Oney Judge, a Brave Girl Who Escaped the Washingtons

Relevant History welcomes Diana Rubino and Piper Huguley, authors of Oney: My Escape From Slavery.

Diana Rubino author photoDiana’s passion for history and travel has taken her to every locale of her stories, set in Medieval and Renaissance England, Egypt, the Mediterranean, colonial Virginia, New England, and New York. Her urban fantasy Fakin’ It won the Romantic Times Top Pick award. She is a member of Romance Writers of America, the Richard III Society and the Aaron Burr Association. When not writing, she runs CostPro, Inc., an engineering business, with her husband Chris. For more information about her and her books, visit her web site, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Piper Huguley author photoPiper Huguley is a two-time Golden Heart® finalist and author of the “Home to Milford College” series, which follows the building of a college from its founding in 1866. Book #1, The Preacher’s Promise, was named a Top Ten Historical Romance in Publishers Weekly and received Honorable Mention in the Writers Digest Contest of Self-Published e-books. Her new series “Born to Win Men” starts with A Champion’s Heart. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and son. For more information about her and her books, visit her web site, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


When I began researching Oney: My Escape From Slavery, I read numerous books about slavery and the Washingtons in particular, because Oney was Martha Washington’s slave. I learned many facts about George and Martha Washington that are not taught in school. Because she was a mulatto, and light-skinned, Oney was allowed to work in the “big house” as Martha’s housemaid.

The Washingtons considered themselves generous with their slaves, but in our modern view, we would consider them extremely stingy. They rationed their slaves’ food and clothing. Martha took Oney on shopping trips, to the theater, and to visit her lady friends. She dressed Oney in the same finery as her granddaughters, though Oney, an expert seamstress, sewed it all. Oney had many more clothes than the one petticoat, two shifts, one jacket and pair of stockings a year the field women got. (The men were given one pair of homespun breeches a year.) Oney enjoyed sweets, while the field slaves got their weekly rations—a few pounds of pork, usually poor cured salt herrings, and a handful of Indian corn. George weighed each grain and morsel so nobody got more than their share.

The Washingtons were a bit stingy with calling slaves by their proper names—a handful of slaves were called Old Wench, Old Nanny, and Young Fellow. They gave Sambo the nickname Sammy. Oney’s given name was Ona, Latin for “unity” or “harmony.”

It was illegal for slaves to be literate, but Martha allowed Oney to learn to read and write. She learned from Hercules, the cook, who escaped just before Oney did, also never to return.

George boasted that he never separated families, as did many heartless slave owners, and never beat his slaves. But to punish some of them, he sold them to plantation owners in the West Indies, where labor was especially brutal under the scorching sun. It’s well known that he wore dentures, reported to be made from ivory, wood, and hippopotamus. In fact, some of the false teeth came from animals, and he bought some of them from his slaves. He had a French dentist extract them.

Martha called teenaged Oney her “favorite servant.” Oney and Martha both longed for freedom, but in very different ways. While Martha hated being confined to the president’s house, forced to entertain politicians and diplomats, Oney hated being property, forced to wait on her owner day and night.

As Martha hosted her tea parties and levees, she became close friends with several forward-thinking women, such as Abigail Adams and Judith Murray, feminists of the time. Their radical ideas rubbed off on Martha—education and job training for women to be self-supporting instead of depending on husbands. By the end of George’s term, she experienced a steep character arc. She even changed her attitude toward slavery.

When Oney escaped at age twenty, at the end of George’s final term, Martha was very resentful: “She was more like a child to me than a servant.” The Washingtons knew that she’d escaped to Portsmouth, New Hampshire and made several attempts to recapture her. But in a sudden act of lenience, Martha gave up on Oney and let her remain free. During her husband’s presidency, Martha complained, “I am more like a state prisoner,” so perhaps she put herself in Oney’s place and realized she deserved liberty, too.


