William Lee & Oney Judge: A Look at George Washington & Slavery


June 19, 2014
by Mary V. Thompson Also by this Author


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George Washington was a slave owner for his entire life, a fact that surprises many of his fellow citizens more than 200 years after his death. When they find out, people respond to this information in surprising ways. A visitor from California to a historic site in Virginia sat down in shock when upon learning the news about Washington, and then begin to weep. Some get angry at him, seeing Washington with new eyes, no longer the brave and steady leader who won freedom for the United States, but a man instead, whose good deeds have been totally erased by the fact that he owned slaves. To put things in better perspective, let’s look at the lives of two of those slaves who labored for George Washington: William Lee and Oney Judge. William is primarily known for his loyalty to Washington at a time when he could easily have left, while Oney is remembered chiefly because she escaped from the Washingtons and slavery. These are two remarkable individuals; there were similarities and differences in their lives that illuminate not just their stories, but also tell us something about Washington and the institution of slavery.

George Washington became a slave owner when he was eleven years old and was bequeathed ten slaves by his father’s last will and testament. For the forty years that George and Martha Washington lived together at Mount Vernon, there were actually three groups of slaves on the plantation. The first group belonged to George Washington outright; they had been inherited from relatives or purchased from other individuals, as well as the children of those women he either inherited or purchased. By the time of his death in December 1799, there were 123 people in this category. The second major group belonged to the estate of Martha Washington’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, who had died suddenly in 1757 prior to drawing up a will. According to Virginia law dealing with intestate estates, the widow of such a person would automatically receive a life interest in 1/3 of the deceased’s property, including slaves. There were some major restrictions on what the widow—or any subsequent husband—could do with that enslaved property, who were referered to as “dower slaves.” For example, those slaves could not be taken out of Virginia without permission of the other heirs and, at the widow’s death, they was to be divided among the remaining heirs of that first husband. There were 153 people who fell into this cohort at the end of George Washington’s life. The third group of slaves at Mount Vernon were people who had been rented from their owners, often because they had a special skill which Washington needed. There were over forty such individuals on the plantation in 1799. So by the last year of Washington’s life, there were at least 318 slaves at Mount Vernon.

William Lee was one of the slaves who belonged to George Washington. He arrived at Mount Vernon in the late spring of 1768. Washington often purchased slaves at what we might term today estate sales, and William, or Billy as he was more often called, was bought from Mary Smith Ball Lee, the widow of Colonel John Lee of Westmoreland County, Virginia, for 61 pounds, 15 shillings.[1] Since he appears on Washington’s list of titheables in June of that same year, Billy had to have been at least 16 years old at the time, indicating a birth date of 1752 or earlier.[2] Washington also spent £50 to purchase his younger brother, Frank Lee, at the same time. The two young men would be together for the rest of their lives. Although the identity of their father is unknown, the fact that they were described as being “mulatto” or of mixed race, suggests that their father was white, while their use of the last name “Lee” is perhaps a clue to his identity.[3]

"Washington as Farmer at Mount Vernon", 1851, part of a series on George Washington by Junius Brutus Stearns. Located at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
“Washington as Farmer at Mount Vernon”, 1851, part of a series on George Washington by Junius Brutus Stearns. Located at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Oney Judge, on the other hand, was a Custis dower slave. A generation younger than Billy Lee, she first appears in a slave list drawn up by George Washington in 1786, which says that she was born about 1774, was the daughter of a seamstress named Betty, and had a little sister—six years younger—named Delphy.[4] From other records we know that her mother was of mixed race, that there were some half-siblings, and that her father was probably an indentured English craftsman named Andrew Judge who worked for George Washington as a tailor between 1772 and 1780 and continued to have financial dealings with him until 1784.[5] Knowing that he had two children with Betty, one hopes that Andrew continued to live in the Mount Vernon neighborhood after he left Washington’s employ because of his relationship with Betty and his little girls.

Of the slaves at Mount Vernon in 1799, approximately 20 or about 6% were described in various sources specifically as mulatto, as having “yellow” complexions, or being “light black.”[6] Mount Vernon was similar in this regard to Virginia as a whole, where, at about the time of the Revolution, roughly 5% of Virginia slaves were mulatto.[7] A significant number of the tradesmen and domestic workers among the Mount Vernon slaves were of mixed race. A visiting French prince recorded in 1797 that, “The general’s house servants are mulattoes, some of whom have kinky hair still but skins as light as ours.” The visitor took special note of “one small boy whose hair and skin were so much like our own that if I had not been told, I should never have suspected his ancestry. He is nevertheless a slave for the rest of his life.”[8]

