. She probably also was doing some child care, helping to care for Martha's two grandchildren, Nellie and George Washington Parke Custis who the Washingtons basically adopted and brought with them during the presidency. And being in those places also really expanded her world in a lot of ways. We have evidence from Washington's account books that he actually paid for the enslaved people who were working in his household to go to see the circus in Philadelphia, to go see what he described as the "Tumbling Feats Acrobats" who were doing performances. She had access to these experiences that were unlike anything she would have ever seen.
She had access to this community of free African-Americans, and that was not something that she would have had in Virginia. There was also a very strong abolitionist sentiment in the city. There were a lot of Quakers who were very anti-slavery, and it's likely that her interactions with the people in that community helped give her the confidence to make the decision to emancipate herself.
PARKER: Hercules Posey, Mount Vernon’s Head Chef, also traveled with the Washingtons’ to Philadelphia to cook for the president and his guests.
RAMIN GANESHRAM: Washington obtained Hercules as a payment on a loan that he had given his neighbor John Posey and a loan was forfeited. In other words, Posey couldn't pay it back. So Hercules was essentially the mortgage to secure this loan.
My name is Ramin Ganeshram, the Executive Director of The Westport Museum for History and Culture, the author of The General's Cook
Hercules is young, he is probably under 16 years old, when he comes in 1770 to George Washington's Mount Vernon to Mansion House Farm and he doesn't show up in what's called the tithable tables, the tax rolls until 1771. The general accepted principle at the time, the legal principal with it, enslaved people were in taxed after they were 16. So that's why we can say if he showed up for the first time in those rolls in 71, he was around 16 years old. It puts his birth around 1754
PARKER: Like Judge, Posey encountered possibility in 1790s Philadelphia.
GANESHRAM: Philadelphia had a population that was at the time, Hercules was living there with Washington, about 5% African American, roughly 4.5% of those people, the lion share were free.
So when he went out into the world, when he went out to the market, and you need to understand that the house they lived in was one block shy of the terminus of the Philadelphia market, which ran from the one block from their home down the main street, out Market Street all the way down to the dock, very bustling, important center of the city. So there were vendors in that market who were free Black people at Philadelphia. There were shoppers in that market. All around him, the community, there was a community of free Black people living their lives, including very prominent individuals that he would have witnessed in the coming and going of his life, because he did things over and above what other enslaved people could do. He went to the circus, the Washingtons gave him tickets to the circus. He went to the theater. He was known to go out in the evening after he was done cooking, as long as he came back, at night. So he would have seen people like Charles Sang, who was a free Black confection or wealthy man who was famous, for sugar sculptures out in society. He would have seen James Forten, who was a wealthy sail maker, formally enslaved himself, who distinguished himself serving in the Revolutionary War. He would have seen this person in society. He would have seen Absalom Jones, who was an abolitionist and one of the founders of the AME church, so would have been in the milieu of people who were living a free life, were kind of showing him what a free life would be.
Washington allowed Hercules to earn money selling the slops, the usable trim, the leftovers in the kitchen. He earned $200 a year. And I wanna contextualize that for you. The average American working man at the time earned $100 a year. So he was earning twice as much. We know that he bought himself a cane with a gold handle. He loved nice clothes. And so he was always often buying himself nice clothes.
PARKER: As Judge and Posey began to imagine new lives for themselves while in Philadelphia, slavery became a more divisive issue in the United States.
In 1793, Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law. The act strengthened the fugitive slave clauses in the Constitution by giving enslavers or their representatives the power to search for escapees within the borders of free states. It angered abolitionists in states like Pennsylvania, which had passed gradual abolition laws.
In fact, Pennsylvania’s law presented the Washingtons with a serious problem. In short, it said that the enslaved people of non-residents could petition for their freedom after six months of living in the state.
GANESHRAM: George and Martha Washington, find themselves in a really difficult position, which is that they are in Philadelphia, because this is now the transitional capital of the United States And they've brought their quote unquote servants, they're enslaved people from Mount Vernon, the people they felt that they really couldn't do without. So this is really a concern for them. Especially for Washington, because most of those people are owned by Martha's deceased first husband's estate. Why should that matter any more than his own people? It matters because should they self-emancipate, should they take advantage of the law, he now has to pay back the estate for their value, and does not want to do that. This can run into quite a bit of money.
