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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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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 807 words.)

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