Both William Lee and Oney Judge worked closely with the Washingtons as domestic servants. According to George Washington, Oney was about ten years old when she began working as “the particular attendant” for his wife. Mrs. Washington found her to to be “handy and useful to her being perfect Mistress of her needle.”[9] The basic duties of a chambermaid were spelled out in an 18th century manual for servants:

FIRST, take great care to know all your mistress’s method and time of doing her business; and be very punctual and acute in your attendance; every thing you know will be wanting for her dress or undress, take care to have in readiness: and be sure to have all her linen well air’d, and every thing set very clean and nice; and when dress’d or undress’d, fold up every thing very neat, and keep all your things in their proper places, that whatever is called for, you may know where to find it in a minute….[10]

The next few pages of the manual focus on care of expensive silk and woolen clothing worn the by the mistress, with an emphasis on spot removal (because they could not simply be put into a wash tub with boiling water); keeping the gold and silver lace embellishing shoes and clothes from tarnishing; and tips for washing linen garments worn closest to the body, as well as things like delicate lace, silk stockings and handkerchiefs. A lady’s maid was also required to be ready to help with cosmetic issues such as chapped hands, as well as making compounds to keep the skin smooth and fine, relieve sore feet and corns, and to make the hair thick and free of grey.[11]  At the end of a long day caring for the needs of Martha Washington, Oney would have helped her undress and get into her nightgown before helping her into bed. This would have been followed by more work getting those clothes into good shape, by doing some brushing and stain removal before putting them away.[12]

For many years, William Lee was George Washington’s valet or personal servant, a job which encompassed duties similar to Oney’s. According to the family, Washington shaved & dressed himself each morning. Billy was responsible for preparing and laying out his master’s clothes, and also combed his hair before pulling it back and tying it in a queue.[13] Billy’s job involved more strenuous activities as well, including serving as the huntsman when Washington was foxhunting.   As recalled by Martha Washington’s grandson:

Will, the huntsman, better known in Revolutionary lore as Billy, rode a horse called Chinkling, a surprising leaper, and made very much like its rider, low, but sturdy, and of great bone and muscle. Will had but one order, which was to keep with the hounds; and, mounted on Chinkling, a French horn at his back, throwing himself almost at length on the animal, with his spur in flank, this fearless horseman would rush, at full speed, through brake or tangled wood, in a style at which modern huntsmen would stand aghast….[14]

He also accompanied Washington when he was surveying, both locally and on the frontier.[15]

The primary reason we remember William Lee is because he accompanied Washington to the American Revolution in 1775 and, like Washington, except for two brief stops on the way to and from the siege at Yorktown in 1781, did not return home to Mount Vernon until Christmas Eve of 1783. In addition to his regular duties as a body servant, during the war Billy was entrusted with Washington’s “most precious papers.”[16] An army cook recalled many years later that Billy was with Washington in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the first winter of the war, when American soldiers from Virginia and New England got into a brawl. As the Virginians, dressed in hunting shirts, explored the Harvard campus, they were teased for their rustic appearance by the northern men, who then started pelting them with snowballs. The confrontation escalated from snowballs to an all-out fight. Suddenly, George Washington and Billy Lee rode up. Washington “leaped from his saddle, threw the reins of his bridle into the hands of his servant,” and proceeded to grab “two tall, brawny, athletic, savage-looking riflemen by the throat, keeping them at arm’s length, alternately shaking and talking to them.” The others slunk away as quickly as possible.[17] Others recalled seeing Washington and William Lee on the battlefield at Monmouth in the summer of 1778.[18] One military doctor described Billy riding behind Washington as the commanding general and a visiting delegation of Indians reviewed soldiers on parade at Middlebrook, New Jersey, in 1779.[19] They were always together.

French engraving, circa 1780, showing General Washington holding the Declaration of Independence. The black man with the horse, though not identified, may represent Lee.
French engraving, circa 1780, showing General Washington holding the Declaration of Independence. The black man with the horse, though not identified, may represent Lee.

Like many soldiers in the Revolution, Billy left a wife and child back home at Mount Vernon when he went off to war. In a letter to George Washington, dated December 30, 1775, his cousin Lund Washington, who was managing Mount Vernon, wrote, “…if it will give Will any pleasure he may be told his wife and child are both very well.”[20] Sadly, this appears to be the only surviving reference to Billy’s wife and child, whose names are now lost to history. Presumably they died or ran away during the Revolution, because there is no mention of anyone on the plantation being Billy’s son after the war and there is evidence that Billy took a second wife during the war. She was a free black woman from Philadelphia named Margaret Thomas (also known in the records as Peggy Lee), who had been part of Washington’s military household during the Revolution. Margaret was a seamstress and initially did sewing for servants who were part of the Commander’s household. She first appears in the records in February 1776. Later, she was paid for washing for the headquarters household from October 1776 until April 1779. She was paid in full for her services on November 10, 1783, a sum of £45.13.8.[21]