PARKER: Because Philadelphia was the temporary capital of the United States, there was confusion over whether a state law could apply to federal officials like Washington.
GANESHRAM: He consults with the Attorney General in the United States, Edmond Randolph, he's a Virginian, has lost people to this law. And Randolph advises him, what you need to do is before six months or up, take these people out of Pennsylvania, even if all you could do is carry them over to New Jersey, that will reset their time, and so when they come back, the six months starts again. And it's interesting because in 1790 plans were made to return to Mount Vernon, and that was the preference. To take people back with them to Mount Vernon for the summer for a visit.
They were coming back to Mount Vernon and Tobias Lear, Washington's Secretary, essentially told Hercules you need to prepare to go. And he writes to Washington and says, "You know, we have a problem because Hercules has somehow figured it out." Someone had said something to him, that this is why we wanna bring him back, and he came to me really offended that... You would think that he wants to run away and he's loyal."
He professes his loyalty, and I don't wanna go anywhere, I can't believe you would think this to me, so to show good faith in him, they let him stay in Philadelphia while everyone else returns to Mount Vernon.
So, in fact, he has remained over six months. So by the time that he self-emancipates, he's really already technically, legally free. Technically, and actually are two different things
PARKER: Posey chose not to self-emancipate. At least, not yet.
We can imagine why. With his late wife, Alice; Posey had three children: Richmond, Evey, and Delia, Richmond, for a short time worked in the president’s Philadelphia kitchen alongside his father. And Posey was well known as Washington’s chef. His notoriety would have made his escape difficult.
Ona Judge faced similar challenges. But in 1796 she saw her chance, and she took it.
MACLEOD: In May of 1796, she makes the decision to leave the President's house while the Washingtons’ are eating dinner. And she is able, likely, with help to secure passage on a ship to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and she is posing as a free woman. She is able to make it to New Hampshire. The Washingtons quickly discover that she is gone. Washington's steward, placed a newspaper advertisement for Ona Judge. That was a common thing to place an ad for an enslaved person who ran away, offering a reward for their return. And the ad interestingly says that she ran away with no provocation whatsoever.
There's an interesting lack of understanding of why an enslaved person would have chosen to leave. The Washingtons are eagerly trying to find her, and in the meantime, she makes it to Portsmouth. She's getting settled there. But unfortunately, her high profile, the high profile of the family that she had worked for really threatened her, her fragile freedom because she was recognized on the street by a friend of Nellie Custis, Martha's granddaughter who had seen Ona in the household in Philadelphia. When the Washingtons get word that Ona Judge is in Portsmouth, George Washington actually asked his Treasury Secretary, Oliver Walcott to coordinate with government officials in Portsmouth to return Ona Judge. And so Walcott corresponds with Joseph Whipple, who's the Customs Collector in Portsmouth and Whipple is charged with going to find Ona Judge in getting her to return to the Washingtons. And so, Whipple tracks down Ona Judge and he basically says, "The Washingtons want you to come back."
And Ona Judge tells him, "I want to be free. I ran away because I did not want to be enslaved." And she basically says, "I will return if the Washingtons promise to free me when they die." And so Whipple writes back, tells them what she said and George Washington is furious because he thinks that this is impertinent of her to propose this compromise, especially because in his view, it would be rewarding her behavior, which was in his mind, unacceptable 'cause she had run away. And it's likely that a lot of this was also coming from Martha, who was clearly very attached to this girl who had served her for over a decade and who knew her throughout her intimate moments. But basically, Washington refuses to agree to Ona's proposed compromise. And so he isn't able to get her to come back at that point. Washington legally could have, because of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, he could have recaptured her by force, but he chooses not to do that, and that's probably because he doesn't want to make a scene. It would have been a pretty bad PR move for him to be seen violently recapturing this young woman, especially as slavery had become this very divisive issue in the young nation. So Ona Judge is able to get away from the Washingtons.
