Before the end of the American Civil War, there were many US Presidents who owned slaves in their lives at one point or another. Even Ulysses S. Grant owned at least one slave prior to 1859 (though we know it was only for a short period of time, and the circumstances surrounding the purchase of said slave is unknown). So, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that the United States’ first president, George Washington, also owned slaves.
According to the Goerge Washington Museum, Washington became a slave owner at age 11 when his father died. In his Last Will and Testament, Augustine Washington left his son 280 acres of farmland and 10 slaves. In 1755, George Washington purchased seven more slaves, including a young child.
By the time Washington died in 1799, he owned around 123 slaves (around half of what worked at Mount Vernon), most of which came from his wife Marta, who inherited them from her father.
How Washington treated his slaves is unknown. There are conflicting reports. On one side, there is an account from a man named Richard Parkinson (an Englishman who lived nearby), who reported that “it was the sense of all his [Washington’s] neighbors that he treated [his slaves] with more severity than any other man.” On the other end of the spectrum, a foreign visitor, who we don’t know the name of, is said to have written that Washington dealt with his owned slaves “far more humanely than do his fellow citizens of Virginia.”
What historians do know is that Washington frequently used very harsh punishment when his slaves got out of line. He was also known for separating families when one member displeased him by selling that member to slave owners in the West Indies.
Over the course of his life, several of his slaves managed to escape. One was named Hercules, who served as the family cook. Apparently, Washington loved his cooking so much that he brought Hercules to Philadelphia when Washington became President. Hercules escaped sometime after Washington left office, apparently because he didn’t want to leave Philadelphia.
Oney Judge was another slave that belonged to George Washington. Oney Judge was born sometime around 1773 (her exact date of birth is unknown, though that isn’t at all unusual for a slave at that time). Her father was a white English tailor named Andrew Judge, who never claimed paternity, therefore, allowing his daughter to be sold into slavery.
Ms. Judge was brought into the Washington manor house at age ten, likely as a playmate for Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Nelly Custis (descended from Martha Washington’s first husband). In 1789, she was promoted to body servant to Martha Washington, and taken to New York (the site of one of the Presidential Households). More is known about Oney Judge than any other slave that George Washington ever owned, and for very good reason.