Much as he had been during the war, Billy was always near Washington once they returned to Mount Vernon. According to visitor Elkanah Watson, “His servant Billy, the faithful companion of his military career, was always at his side….”[22] Billy was well-enough known that people who came to Mount Vernon looked forward to meeting him. One visitor in 1785 recalled walking down to the stables, where he saw the horses “old “Nelson,” now twenty-two years of age, that carried the General almost always during the war. “Blueskin,” another fine old horse next to him, now and then had that honor. [Washington’s secretary] also showed me his old servant, that was reported to have been taken with a number of the General’s papers about him. They have heard the roaring of many a cannon in their time….”[23] Even after George and Martha Washington’s deaths, William Lee continued to receive visitors. During a visit to Mount Vernon in the spring of 1804 artist Charles Willson Peale, who had known the Washingtons well for thirty years, stopped by the slave quarters to see Billy, describing him as Washington’s “faithfull attendant through the war.”[24] The following year a British nobleman wrote of his time at Mount Vernon: “…There were about thirty Negroes belonging to the establishment at Mount Vernon, and an old mulatto servant who had served General Washington during the war in all his campaigns, and who inquired of me very earnestly after Lord Cornwallis….”[25]

Sadly, it was during a surveying trip after the war, as William was carrying the surveying chain, that he slipped on some stones and fell, breaking or dislocating a patella, or knee pan as it was described at the time. Washington had to borrow a sled to get him home, “as he could neither Walk, stand, or ride.”[26] Three years later while on an errand to the post office in Alexandria, Billy fell once more, this time landing on the other knee pan and breaking it.[27] The result was that “he was now a cripple & in an extraordinary manner—both of his knee pans was moved from their places—was some Inches higher up.”[28]

George Washington remained grateful to Billy for his loyalty for the rest of his life. In fact, he pretty much found it impossible to tell him no about anything. About seven months after their return home, Billy asked Washington to bring his wife, Margaret, to live at Mount Vernon. In a letter to a friend, asking his help in making travel arrangements for her, Washington admitted that, while he didn’t especially like Margaret, or as he expressed it, “never wished to see her more,” he could not refuse Billy’s request “(if it can be complied with on reasonable terms) as he has lived with me so long and followed my fortunes through the War with fidility.”[29] There is no evidence that Margaret ever arrived. She may have died or been too ill to travel, or, as a free woman, she simply may not have wanted to take up residence in the South at a time when states in the mid-Atlantic and New England were finding ways to do away with slavery.

At the beginning of the presidency, by this time crippled by his falls, Billy insisted on accompanying Washington to New York. The ride was very difficult, inflaming his already bad knees. Washington’s secretary, Tobias Lear, travelling from Mount Vernon to New York with Billy, wrote Washington’s agent, Clement Biddle, in Philadelphia on April 19th: “Will appears to be in too bad a state to travel at present; I shall therefore leave him—and will be much obliged to you if you will send him on to New York as soon as he can bear the journey without injury, which I expect will be in two or three days—I shall pay his expences….He dresses his knee himself and therefore will stand in no need of a Doctor unless it should grow worse.”[30] Unfortunately, things did get worse. Biddle wrote to Washington from Philadelphia eight days later:

I have frequently called to see Billy he continues too bad to remove—Doctor Smith was uneasy without some other experience’d Surgeon or Physician to look at his knee, and I called on Doctor Hutchinson. They are of opinion that the present Sore reaches to the joint and that it would be very improper to remove him at least for a week or two, by which time he probably may be fit to send on …but at present that he ought to be kept as still as possible….you may depend on my care of, and attention to him, and that he shall be sent on without delay when his Surgeons think it safe.[31]

About a week later, Lear wrote from New York to ask Biddle to try to send Billy home to Mount Vernon:

[The President] would thank you to propose it to Billy to return to Mount Vernon when he can be removed for he cannot possibly be of any service here, and perhaps will require a person to attend upon him constantly. if he should incline to return to Mt Vernon you will be so kind as to have him sent in the first vessel that sails for Alexa. after he can be removed with safety—but if he is still anxious to come on here the President would gratify him altho’ he will be troublesome. He has been an old & faithful Servt. This is enough for the Presidt to gratify him in every reasonable wish.[32]

By the last weeksof May Billy was on the mend, but was going to need a brace. Biddle wrote: “I shall have a Steel made this Day by directions of Dr Hutchinson to strengthen Billy’s Knee which will not only render his traveling more safe but Enable him in some measure to walk….”[33] It would be about another month before Lear could say that “Billy arrived here safe & well on wednesday Morning….”[34]Sadly, Will was unable to manage the pace in the presidential household and returned to Mount Vernon in the summer of 1790.[35]

