by Burt Froom
At the “Germantown White House,” when President George Washington and his family stayed during July 30 – September 20, 1794 at the home of Colonel Isaac Franks (now the Deshler-Morris House), there were perhaps twenty-three servants assisting the family while they retreated from Philadelphia during the yellow fever epidemic. In this Yesterday and Today column article, let us learn about the people who inhabited this presidential abode and its several levels of: family, guests, employees, indentured servants and slaves.
At the apex of this aristocracy, of course, was George Washington and his wife, Martha Custis Washington, and their grandchildren, Eleanor Parke Custis (“Nellie,” age fifteen in 1794) and George Washington Parke Custis (“Wash” or “Tub,” age thirteen). The household and its servants functioned for the benefit of these four people and their guests.
The Independence National Historical Park has provided me with the following information about the Washington family’s leisure activities: Nellie enjoyed the music of Mozart, Hayden, Beethoven and Handel, played on the harpsichord. She played the guitar, and sang. She liked sewing, reading books and magazines, and she had a pet parrot and a dog. Wash liked to fish, and purchased a rod and pole. He liked his riding equipment, his pen knives, and his Latin exercise and Greek grammar books. The family had newspaper subscriptions to “Brown’s Gazette,” Dunlap & Claypoole’s “American Daily Advertiser,” the “Pennsylvania Gazette,” “Bache’s Aurora,” and “Fenno’s Gazette of the United States.” Wash attended the Germantown Academy for this time, and he was considered a “poor student.” George Washington visited the headmaster and Wash invited his school friends to the Deshler house to meet the President!
The Independence National Historical Park listed for me these persons and their jobs,
In the first category are those who were WHITE, FREE and PAID WAGES:
Bartholomew Dandridge was secretary to the President and he was the nephew of Martha Washington. “Bart” was about twenty-two in 1794. He had little formal education, but he was a quick learner and energetic. He seems to have had a bad shoulder, poor health and low spirits.
James Germaine was the steward. Washington gave him an excellent job description in 1794. Anne Emerson was a housekeeper. Pat Kennedy was a waiter, but Washington said he was a poor waiter. Patty Channing was a house maid. Mary Baily was likely a house or kitchenmaid, or a washerwoman. John was likely a house man. James Andre was maybe a door man. Fanny was possibly a washerwoman. Jacob was a coachman, and maybe took care of horses. Graceer was a new coachman. Louis was a new coachman. Louis List was a stable hand.
A second category was INDENTURED SERVICE:
Indentured servitude was a labor system whereby young people paid their transportation to the New World by working for an employer upon their arrival for an agreed upon number of years. It was widely practiced in the eighteenth century as a way for poor youth in Britain and the German states to start a new life in America as free people. The employer purchased the indenture from the sea captain and the youth would work as farmers or craftsmen. Between one-half and two-thirds of the white immigrants to American colonies in the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries were indentured – especially from Virginia north to New Jersey.
Martin Cline was an indentured stable hand. The President sent him to the work house for six days for being frequently drunk and misbehaving in Germantown. Wilhelmina Tyser is believed to have lived in Germantown. She was sentenced to serve thirty days hard labor for disorderly conduct. John Henry Waskan and Margaret Held were two Dutch indentured servants in 1794.
Category three is ENSLAVED AFRICAN-AMERICANS:
Austin was a dower slave and a house servant. A dower slave was an enslaved African-American who came to an estate as part of the wife’s wedding dowry. A slave was a white person’s property. He did not belong to himself, but was possessed by his owner or the estate of a deceased slave owner, and he lived under the control of the descendants. Dower slaves could not be manumitted. So Washington’s dower slaves were actually owned by Martha Washington.
(Manumission refers to the formal act of freeing an enslaved person.)
In 1794, Austin was thirty-five or thirty-six. He was mulatto and was married. Little is known about him. It is conjectured that his wife was Charlotte, a seamstress and dower slave who bore five children in the 1780s. Austin was a member of the house staff and wore livery after 1776. By the 1780s, Austin gave the President service on horseback. (“Service on horseback” meant the carrying of confidential messages over long distances– a position of supreme trust for an enslaved person to hold.) In Philadelphia, he was favored with theater tickets along with Hercules and Oney. In December 1794, Austin was drowned while crossing a river on a solo ride home, at about age thirty-five. Molly was a dower slave and a maid to Martha and the grandchildren. She was an older person, and loyal.
Ona or Oney Judge was a maid to Martha and a proficient seamstress. She was born about 1774 at Mount Vernon, and she was perhaps twenty-two in 1796, when she escaped to freedom. She was a mulatto, a daughter of Betty, who was a dower slave. In later life, she was described by an interviewer, the Reverend Benjamin Chase, as “nearly white, much freckled.” Her father was Andrew Judge, an indentured Englishman and a tailor, who moved to Alexandria, Virginia. At about age ten, Ona began to work in the house, where she learned sewing and helping to care for the grandchildren. She was called Oney by George Washington, but that was her slave name. In New Hampshire State documents, she is called Ona.
After her escape, Washington, speaking to Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott in 1786, described Ona as “simple and inoffensive,” and he blamed her departure on a rogue slave. Much is known now about Ona Judge’s life in comparison to Washington’s other slaves because of newspaper interviews she gave in 1845 and 1847. Growing up at Mount Vernon, Judge later said, she was not exposed to any religion. At the mansion, she was a personal favorite of Martha Washington, and she was one of a handful of slaves George and Martha brought with them to Pennsylvania in 1790 at the start of the presidency. However, Ona was never kept in Pennsylvania for more than six months at a time, because Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition of Slavery Act of 1780 allowed slaves freedom if they were Pennsylvania residents for more than six consecutive months. Washington used the law’s particulars to ensure the perpetual enslavement of his slaves.