Oney My Escape From Slavery book coverA big thanks to Diana Rubino and Piper Huguley. They’ll give away an ebook copy (Kindle format only) of Oney: My Escape From Slavery to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available worldwide.


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General Nathanael Greene: The Complete Package

Freedom to Read hop imageWelcome to my blog! The week of 2 July – 9 July, I’m participating with more than one hundred other bloggers in the “Freedom to Read” giveaway hop, accessed by clicking on the logo at the left. All blogs listed in this hop offer book-related giveaways, and we’re all linked, so you can easily hop from one giveaway to another. But here on my blog, I’m posting a week of Relevant History essays, each one focused on some facet of the American War of Independence. To find out how to qualify for the giveaways on my blog, read through each day’s Relevant History post below and follow the directions. Then click on the Freedom Hop logo so you can move along to another blog. Enjoy!

Helena Finnegan author photoRelevant History welcomes Helena Finnegan, a native of Boston, the city where her love and appreciation for liberty, the sacrifices of those who fought for it, and the revolution began. The 1976 Bicentennial, complete with tall ships and fervent Patriots and British soldiers on historic grounds and waters solidified her commitment to promoting, preserving, and sharing this era. She’s written nationally and internationally and is an educator, researcher, and writer of 18th-century topics. Her work appeared in Patriots of the American Revolution and Journal of the Early Americas magazines and She’s working on a historical fiction novel set in 1781. For more information, check her web site, and look for her on Twitter and Pinterest.


Nathanael Greene's signatureHe was what would be called today “the complete package.” Strong-willed, determined, respected, self-educated, loyal, and a gifted leader. He’s known as the unsung hero of the American Revolution who helped save the war, though few today recognize his name or deeds beyond monuments or places on the map.

Yet if it were scripted by Hollywood, New Englander General Nathanael Greene could be an 18th-century action figure. A handsome, flawed, but kind and dependable hero loyal to his Commander-in-Chief and the Glorious Cause. He rose above his disability and learned from his mistakes to become a trusted and sought-after commander capable of seeing the big picture, willing to take risks and do what was necessary to succeed. So it was no surprise when General Washington gave him the two most difficult assignments in the War for Independence: that of Quartermaster General during which he saved the ill-fed and under-equipped army with food, supplies, and forage for animals, and that of commander of the Southern Army where he rebuilt a decimated army and expelled the British from the south. However, his eight-year journey from 1775 to 1783 as Washington’s close friend and most trusted, longest-serving general and eventual hero wasn’t without great obstacles and sacrifices.

“We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.”

In the winter of 1780, after assuming command of West Point, General Greene was exhausted, ill, and broke having used his health and money to train, equip, supply, and lead soldiers since 1775. Only his courage, faith, determination and unwavering belief kept him going. It was these qualities that General Washington had come to rely upon and turn to, giving him the second most important command of the war, that of commander of the Southern Army.

Six long years after the conflict had begun, Americans’ spirits plunged lower than the value of the Continental dollar. Military defeats, perennial supply struggles, and lack of currency and military pay added to a seemingly endless war.

Nathanel Greene's portraitMonths after the crushing defeat of American forces at Camden, South Carolina, when General Horatio Gates fled north and left the remains of militia and army to reconstitute themselves, the army awaited its new, southern commander. It was against this backdrop that Greene took on what must have felt like an impossible task. After six years of various commands, success as Quartermaster General, lobbying Congress, losing battles, and taking backseats to other leaders, this appointment was monumental. Unwritten and unspoken were the words of his Excellency: save the southern theater and thus, the War for Independence. Washington knew that if there was anyone capable of such a feat, it was General Nathanael Greene.

No stranger to hardship and challenges, General Greene was well-prepared for what lay ahead of him in the southern colonies, where Britain was on the verge of winning the war. His famous quote, “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again,” displayed his ambition and unflagging commitment.