Nine years later George Washington sat down in his study at Mount Vernon to draw up a new will and showed, once again, how grateful he was for the slave who had been his almost constant companion for years. After arranging for his remaining debts to be paid and leaving “the use, profit and benefit of my whole Estate…for the term of her natural life” to his widow, Washington provided for the manumission of those slaves who belonged to him following Mrs. Washington’s death. The only exception was in the case of Billy:

…And to my Mulatto man William (calling himself William Lee) I give immediate freedom; or if he should prefer it (on account of the accidents which have befallen him, and which have rendered him incapable of walking or of any active employment) to remain in the situation he now is, it shall be optional in him to do so: In either case however, I allow him an annuity of thirty dollars during his natural life…& this I give him as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.[36]

Following Washington’s death, Billy received his annuity from the executors of the General’s estate on a quarterly basis until his own death came in the late winter of 1810.[37]   In addition to payments from the estate, Billy is said to have “received considerable largesses from the numerous visitors to Mount Vernon.”[38] Those last years were also filled with a health problem of another kind: Billy developed a drinking problem, probably as a result of the constant pain in his knees. According to one source, Billy began to suffer from “delirium tremens.” A freed slave named West Ford is said to have “frequently relieved him on such occasions, by bleeding him.” Then at last, “one morning…Westford was sent for to bring Billy out of a fit. The blood would not flow. Billy was dead!”[39] There is a Mount Vernon tradition that he was laid to rest in the slave burial ground, just a short distance from George Washington’s tomb.[40]

Like Billy, Oney Judge accompanied the Washingtons to New York, but she also remained with them when they mvoed to Philadelphia with the new government at the end of 1790. There she seems to have spent a great deal of time with Martha Washington’s granddaughter Nelly and her friends, and to have accompanied Martha Washington on social calls.[41] Those years were, in many ways, something of an adventure for the handful of slaves from Mount Vernon who were in the capital cities. Much of this story is in the financial records of the Washington administration. We know, for example, that these slaves were given money to buy gifts to send home to their families, to attend an acrobatic performance, to go to the circus, and to attend plays. Considerable money was spent on their clothes and shoes and was often given to them to buy those items for themselves.[42]

It was shortly after their move to Philadelphia that the Washingtons realized there might be a problem with the status of the slaves with them in the city; George Washington showed that he, a man whose reputation was built on honesty, would lie to protect property rights.   On April 5, 1791, Attorney General Edmund Randolph called on Martha Washington to let her know that three of his own slaves had just told him they were going to take advantage of a Pennsylvania law which allowed them to claim their freedom after six months’ residence in that state.[43] When informed about this development, George Washington suggested, as a precaution against his and Mrs. Washington’s slaves attempting a similar exodus, that they be sent back to Mount Vernon. He was especially concerned because all but two of the slaves with the family in Philadelphia were dower slaves who belonged to the estate of Martha Washington’s first husband. Washington noted that “it behoves me to prevent the emancipation of them, otherwise I shall not only loose the use of them, but may have them to pay for,” in other words, he would have to reimburse the estate for their loss. The strategy he hit upon, which he said he wanted done “under pretext that may deceive both them and the Public,” was to send them home to Mount Vernon with the story that they were either accompanying Mrs. Washington, were needed to cook for her at home, or to give them the opportunity to visit their own families and friends. This would effectively prevent any who were old enough to claim their freedom from meeting the residency requirement after six months in the state.[44]

Two weeks after Randolph’s initial conversation with Martha Washington, Oney’s older brother Austin was sent home, as Mrs. Washington explained to her niece, for the purpose of seeing his “friends.” Mrs. Washington showed that she, too, was capable of deception when it came to dealings with slaves, because she went on to say that “his stay will be short indeed[.] I could but illy spare him at this time but to fulfill my promise to his wife.”[45] About a month later, secretary Lear informed the President that “Mrs Washington proposes going over to Jersey for a few days—she makes her visit to Mrs Dickinson….Mrs Washington takes the children with her & Christopher & Oney. I shall have the honor to attend her on horse back.”[46]

Tobias Lear later consulted with the Attorney General and fleshed out a more detailed plan to prevent any of the Mount Vernon slaves from being emancipated because by Pennsylvania law in the future, but it differed little from the initial strategy devised by the President and First Lady. Interestingly, Lear, a New Englander, was greatly troubled by both this plan and his part in it, and confided to Washington that “no consideration should induce me to take these steps to prolong the slavery of a human being, had I not the fullest confidence that they will at some future period be liberated, and the strongest conviction that their situation with you is far preferable to what they would probably obtain in a state of freedom.” His statement suggests that the two men had talked at length about slavery and Washington’s plans or ideas for the eventual emancipation of the enslaved population at Mount Vernon.[47]

Runaway Advertisement for Oney Judge, enslaved servant in George Washington's presidential household. The Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, May 24, 1796.
Runaway Advertisement for Oney Judge, enslaved servant in George Washington’s presidential household. The Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, May 24, 1796.

