The Nine Enslaved
The enslaved people who lived and worked at the President's House were integral parts of the complex life in the household. They did not simply react to events; they were dynamic participants in the daily life of the family and the city. President Washington knew and trusted his enslaved house staff enough to buy them tickets for the circus and theater and let them venture out into the city’s markets on their own. These outings allowed the staff to observe the lives of free blacks living in the city and offered opportunities for communication with Philadelphia’s active abolitionist community.
Too often people who are little known as individuals in historical documents are neglected when interpreting the past for modern audiences. Interpretation of life in the President's House gives us an opportunity to give names and faces to a few of the thousands of free and enslaved people of African descent who were part of Philadelphia society.
- Austin, the half brother of Ona Judge, worked as a postillion (a horseman) and stable hand. He died on December 20, 1794, after a fall from a horse, leaving a wife and five children.
- Christopher Sheels became Washington's personal attendant as a teenager after his uncle, who was with the general throughout the Revolution, became incapacitated. A literate man, Christopher attempted to escape in 1799, but was unsuccessful. His fate after Martha Washington's 1802 death is unknown.
- Giles was a driver, postillion, and stable hand. He returned to Mt. Vernon in 1791, after being injured in an accident during Washington's tour of the southern states. He died before 1799.
- Hercules was the chief cook during Washington's stay in Philadelphia. He was celebrated for his mastery of his craft and exacting standards for kitchen workers. Accounts differ about his flight to freedom, but Hercules fled from bondage in 1797. Hercules would have been legally freed by the terms of Washington's will, but his wife and children remained in bondage (they were "dower slaves").
- Joe (Richardson) is mentioned in 1795 records as "Postillion Joe," although his time in Philadelphia is uncertain. He was married to a woman freed (along with their children) after Washington's 1799 death, whereupon the family took the name Richardson.
- Moll was nursemaid to Martha Washington's two grandchildren. Before Martha's marriage and at Mt.Vernon, she had served as nursemaid to Martha's children.
- Ona/Oney Judge was, like her mother, a talented seamstress. She became Martha Washington's personal maid as a teenager. In 1796, Ona escaped to New Hampshire, where she lived until her 1848 death. In New Hampshire, she married a free black sailor named Jack Staines and had three children, who all died before her.
- Paris was a young stable hand. He was returned to Mt. Vernon in 1791 for "unsatisfactory behavior"and died in 1794.
- Richmond came to Philadelphia at the age of 11 with his father, Hercules. Although his father was not a dower slave, his mother was, making Richmond and his sisters dower slaves by association. He worked as a scullion in the kitchen for a year, but returned to Mt.Vernon
The Escape of Ona
After Ona escaped from Philadelphia, Washington attempted to recapture her. He found out where she was when a friend of Martha Washington's granddaughter happened to encounter Ona in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Washington wrote to the collector of customs in Portsmouth, requesting that he apprehend Ona and send her back.
The New Hampshire official, after speaking with Ona, declined to do so. Two years later, Washington asked his secretary and nephew, Burwell Bassett, Jr., to seize Ona and her child, born since her escape. Bassett confided his intentions to John Landon, the governor of New Hampshire, while dining with him, but Landon sent a warning to Ona. She escaped yet again and fled the town with her child. Near the end of her life, when Ona was old and had outlived all of her family, people who spoke with her were impressed by her dignity, her faith in God, and her abiding love of freedom.
The Escape of Hercules
Hercules, known in the family as “Uncle Harkness,” may have been the most privileged of the house enslaved. As their grandson recalled, Hercules maintained strict discipline in the kitchen. For state dinners, “it was surprising the order and discipline that was observed in so bustling a scene.” Perhaps in appreciation, the President allowed Hercules to sell the leftovers from state banquets. With this income, he improved his wardrobe. He was seen in clothing made of linen “of unexceptional whiteness and quality” with black silk breeches, waistcoat, and stockings. Donning a blue coat with a velvet collar and bright metal buttons, Hercules was known to enjoy his “evening promenade” with a gold-headed cane in hand.
In 1791, Hercules knew that he was being sent home to avoid gaining is freedom legally through Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act. He expressed his dismay that anyone would “think that a suspicion would be entertained of his fidelity.” Martha Washington chose to let him remain past the six-month mark to appease his feelings. Hercules remained in service, hiding what likely was his plan to escape. When his son Richmond was caught sealing at Mount Vernon in the summer of 1796, Washington took the precaution to leave Hercules in Virginia. While Washington was enjoying his birthday celebration in Philadelphia the next February, it was reported that Hercules went missing from Mount Vernon. Despite efforts to locate and recapture him, Hercules remained free.