Never Caught

by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

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Never Caught Summary

Never Caught is a nonfiction book about the life of Ona Judge, a woman who was enslaved by George and Martha Washington and escaped.

  • In 1773, Ona Judge was born into slavery at Mount Vernon. When George Washington was elected president, she moved with the Washingtons to Philadelphia.
  • Six years later, when Ona was twenty-two, Martha Washington decided to give Ona to her granddaughter Eliza and Eliza’s new husband.
  • Ona decided to flee and escaped by boat to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Despite George Washington’s relentless efforts to capture her, Ona remained free for the rest of her life.

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.


Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge is a 2017 historical biography written by American author, historian, and lecturer Erica Armstrong Dunbar. It tells the enthralling story of Ona Judge, later Ona Staines, a strong, courageous, and determined young woman who risked it all to be free. A slave in the household of America's First Family, Ona successfully managed to escape a life in bondage, and George Washington—the Revolutionary War hero, founding father, and first US president who preached for freedom—decided to use all of his political power, influence, and authority to hunt her down and bring her back.

The book presents a detailed and thoroughly researched account of Ona's life, including the circumstances of her birth and how her death affected her family and the people who knew her. Dunbar also explains how both individual states and the nation as a whole conceived of slavery in the time period. On its publication, the biography was well-received; however, some readers argue that the parts of the book that showcase how Ona felt during her enslavement and escape are largely based on assumptions and generalizations.

Plot Summary

In 1773, Oney Maria Judge—known as Ona—was born into slavery on the Mount Vernon plantation as the property of Martha and George Washington. Together with her mother, Betty, Ona became Martha's personal maid and favorite servant, as well as her best seamstress. In 1789, George Washington was elected first president of the United States, and the Washingtons, along with their slaves and servants, moved to Philadelphia (as Washington, DC, was still under construction to become the nation's new capital). At the time, Pennsylvania required that all slaves be freed and emancipated after six months of service, but the Washingtons avoided this law by sending their slaves back to Mount Vernon every six months—thus keeping them enslaved.

Ona lived a relatively comfortable life in Philadelphia. She stayed there with the Washingtons for six years and enjoyed certain privileges and freedoms that the vast majority of slaves did not have access to, such as well-made clothing, adequate meals and care, and dispensation to attend certain cultural events. During this time, Ona also began to learn more about the abolitionist movement.

When Martha decided to give Ona as a wedding gift to her granddaughter Eliza and her somewhat aggressive husband, Ona was determined to take control of both her life and her fate. Thus, on the evening of May 21, 1796, while the Washingtons peacefully ate their supper, the twenty-two-year-old Ona escaped from their mansion. With the help of a group of abolitionists, Ona got on the next ship to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and began her life as a free woman.

Ona had a difficult time staying anonymous, as many people knew her face. The Washingtons—who seemed to believe that they had treated Ona as "part of the family," despite her enslavement—failed to grasp why Ona would want to leave them and believed that she had been "tricked" by abolitionists into escaping. George did everything in his political power to find Ona and bring her back: he hired bounty hunters, asked favors from his friends and colleagues, and even tried to track her down himself. However, he knew that if he were to go to court to claim Ona as a fugitive, he would have had to present himself as a slave owner, which would negatively impact his reputation. Thus, he asked a federal worker from Portsmouth to locate and retrieve Ona. The man published an ad for a housekeeper in a local newspaper, and Ona applied. During her interview, however,...

(This entire section contains 809 words.)

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she realized that the position was a trap and managed to escape the Washingtons yet again.

During her time as a fugitive, Ona married a sailor, and soon after, she gave birth to a daughter. When George's presidency ended in 1797, he decided to send one of his men to Ona's home to retrieve what he still conceived as "his property." Ona, whose husband was away at sea at the time, managed to convince the man to come back later—and when he did, he found an empty house.

In 1799, George passed away; he was followed soon after by his wife, Martha. Though Ona was still technically considered property of the Washington family and estate, she lived the rest of her life as a free woman. Ona became a symbol of the abolitionist movement and shared her life story with a newspaper; thus, her story was able to bring hope to all those who dreamed of freedom.

Dunbar ends the biography by explaining what happened to Ona's younger sister, Delphy. After Ona escaped, Martha decided to give Delphy to her granddaughter Eliza in Ona's stead. Eventually, Delphy managed to gain freedom as well, and she went on to become a leader of the Black community in Washington, DC.


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