Five years later the Washingtons faced another crisis when Oney ran away. The first surviving evidence is a runaway ad in the local newspaper. Oney left the Philadelphia executive mansion on the afternoon of May 20, 1796, a Saturday. Shortly after her escape, Frederick Kitt, the hired steward, placed a notice in the newspaper in which he described the twenty-year old as “a light mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes and bushy black hair,” of medium height, “slender, and delicately formed.” Kitt noted that she had “many changes of good clothes” and warned ship masters that, trying to pass as a free woman, she might attempt to leave the city by water and would have the money for her passage. A reward was offered for her return.[48]

The Washingtons put out word to their acquaintances about the escape and began to get reports back. Thomas Lee, Jr., wrote to the President from New York City at the end of June that he had learned from “a free mulattoe Woman who is Cooke in a boarding house in this City,” that “she is well acquained with Oney & that she has been here” and was headed to Boston. Lee was not sure if this was the truth or if it was intended to send him off the track of the runaway, but he notified law enforcement authorities in New York to be on the lookout for her.[49] It is not known if Oney went to Boston, but by September she had been seen in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.[50]

Martha Washington seems to have been terribly upset by the loss of Oney, and her husband made several attempts over the next three years to recover the young woman. Washington’s efforts to contact her were successful and, at one point, she seems to have been willing to return to Mount Vernon. Negotiations broke down, however, when she made a suggestion which Washington found completely unacceptable. Oney sent word that she would come back and “serve with fidelity during the lives of the President & his Lady if she could be freed on their decease, should she outlive them; but that she should rather suffer death than return to Slavery & liable to be sold or given to any other persons.”[51] Washington responded:

To enter into such a compromise with her, as she suggested to you, is totally inadmissable, for reasons that must strike at first view: for however well disposed I might be to a gradual abolition, or even to an entire emancipation of that description of People (if the latter was in itself practicable at this moment) it would neither be politic or just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference; and thereby discontent before hand the minds of all her fellow-servants who by their steady attachments are far more deserving than herself of favor.[52]

Several years later one of Martha Washington’s nephews, Burwell Bassett, was enlisted to help bring Oney back to Mount Vernon. By that time Washington was willing to promise that if she gave him no further trouble about coming home and behaved well, she would “escape punishment for the past, & be treated according to her merits” in the future. He felt that to promise anything more would be “[an im]politic & dangerous precedent.”[53] Oney had by then, however, married a black sailor named John Staines, with whom she had a child; had made friends in a local church, where she learned to read; and acquired some powerful allies. When Bassett came to Portsmouth to get her, the state’s governor warned her and she went into hiding until Bassett returned to Virginia.[54]

Oney’s is the only case in which an escaped Washington slave got to tell her story.[55] As a very old woman, she was interviewed at least twice in the mid-1840s and expressed considerable bitterness toward the Washingtons. There was no problem with the way she was treated, but she simply wanted to be free; or, as expressed by one interviewer, “although well enough used as to work and living, she did not want to be a slave always.” According to Oney, she escaped when she did because Washington was planning to move back to Mount Vernon upon his retirement from the presidency and she believed that “if she went back to Virginia, she would never have a chance to escape.” This explanation is quite logical, but another factor may have played a part in her timing. One interviewer recorded that Martha Washington made a verbal gift of the young slave to her eldest granddaughter, Eliza Parke Custis Law, who had married just months before Oney escaped. Another wrote that Oney “understood that after the decease of her master and mistress, she was to become the property of a grand-daughter of theirs, by the name of Custis, and that she was determined never to be her slave.” The information about the promised gift is noted nowhere in the Washington/Custis family correspondence. Whether the thought of working for a young woman with whom she had grown up was too much for her, or there were personality conflicts between Oney and Eliza or her new husband, or simply the fact that the couple lived in the new Federal City (Washington, D.C.), which was in the South, the fact that she would be given to Eliza seems to have been the impetus for her escape. Many years later, when questioned about the hardships she had faced as a free woman and whether, as a result, she regretted leaving the Washingtons, Oney, then poor and alone, having outlived both her husband and all three of their children, emphatically replied, “No, I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by [that] means.” She died on February 25, 1848, in Greenland, New Hampshire.[56]

William Lee and Oney Judge lived fascinating lives which are much better documented than those of most 18th century Virginia slaves. They are known to us due to their association with George Washington. The other thing that sets them apart from other enslaved people at this period is that both ended their lives as free people. To a large extent, it was actions they each took that resulted in their freedom. Billy Lee showed incredible loyalty to George Washington through eight years of war, years when Billy could easily have defected to the British who promised freedom to slaves who came over to their side. Imagine how much he knew enough about the American army and how damaging that information could be if given to the enemy. George Washington never forgot that loyalty. These were also the years when Washington came to believe that slavery was wrong and decided that he no longer wanted to be a slaveowner. One has to wonder how much the close relationship between Washington and this particular slave had to do with that decision, which eventually led to the freedom of all the slaves that George Washington owned himself.