Self-taught, officer material

A self-taught military man, Washington’s “fighting Quaker” was a gifted strategist, advisor, and natural leader. He possessed brilliant organizational skills that he used to save lives as Quartermaster General during the iconic winter encampments at Valley Forge and Morristown.

Greene faced many hurdles to prove that a partially disabled Quaker and an inexperienced soldier could not only fight, but lead men in the coming conflict. Despite prejudice from his fellow Rhode Island Kentish Guards, who felt a lame soldier was not “officer material,” he was promoted to Brigadier General in the Rhode Island state army. General Washington then appointed Greene to the same rank in the Continental Army. In him, Washington must have seen something of himself: a well-read, self-educated, passionate man whose loyalty and ability to comprehend the long-term nature of the conflict made him dependable. Later, despite the terrible losses of Forts Washington and Lee, General Washington didn’t give up on Greene. While Greene sought to restore his reputation, Washington knew Greene would learn from the terrible decision to defend unsalvageable forts and lose men, just as he learned from his errors during the French and Indian War.

Nathanael Greene by PealeFollowing his two years as Quartermaster General, Greene resigned the post but kept his field command, returning to campaigns. Though some battles were lost or a draw, he inflicted damage to British forces, gained experience, and learned how to prepare his troops. His greatest challenge came in the southern theater, where all his experiences, military studies, training, and skills were brought together. Entering into the melee after the Americans’ success at the Battle of King’s Mountain, Greene developed a bold strategy. He united his forces with General Daniel Morgan and made the incredible decision to divide his small army in half to delay British engagement, employ guerilla tactics, and gather more soldiers. Working with Morgan, who led Cornwallis away from his supply lines and on a chase through North Carolina, allowed Greene time to re-build and re-equip his men. Understanding the critical need for supplies and preparation, he ordered all boats secured to transport his troops across the Dan River ahead of the British. In what became famous as “the Race to the Dan,” the Americans escaped capture by a few hours and lived to fight on, re-grouping in Virginia, while Cornwallis’s obsession with destroying Greene had exhausted his men and depleted his supplies. Greene later used the boats to slip his troops back across the Dan, chase the British, and engage them in future battles. The southern tide literally turned for the Americans, thanks to General Nathanael Greene, who successfully routed the British from the south, north to Yorktown, Virginia, where they were hemmed in and forced to surrender in October 1781.

In less than a year, Washington’s “fighting Quaker” had successfully pulled off a miracle. General Greene’s story is made all the more poignant because it is true. He was an underdog whose determination, confidence, vision, skills and abilities were recognized by someone who gave him the chance to succeed—and ultimately created the opportunity for America to begin.


A big thanks to Helena Finnegan. She’ll give away a $5 Amazon gift certificate to someone who contributes a legitimate comment on this post today or tomorrow. Make sure you include your email address. I’ll choose one winner from among those who comment on this post by Friday 4 July at 6 p.m. ET, then publish the name of all drawing winners on my blog the week of 14 July. And anyone who comments on this post by the 4 July deadline will also be entered in a drawing to win a copy of one of my five books, the winner’s choice of title and format (trade paperback or ebook).


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Let’s Not Skip Thanksgiving, Please


When Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as an annual, national holiday, he had several centuries of thanksgiving legacy in America backing him up. American schoolchildren don’t usually learn that Lincoln was the one who made Thanksgiving official. Instead, they’re taught a story of Pilgrims and Indians in the early 1600s, a legend loaded with mythological elements.

Schoolchildren also don’t hear about Thanksgiving during the American Revolution, but it was there, too. In 1777, the Continental Congress issued the First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving and relied upon governors to determine how this proclamation would be observed within individual states. Independent celebrations of thanksgiving also sprang up throughout the North American colonies and were recorded by historians. For example, George Washington declared a thanksgiving in December 1777 for his victory at Saratoga.