Sarah Pierson, of George Washington University, tells us that Judge’s escape from the President’s Mansion in Philadelphia was most likely inspired and facilitated by her exposure to free blacks in that city, with its fervent abolitionist spirit. On May 21, 1796, Judge simply walked out of the house while the family was eating dinner. Her motivation was complete freedom from slavery. Judge had learned that she would be given to Elizabeth Parke Custis, Martha’s great granddaughter, upon Martha’s death (which occurred May 21, 1802).
The promise of continued enslavement after the Washingtons’ deaths stiffened Judge’s resolve to risk her relatively comfortable position with the family. She boarded a ship to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In her first newspaper interview, printed in “The Granite Freeman” of Concord, New Hampshire, on May 22, 1845, Judge was asked if she regretted her escape. She replied, “No, I am free and have, I trust, been made a child of God…”
Judge spent the remainder of her life in New Hampshire, a fugitive but free, because Washington’s will manumitted her. She took pride in teaching herself how to read and write, which helped introduce her to Christianity. Ona Judge married a free black sailor, John Staines, with whom she had three children, two of whom died during her lifetime. They had only seven years together before his death in 1803. She died in 1848 at age seventy-five, in Greenland, New Hampshire.
Hercules was George Washington’s slave cook. He was born about 1755, and was perhaps the child of one of Washington’s slaves. He took Alice (called “Lame Alice”), one of Martha Washington’s dower slaves, as his wife, and they had three children: Richmond (born 1777), Evey (born 1782), and Delia (born 1785). Alice died in 1787. Hercules is said to have remarried and sired another daughter. Washington’s step-grandson, G.W. P. Custis, recalled Hercules as “a dark-brown man, little, if any, above the usual size, yet possessed of such great muscular power as to entitle him to be compared with his namesake of fabulous history.” Custis also noted that the steward and the entire household treated the chief cook with such respect, as well for his valuable services as for his general good character and pleasing manners.”
Though homely in person, Hercules often took walks wearing linen of unexceptionable whiteness and quality, “black silk shorts, ditto waistcoat, ditto stockings, shoes highly polished, with large buckles covering a considerable part of the foot, blue cloth coat with velvet collar and bright metal buttons, a long watch-chain dangling from his fob, a cocked-hat, and gold-headed cane.” Custis labeled Hercules’ a “celebrated dandy.” (Custis’ Recollection, 422, 423) He was given special privileges and earned personal income by selling the leftovers from the presidential kitchen.
Richmond was caught stealing money at Mount Vernon in November of 1796, and Washington came to believe that Hercules plotted with his son Richmond to escape slavery from Mount Vernon. According to Stephan Decatur, Jr., Hercules and his son Richmond escaped from Mount Vernon when Washington returned to it in early 1797. Washington was angered and confused by this decision to run away. He believed that Hercules had lived a privileged life, and Hercules was even given three bottles of rum by Martha in 1787, to “bury his wife.”
Washington’s secretary, Tobias Lear, described Hercules as being so enamored by Philadelphia, that he abandoned Washington. The president demanded that Lear find Hercules as soon as possible to resume his cooking. In 1798, the former President’s house steward informed Washington that the fugitive was living in Philadelphia, but Hercules was never apprehended. The conventional story, then, was that Hercules ran away, rather than return to Mount Vernon.
In 2009, Mary Thompson, a research specialist at Mount Vernon, discovered the circumstances of Hercules’ actual escape. By looking at the weekly records for the 1790s, she discovered that Hercules and Richmond were left behind in Mount Vernon when Washington returned to Philadelphia, and that after the November 1790 theft, they were transferred from the plantation’s kitchen to doing hard labor outside — pulverizing stone, digging brick clay and grubbing out honeysuckle. Thompson’s biggest discovery was that Hercules‘s escape from Mount Vernon took place on Wednesday, February 22, 1797 – Washington’s 65th birthday – when the family was in Philadelphia!
In April 1797, Prince Louis Philippe (1773-1850), the future King of the French, visited Mount Vernon. His diary records that Washington’s cook had run away and he left a little daughter of six at Mount Vernon. An aide to the prince spoke to the little girl, and ventured that she must be deeply upset that she would never see her father again. She answered, “Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now.”
George Washington’s Permanent Staff, November 16-30, 1793.
The Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Washington Family Servants, July 30-September 20, 1794.
The Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
George Washington’s Household in Philadelphia, 1790-1792. Retrieved June15, 2015 from “The President’s House in Philadelphia:”
Gilbert, Stuart, The Complete Works. Retrieved from
Gilbert, Stuart: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki.Gilbert-Stuart
Hercules, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Retrieved June 11, 2015 from http://www.mountvernon.org/research-collections/digital-enclyclooedia
Hercules (chef). Retrieved June 10, 2015 from /Wikipedia.org:
Indentured Servant. Retrieved from psi/Wikipedia.org/wiki/Indentured-servant
Lawler Jr., Edward. The Presidents House in Philadelphia. Retrieved from http://www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse/slaves/Hercules.htm
Oney Judge. Retrieved June 11, 2015 from Washington’s Mount Vernon http://www.mountvernon.org/research-collections/digital-encyclopedia/
Oney Judge. Retrieved June 10, 2015 from Wikipedia:
I want to express my appreciation to Karie Diethorn, the Chief Curator of the Independence National Historical Park, for her valuable help on the subject of George Washington’s servants and slaves during an interview with her at the Deshler Morris House on a snowy day last February,
My October essay will explore The Great Awakening and Germantown’s Market Square.