Oney’s life illustrates several other important points. Here was someone who was privileged in that her work was fairly light, gave her a small degree of prestige, and gave her the opportunity to see some of the most important people of her day. She admitted that she was well cared for. In addition, she was given special advantages, and was the object of affectionate feelings by the Washingtons. None of this was enough. She was willing to give up the emotional support of family and friends and a relatively comfortable life to risk physical punishment and possible demotion if caught, and considerable insecurity if she was not. Freedom was more important than all of that.

She probably did not know that, during the presidency, George Washington was actively taking steps to ensure that the Custis dower slaves could also be freed. Unfortunately, the logistics of emancipating the dower slaves proved too difficult to overcome. Had Oney come back to Mount Vernon, Washington would not have been able to free her. In taking a path different from William Lee, Oney, too, gained her freedom.

[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: John Trumbull’s portrait of George Washington and William “Billy” Lee. Original in Metropolitan Museum of Art.]


[1] George Washington, “Cash Accounts,” May 3, 1768, The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 10 volumes, edited by W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983-1995), 8:82 & 83n; Worthington C. Ford, Washington as an Employer and Importer of Labor (Brooklyn, NY: Privately printed, 1889), 8-9.

[2] George Washington, Memorandum: List of Tithables and Taxable Property, [circa 6/20/1768], The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 8:104 & 104n. The Colonel John Lee, from whose estate Billy was purchased, was the eldest son of Henry Lee and Mary Bland. “Colonel John Lee,” in Lee of Virginia, 1642-1892: Biographical and Genealogical Sketches of The Descendants of Colonel Richard Lee, edited by Edmund Jennings Lee (originally published, Philadelphia, PA: 1895; reprinted, Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1983), 285-287.

[3] For references to William Lee as mulatto, see George Washington to William Pearce, May 18, 1794, The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 17 volumes to date, edited by W. W. Abbot, Dorothy Twohig, Philander D. Chase, Theodore J. Crackel, and Edward G. Lengel (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987-present), 16:89-90, 91n6; James Thacher, Military Journal of the American Revolution, From the commencement to the disbanding of the American Army; Comprising a detailed account of the principal events and Battles of the Revolution, With Their Exact Dates, And a Biographical Sketch of the most Prominent Generals (Hartford, CT: Hurlbut, Williams & Company, American Subscription Publishing House, 1862), 163; The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 2:114n-115n; and Sir Augustus John Foster, Jeffersonian America: Notes on the United States of America Collected in the Years 1805-6-7 and 11-12 by Sir Augustus John Foster, Bart., edited by Richard Beale Davis (California: The Huntington Library, 1954), 116-117 (typescript in FWS Library, Mount Vernon, Virginia, Black Research Notebook on “The Tomb”]. For documentation that Frank Lee was mulatto, see George Washington to William Pearce, October 27, 1793, in The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 14:293.

[4] 1786 Slave List, in The Diaries of George Washington, 6 volumes, edited by Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976-1979), 4:278.

[5] See The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 9:132, 134n, 238, 239n; 10:137; Lund Washington to George Washington, October 15, 1775 & October 22, 1775, The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 22 volumes to date, edited by W W. Abbot, Dorothy Twohig, Philander D. Chase, Theodore J. Crackel, and Edward G. Lengel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1985-present), 2:174 & 175n, 219; see also entries dated January 17, 1784 and March 27, 1784, in George Washington Cash Memoranda, Sept. 1783-Nov. 1784 [bound photostat, FWS Library, Mount Vernon, Virginia], 99 [4] and 103 [6].

[6] At the end of Washington’s life, the Mount Vernon slaves who were probably mulatto were: Frank and Billy Lee, Betty and Tom Davis, Delphy Judge, Christopher Sheels, Marcus, and blacksmith George Young (all at the Mansion House Farm); Forrester [Gray] (at the Mill/Distillery complex); Tomison [later Gray], Sarah, Bartley Clark, and Matilda Clark (at Dogue Run Farm); Lucy (a rented slave at Union Farm); Dennis and Polly (at River Farm); and Alce, Letty, Billy, and Davy Gray (at Muddy Hole Farm). Sources indicating that these individuals were mulatto include family letters and free black registers from the 19th century.

[7] Philip D. Morgan and Michael L. Nicholls, “Slave Flight: Mount Vernon, Virginia, and the Wider Atlantic World,” in George Washington’s South, edited by Tamara Harvey and Greg O’Brien, 197-222 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004), 212.