What all these historical Thanksgiving celebrations had in common was a need to acknowledge gratitude for friends, family, and fortune, a striving for something greater than the self in the wish that all humans might have peace. For that reason, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Unfortunately, within my lifetime, I’ve watched it become subsumed in the commercialization of Christmas. Grocery store displays jump from Halloween to Christmas with nary a turkey feather or Pilgrim hat to remind us of this holiday.

We need Thanksgiving. It provides us with time to slow down, to enjoy the company of those we love and express gratitude for life. Don’t be a Thanksgiving miser or someone who must be prodded by the big turkey dinner to give thanks. Don’t rush past it on the way to Christmas. Find a way to celebrate Thanksgiving in your heart from now through Thanksgiving 2014.

And if you need a reminder of how fortunate you are, watch this short video.

Happy Thanksgiving. May yours be safe and restful.

Regulated for Murder book cover

Pssst. Today and tomorrow, pick up Michael Stoddard’s first adventure, Regulated for Murder, in the electronic form for only 99 cents at Amazon.


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The Forensic Reconstruction of George Washington, Part 2

For the traveling exhibit “Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon,” Dr. Jeffrey H. Schwartz, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh forensically recreated accurate, life-sized figures of George Washington at the ages of 19, 45, and 57. The catch was that Schwartz wasn’t allowed access to Washington’s bones.

In my previous blog post, I described the materials and techniques Schwartz used to surmount this challenge. Although some of the more exacting details that I mention below are only visible in close-up photographs of each figure’s facial features, for those who study body language, Schwartz’s overall impressions do come through. Let’s take a look at the results.

George Washington, age 57Schwartz says that Washington on Inauguration Day, at the age of 57, was the easiest figure to create. Just a few years earlier, Jean-Antoine Houdon had created a three-dimensional life mask, bust, and statue of Washington: a gift to any forensic anthropologist. When Washington took the Oath of Office, he had only one natural tooth in his mouth. Since tooth loss softens the jaw line, Schwartz gave Washington an amorphous jaw line. He also gave him the puckered lips of an older man. For the inauguration, Washington, who never wore a wig, had his own hair powdered.

George Washington, age 45Washington at Valley Forge, age 45, was more difficult for Schwartz to capture. At this point in his life, the Commander of the Continental Army still had some teeth in the front of his mouth, so he didn’t have the taut lips of a man trying to hold a full set of 18th-century dentures in his mouth without the help of a product like Polygrip. Schwartz also wanted to capture Washington’s charisma, the element about him that helped him hold the army together through that bitterly cold winter. Thus Washington has “tired eyes” with crows feet, and between his eyes, his brow is furrowed. Note how Washington’s feet hang below the torso of his horse. Horses in the 18th century were smaller than they are now, however, sources report that Washington’s limbs were so long and lanky that he could wrap his legs around the belly of his horse, thus contributing to his excellent equestrian skills.

George Washington, age 19The 19-year-old Washington, depicted in this image as surveying in the wilderness, has a pronounced angle in his back jaw because he still has all his teeth. He also has more fullness in his cheeks, a smaller nose and ears, and fuller lips than the older versions of himself. Washington was well-known for enjoying his time in the wilderness. Therefore, Schwartz gave the young Washington a smile behind his eyes, and lips tilted up ever so slightly at the corners, as if he’s delighting in his time with nature, musing that his future looks bright.

What do you think of Jeffrey Schwartz’s creations?


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The Forensic Reconstruction of George Washington, Part 1

How is it possible to forensically create an accurate, life-sized figure of someone long dead without having access to the deceased’s bones? The traveling museum exhibit, “Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon,” features three life-sized figures … Continue reading

Georgian Secrets: Ladies’ Undergarments During the American War of Independence

Readers occasionally ask me what ladies of the late 18th century wore for underwear beneath those lovely gowns and petticoats. Did they wear panties? What made their hips so huge and their torsos look like tubes?  On Sunday 19 September, … Continue reading