PARKER: As the Washingtons hunted Ona Judge, Hercules Posey sized his own moment, about a year later. His circumstances had changed, dramatically.
GANESHRAM: The whole family comes back to Mount Vernon for the summer in 1796, and so there's really no reason for Hercules to remain in Philadelphia because the entire household has come to Mount Vernon. Money is stolen from the saddle bag of a white servant, a paid servant. And Hercules's son Richmond is accused of the crime, and Washington believes that it's because Richmond and Hercules are planning to run away together. So Washington is obsessed with the idea of the people he's enslaved running away, self-emancipating, self-liberating. He's obsessed with this idea, largely as I mentioned, because he doesn't wanna have to pay back the estate of his wife's first husband. And Hercules has to remain when the whole family returns to Philadelphia for what is to be Washington's last term in office. So he's there in 1797, and he's working, not as a cook, but he's doing hard labor. He's working in the field, pulling rocks and turning over tilling fields, he's breaking rock to mix with paint for that iconic facade of Mount Vernon that appears to be stone and we all know it's not stone, it's essentially stucco. So to my mind, the tasks Washington put him to were to punish him for this believed attempt to escape.
PARKER: Posey’s demotion from head chef to common laborer changed the equation. He decided to give Washington an unwelcome birthday present.
GANESHRAM: February 22nd, 1797, is the 65th birthday of President Washington. He's in Philadelphia celebrating. It's important to understand that in Washington's lifetime, his birthday was celebrated with much fanfare. There were around the country balls and party's, fireworks to celebrate his birthday. So while he's in Philadelphia attending what is to be his last birthday night ball, during his presidency, and during that day, there's fireworks displays, the ships in the harbor are shooting off cannons to celebrate the President at the same time at Mount Vernon, liquor, rum and small bits of food are given to the enslaved people to toast the General to celebrate as well. So there sort of given the night off, so to speak, to celebrate Washington's birthday and toast his health during this period of time where people are kind of drinking and just doing their thing, he disappears, he leaves.
Here's what I think happened. What we eventually found, myself and my colleague, Sara Krasne, eventually found sort of gives credence to this, that he was able probably to make it by foot or small boat to Alexandria, which is the main town very close. And from there, got on to a larger boat to Philadelphia. Where he would have had people that he likely knew, including abolitionists I think he probably got to Philadelphia and got help to go to North. He couldn't have stayed in Philadelphia in my opinion, Washington expected him to be there. Hercules was famous in his time. People knew him, they recognized him, they knew who he was. It would have been too dangerous to remain in Philadelphia.
Washington tries to find him, has men in Philadelphia looking for him. He is cited once more in 1801 in New York City by the then mayor of New York, Mayor Varick, who was a friend to the Washingtons. Washington has already died by this time, and Varick writes to Martha, and says, "I've seen your cook. Do you want me to apprehend him?" And she says, "No, I'm declined to take him back essentially because I found a white cook who answers just as well." Which we know isn't true, she spent endless time complaining about the very poor quality of cooks that came through once Hercules was gone.
PARKER: For a very long time, we didn’t know what happened to Posey. Thanks to recent research by Ganeshram and her colleague Sara Krasne, now we do. And an effort to authenticate a supposed portrait of Posey turned up some new leads.
GANESHRAM: I asked my colleague here at Westport Museum, who is a very skilled genealogist, "Can you try to help me find his parents?” So she says to me, "Well, what's his last name?" And I said, "What are you talking about?" And she said, "What's his last name?" I said, "Well, he didn't have a last name." And she said, "Well, his previous owner... What was his name?" I said, "His name was Posey, but Hercules didn't use that name."
She found him. She found Hercules Posey buried in the second African burying ground in New York City died May 15, 1812. And still in all I said to her, "It's a coincidence". Right? So we go to New York City to the municipal records to get the death record, born in Virginia. The age is right. And so then we start looking in the city directories. And we find him and it lists him as laborer. And then I decided to look at all the census documents, all the directories for this period of time in New York, there's no other Hercules, there's no other Posey, Black or white.