[8] Louis-Philippe, Diary of My Travels in America, translated by Stephen Becker (New York: Delacorte Press, 1977), 32-35.

[9] George Washington to [Oliver Wolcott,] The Secretary of the Treasury, September 1, [1796], The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, 39 volumes, edited by John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1931-1944), 35:201-202, 201n.

[10] H. Glass, The Servants Directory, Improved; or, House-Keepers Companion, facsimile (Orignially published, Dublin, Ireland: Printed by J. Potts, 1762), 1.

[11] Ibid., 2-10.

[12] For a description of Martha Washington’s bedtime routine during the presidency, see Elizabeth Bordley Gibson, no date given, as quoted in Elswyth Thane, Mount Vernon Family: A Chronicle of the Young People Who Looked to Our First President for Love, Guidance, and Support (New York: Crowell-Collier Press, 1968), 74.

[13] George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, by His Adopted Son, George Washington Parke Custis, with a Memoir of the Author, by His Daughter; and Illustrative and Explanatory Notes, by Benson J. Lossing (Originally published, New York: Derby & Jackson, 1860; reprinted, American Foundation Publications, 1999), 163.

[14] Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs, 387.

[15] George Washington, October 20, 1770, The Diaries of George Washington, 2:294.

[16] Benson J. Lossing, Hours With the Living Men and Women of the Revolution: A Pilgrimage (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1889), 123n.

[17] John C. Dann, editor, The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence (Chicago, Illinois, and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), 408-409.

[18] Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs, 224.

[19] Thacher, Military Journal of the American Revolution, 163.

[20] Lund Washington to George Washington, December 30, 1775 [typescript, FWS Library, Mount Vernon, Virginia].

[21] George Washington’s Accounts of Expences While Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, 1775-1783, Reproduced in Facsimile, with Annotations by John C. Fitzpatrick (Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company and The Riverside Press, 1917), 23, 35-36, 53, 126.

[22] Elkanah Watson, January 1785, in Jean B. Lee, editor, Experiencing Mount Vernon: Eyewitness Accounts, 1784-1865 (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 23.

[23] Robert Hunter, Jr., 1785, in Lee, Experiencing Mount Vernon, 32.

[24]Lillian B. Miller, editor, The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, Volume II, Part II (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 696.

[25] Foster, Jeffersonian America, 116-117 (typescript in MVLA Library, Black Research Notebook on “The Tomb”).

[26] George Washington, April 22, 1785, The Diaries of George Washington, 4:125; Charles Willson Peale, 1804, in Miller, The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, Volume II, Part II, 696.

[27] George Washington, March 1, 1788, The Diaries of George Washington, 5:281.

[28] Charles Willson Peale, 1804, in Miller, editor, The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, Volume II, Part II, 696.

[29]George Washington to Clement Biddle, July 28, 1784, The Writings of George Washington, 27:451.

[30] Tobias Lear to Clement Biddle, April 19, 1789, The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 2:133n-134n.

[31] Clement Biddle to George Washington, April 27, 1789, The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 2:133.

[32] Tobias Lear to Clement Biddle, May 3, 1789, The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 2:134n.

[33] Clement Biddle to Tobias Lear, May 25, 1789, The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 2:134n.

[34] Tobias Lear to Clement Biddle, June 22, 1789, The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 2:134n.

[35] George Augustine Washington to George Washington, August 20, 1790, The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 6:311.

[36] George Washington, The Last Will and Testament of George Washington and Schedule of his Property, to which is appended the Last Will and Testament of Martha Washington, Fourth Edition, edited by Dr. John C. Fitzpatrick (Mount Vernon, Virginia: The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Assocation of the Union, 1972), 4.

[37] Eugene E. Prussing, The Estate of George Washington, Deceased (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company, 1927), 159.

[38] Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, 157.

[39] Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, 157n.

[40]See Slave Burial Ground brochure, 1983 [FWS Library, Mount Vernon, Virginia]..

[41] George Washingtno to the Secretary of the Treasury, September 1, [1796], The Writings of George Washington, 35:201-202.

[42] Stephen Decatur, Jr., Private Affairs of George Washington: From the Records and Accounts of Tobias Lear, Esquire, his Secretary (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1933), 201-202, 233; see also entries for April 1, 1793, and June 24, 1793, in “Washington’s Household Account Book, 1793-1797,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (29, no. 4 (1905): 385-406; 30 (1906), nos. 1-4: 30-56, 159-186, 309-331,459-478 ; and 31 (1907), nos. 1-3: 53-82, 176-194, 320-350), 29:391 & 405. For purchases of clothing and shoes, see entries for September 6, 1793; December 26, 1793;April 22, 1794; June 13, 1794; August 23, 1794; January 12, 1795; March 27, 1795; May 20, 1795; July 14, 1795; July 15, 1795; December 9, 1795; and May 10, 1796, in “Washington’s Household Account Book, 1793-1797,” 30:45, 54, 176, 184, 316, 461, 471, and 477; 31:59, 60, 70, and 182.

