Never Caught

by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

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Never Caught Characters

The main characters in Never Caught are Ona Judge, George Washington, and Martha Washington.

  • Ona Judge began life as the Washingtons’ slave. At age twenty-two she escaped to New Hampshire, where she worked as a seamstress, had three children, and remained free for the rest of her life.
  • George Washington was the first president of the United States and a slaveholder. After Ona Judge escaped, he used his considerable power and connections to try to have her returned.
  • Martha Washington was George Washington’s wife. Ona Judge attended her personally, and Martha struggled to understand why Ona would have fled the Washington household.

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Ona Judge

Ona is the main character in Dunbar’s book, and the story centers on her life in (and eventual escape from) slavery under George Washington and his family.

When Ona was born, her mother was one of Martha Washington’s slaves, which means that Ona was, too. As Ona grew older, she took on her mother’s skill at sewing and was eventually made Martha Washington’s primary attending slave. The Washingtons moved their slaves out of Philadelphia at least once every six months to prevent them from earning their freedom, but living in the city allowed Ona to encounter free Black citizens and abolitionists.

After finding out that she was to be given to Martha’s granddaughter and her new husband, Ona decided to leave. This act took considerable bravery and planning on her part, especially because the Washingtons (who possessed unfettered power, connections, and resources) were determined to retrive her. Ona had to trust her friends and allies not to give her up, and though few of the details of her story are known, it is clear that avoiding capture required Ona to be clever and strategic. She also had to give up contact with her family in order to remain free. Ona eventually became a symbol of hope and freedom to those who remained in slavery.

George Washington

George Washington was a military general in the Revolutionary War and the first president of the United States of America. After he became president, he had to move from Mount Vernon, where he held a plantation, to Philadelphia. Because of Pennsylvania’s law that people could only be kept enslaved for six months before they were freed, George Washington moved those he enslaved back to the South when their time in slavery was about to expire. He then brought them back to Philadelphia in order to keep them under his control. Ona Judge was one of those he enslaved.

After Ona escaped, George was relentless in his pursuit; he spent years and many resources in his attempts to recapture her. Given the heroic image Americans are often provided—of Geroge Washington as a visionary president, general, and patriot—it may surprise readers to see this side of him. Dunbar avoids speculation in her work, so many of his motives remain uncertain, but his dogged search for Ona shows a new facet of his character: one that focuses on his role not just as a president and military leader but also as a man who enslaved hundreds of people.

Martha Washington

Martha Washington is described as being intelligent, but Dunbar writes that she was a very different person in public than she was when alone with Ona. Martha’s first husband and several of her children had died, and the responsibilities of being the president’s wife took a toll on her. In private, she behaved inconsistently, seeming at some times relaxed and at others high-strung and easily angered. Ona learned to cope with this by keeping a cool head around Martha no matter what.

Ona’s escape had a negative impact on Martha, particularly due to the fact that it was publicized, which Martha found embarrassing. Martha seemed to truly believe that she had treated Ona well—as a part of the family, even. She also struggled with the notion that Ona was ungrateful for what the Washingtons had provided her. This belief, while extremely misguided, is representative of the prevalent attitude toward enslaved people at the time the Washingtons and Ona lived.

John Bowles

John Bowles is introduced as the captain of the ship Nancy . He wasn’t well-known or specifically associated with the abolitionist movement, but he...

(This entire section contains 822 words.)

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allowed passengers on his ship while he transported goods like saddles, molasses, and potatoes between New Hampshire and Philadelphia. One of these passengers was Ona Judge. Dunbar speculates that Bowles was aware of her status as a slave, as it was rare for a free woman to travel without being accompanied by someone. He may have allowed Ona on board out of sympathy, or he may have been told beforehand by some of her friends that she would be coming. Regardless of what Bowles knew, he was the reason Ona Judge was able to travel from Philadelphia to New Hampshire without being captured.

Thomas Law

Thomas Law married Eliza Washington, Martha Washington’s granddaughter. Martha believed that Eliza was unprepared for marriage, and to help her, she gave Ona Judge to Eliza and Thomas Law. Thomas had a bad reputation; for one, he had a short engagement with Eliza, which was unusual during the time period. For Ona, the most concerning factor was that Thomas Law had biracial children. To her, this suggested that he slept with enslaved women without their consent—and since she was now his slave, she was afraid that she would be next. Dunbar presents Thomas Law as a major reason that Ona decided to escape.