Someone in Boston, finds a different city directory for New York City. Hercules Posey, Cook. They found it directory after directory, Hercules Posey, Cook. So that was it. I called everybody, I was like, I think this is him, this is him. And I think we all pretty much agree that it is. He did work as a cook, he certainly made enough money to pay for himself to be in a directory.
PARKER: In the spring of 1797, Louis-Phillppe, the future king of France, visited Mount Vernon. He asked one of Posey’s daughters if she was sad that her father was gone.
She replied, “Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now.”
Although the Washington Family lost track of Posey after 1801, they hadn’t lost track of Ona Judge in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
MACLEOD: She marries a free Black sailor named Jack Stains, they have three children. The Washingtons actually tried to try one more time to recapture her. In 1799, Washington knows that his nephew, Burwell Bassett is going to Portsmouth, New Hampshire on business, and he asked him to look into Ona Judge's whereabouts to see if he can recapture her. And fortunately, Bassett was not tight-lipped about his plan and was telling people about it, and word got back to Ona Judge and she was able to escape to the home of a friend outside of Portsmouth. And so she once again alluded the Washingtons. One fascinating thing is that years later, after she's been able to live as a free woman, she was interviewed in the 1840's when she was quite elderly. And all this time she had legally been living as a fugitive because she was owned by the Custis estate.
Even though George Washington chooses to free the enslaved people he owned in his will, that didn't apply to her. Technically, she and her children could have been seized by the Custis heirs at any point. It doesn't seem that they attempted to find her, but she surely lived with the knowledge that that was a possibility.
In the 1840's, she's interviewed about her experiences, and it's one of the only times that we actually have the voice of an enslaved person in the historical record. And she again, reiterates that she ran away because she wanted to be free, that the Washingtons hadn't provided her with any type of education, but as a free woman, she had been able to learn to read and write. She had joined a church and found religion and she was asked if she regretted running away because her life had been so hard since, and she said no, because I'm free and have been made a child of God. So it's this incredible window into the risks that enslaved people are willing to take to emancipate themselves, the hardships that many of them endured afterwards, even when they were free, and how that sacrifice was worth it to be able to live life as a free person.
PARKER: Judge never saw her family at Mount Vernon again. Her mother, Betty, died in January 1795. In 1802, her younger sister Delphy was inherited by Eliza Parke Custis Law, Martha Washington’s granddaughter.
But, as Judge told her interviewer in the 1840s, who asked if she had any regrets about leaving, she said, “No, I am free.”
Ona Judge passed away in 1848, still living in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Ona Judge, Hercules Posey, and the many enslaved people who resisted their enslavement at Mount Vernon were all under George Washington’s control, but they were not all legally his property. What would his death mean for those lives bound together through marriage and kinship? How would his growing unease with slavery in his final days reshape their lives long after he was gone?
That’s next time on, Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon is a production of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and CD Squared.
I’m your host, Brenda Parker.
Intertwined was co-created and co-written by Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske.
Curt Dahl of CD Squared was our lead producer and audio engineer.
Additional producers were me, Brenda Parker and Jessie MacLeod. MacLeod was the lead curator of the Lives Bound Together exhibit, which inspired this podcast.
Mary Thompson provided invaluable research support. Thompson is Mount Vernon’s research historian and the author of “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret": George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon, published by the University of Virginia Press in 2019.
We received fact checking and additional editorial support from Samantha Snyder.
Rebekah Hanover Pettit designed our show’s beautiful artwork.
Thank you to Mount Vernon’s Media and Communications Department for their support.
Our summer interns were Izzy Black and Maggie-Mae Ellison from Midwestern State University in Texas. They helped put together our show notes and episode bibliographies.
Thank you to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.
And a very special thanks to the anonymous friends of George Washington’s Mount Vernon without whose financial support this project would not have been possible.
Learn more about Mount Vernon’s enslaved community and topics covered in this program by checking out our reading lists on our show’s website at George Washington Podcast dot com.