[43] Tobias Lear to George Washington, April 5, 1791, The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 8:67.

[44] George Washington to Tobias Lear, April 12, 1791, The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 8:85-86.

[45] Martha Washington to Fanny Bassett Washington, April 19, 1791,”Worthy Partner”: The Papers of Martha Washington,compiled by Joseph E. Fields (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), 230.

[46] Tobias Lear to George Washington, May 15, 1791, The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 8:189.

[47] Tobias Lear to George Washington, April 24, 1791, The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 8:131-132. While this was probably the worst case of duplicity towards a slave or group of slaves, it was not the only such incident to show up in the surviving Washington papers. For another example, see George Washington to James McHenry, [November 11,]1786], The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, 6 volumes, edited by W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992-1997), 4:358-359, 359n.

[48] Frederick Kitt, “Advertisement,” May 23, [1796], in the Pennsylvania Gazette and Universal Daily Advertiser, May 24, 1796. The information about the exact date and time of the escape is taken from Frederick Kitt, “Ten Dollars Reward,” May 24 [1796], in Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser, 24 & 25, 1796. My colleague, Coxey Toogood, the historian for Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, deserves thanks (and a lovely bouquet) for transcribing and sharing, these articles with Mount Vernon, as does historian Peter Hinks from the American History Workshop, who found it the old-fashioned way—by slogging through the microfilm. For examples of the fact that Oney had many clothes, see references in Decatur, Private Affairs, 32, 48, 314.

[49] Thomas Lee, Jr., to George Washington, June 28, 1796 (typescript, FWS Library, Mount Vernon, Virginia). I would like to thank Coxey Toogood at Independence Hall, for her great kindness in sharing this source with us, as well.

[50] George Washington to the Secretary of the Treasury, September 1, 1796, and George Washington to Joseph Whipple, November 28, 1796, The Writings of George Washington, 35:201-202, 297.

[51] Joseph Whipple to Oliver Wolcott, October 4, 1796, as quoted in “Ona Maria Judge,” on the website of the Weeks Public Library in Greenland, New Hampshire, at http://www.weekslibrary.org/ona_maria_judge.htm (accessed October 28, 2009).

[52] George Washington to Joseph Whipple, November 28, 1796, The Writings of George Washington, 35:297.

[53] George Washington to Burwell Bassett, August 11, 1799, The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, 4 volumes, edited by W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998-1999), 4:237.

[54] Benjamin Chase, “Mrs. [?] Staines,” in Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies, edited by John W. Blassingame (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977), 249; The Reverrend T. H. Adams, “Washington’s Runaway Slave, and How Portsmouth Freed Her,” Frank W. Miller’s Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Weekly, June 2, 1877 (reprinted from the Granite Freemason, May 1845).

[55] Even more importantly, according to historians Philip D. Morgan and Michael L. Nicholls, “Oney Judge is the only eighteenth-century Virginia runaway slave who has left her own account of her actions” (see Morgan and Nicolls, “Slave Flight,” 202).

[56] Chase, “Mrs. [?] Staines,” 249-250; Adams, “Washington’s Runaway Slave, and How Portsmouth Freed Her.” An excerpt from the latter interview can be found in “Ona Maria Judge” on the website of the Weeks Public Library, Greenland, New Hampshire(accessed October 28, 2009). For the fact that promises or gifts of particular female domestic slaves were often made to young brides at this period, and examples from the Jefferson family, see Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008), 422-424. Oney’s death date is found in an article in the Pennsylvania Freeman, May 11, 1848 (my thanks again to Coxey Toogood for sending a scan of the article to me as an attachment to an email on October 28, 2009


  • Thank you for a fascinating and well-researched article, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s a great contribution to this Journal. I’ve always been interested in Billy Lee’s war service to Washington and hope, one day, a journal of his may be found. In many ways, a debt of gratitude will always be owed to this gentleman who stood alongside Washington and suffered all the same dangers and hardships. Oney Judge is an equally inspiring story that portrays a woman who treasured liberty above all else. I intend to read more about both.

  • This is a wonderful, informative article, packed with fascinating details about Washington and his relationship to his slaves and the lives of the slaves themselves. Thank you!

  • Excellent article. One of the best ever. Exploring a topic that is not well known with great new information

  • Excellent stuff. I’ve always been a fan of Billy Lee. For a full length read on the subject, a fantastic collection of analysed sources on the General and slaves is Fritz Hirshfield’s “George Washington and Slavery: A Documentary Portrayal.”

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