Thank you for listening.
Jessie MacLeod joined Mount Vernon’s curatorial team in 2012, after receiving an M.A. in history, with a certificate in public history, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She previously received a B.A. in history from Yale University and has worked at numerous historic sites interpreting eighteenth and nineteenth-century American history. In her time at Mount Vernon, Jessie served as lead curator for the award-winning exhibition Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon (2016-2021).
Professor Cassandra Pybus is an independent scholar and the prizewinning author of twelve books including Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runway Slaves of the American Revolution and their Global Quest for Liberty (Beacon Press 2006). She was Australian Research Council Professor of History at the University of Sydney and also been a Fulbright Professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC, Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Texas, and Leverhulme Visiting Professor at King’s College, London.
Mary V. Thompson grew up as an “army brat” in the United States, West Germany, and the occupied city of West Berlin. She began working at Mount Vernon in 1980, after earning a B.A. in History, with a minor in Folklore, from Samford University, and an M.A. in History from the University of Virginia. Mary has filled a number of roles at Mount Vernon, where she is now the Research Historian (2008-present). She curated the traveling exhibition, Treasures from Mount Vernon: George Washington Revealed, which opened in 1998. Her first book was “In the Hands of a Good Providence”: Religion in the Life of George Washington (University of Virginia Press, 2008). More recently, she published A Short Biography of Martha Washington (Applewood Books, 2017) aimed at the young adult market. Her latest book is “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon (University of Virginia Press, 2019).
Associate Professor of History
Marcus P. Nevius, Ph.D. is associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island, where he teaches courses in the history of slavery, the Revolution, Confederation, and Early Republican periods in the early United States; and, in the history of African Americans in the early American republic. Nevius holds a B.A. and M.A. in history from North Carolina Central University, and a Ph.D. in history from The Ohio State University.
He is the author of the book City of Refuge: Slavery and Petit Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp, 1763-1856 (Georgia, 2020). He has authored review essays published in the William and Mary Quarterly, and in History Compass. He has published book reviews in the Journal of African American History, the Journal of Southern History, and H-Net Civil War.
Nevius is the recipient of research fellowships granted by the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan; the Special Collections Research Center of the Earl Gregg Swem Library at the College of William and Mary; the Virginia Museum of History and Culture; and the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon.
Author / Executive Director, Westport Museum for History
Ramin Ganeshram, is both an award-winning journalist and public historian who is currently the Executive Director of the Westport Museum for History & Culture (formerly Westport Historical Society) in Westport, Connecticut. Her area of study has been colonial-era African American history, particularly focused on enslaved African-Americans and mixed-race people. She spent ten years researching and writing The General’s Cook, a process that continues after the novel was published, including her discovery of the real-life fate of her protagonist Hercules, the cook enslaved by George Washington, and solving a 218 year old mystery.
Ganeshram has been widely recognized for evolving the 131 year old Westport Museum toward an inclusive interpretation of local history as part of the larger American story by focusing on race, ethnicity and gender. In recognition for her work as curator of Westport Museum’s 2018-19 exhibit, Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport, Ganeshram received the prestigious award for Leadership in the Museum Field from the New England Museum Association (NEMA). Remembered won awards of merit from the Connecticut League of History Associations (CLHO) and the coveted Award of Excellence from the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH). In 2019, Ganeshram was also awarded the Paul Cuffee Memorial Fellowship for the For the Study of Minorities in American Maritime History.
An alumna of Columbia University’s Graduate School of journalism and a professionally trained chef, Ganeshram specializes in writing about multicultural communities and about food from the perspective of history and culture. In addition to writing for organizations such as the BBC, Washington Post, epicurious, and many others, she has contributed articles on historical America, immigrant foodways and colonial New York cuisine and commerce to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food & Drink In America (2014) and Savoring Gotham (Oxford University Press 2015). Ganeshram has also been a peer reviewer for the Journal of Food, Culture, & Society.
She has been a featured speaker at City University of New York, the Fancy Food Show, the American Library Association, Morris Jumel Mansion, Connecticut League of History Organizations, and others.