Did Martha Washington Have Irish-American Slaves?

New Research


Excellent research is now being done on American slaves by certain organizations in the U.S.  As those stories are told, we find out more about our own story.


For example, on the website of the Independence Hall Association ag www.ushistory.org, I recently learned that George Washington freed his slaves on his death in 1799, but Martha Washington did not free her own slaves.  I also learned about Oney Judge and Christopher Sheels.  Martha held these slaves as a 'dower share' from the estate of her first husband, Daniel Park Curtis, who died in 1757.  Although Oney and Christopher were owned by the Curtis estate and heirs, Martha had the right to use them.  Oney and Christopher were in George Washington's household in Philadelphia in the 1790s, when the nation's capital and the presidential mansion were both located there. 


Martha’s 'Dower Slaves' and George Washington


In 1796, Oney was 22 years old.  Her skin was the color of pale coffee, and sprinkled with freckles.  She learned that Martha Washington was about to give her to a friend as a wedding gift.  So Oney fled north from Philadelphia to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but she was recognized in 1798.  George sent his nephew to bring her back, but she went into hiding again.  She married Jack Staines, a sailor, in Portsmouth, and they soon had children.  She died in Greenland, New Hampshire, on February 25, 1848, at 75 years of age, poor but free.  Someone asked her whether she was sorry that she had fled from George Washington, "as she has labored so much harder since."  She said, "No, I am free and have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means." (1)


George Washington had only one personal servant in Philadelphia from 1790 to 1792, and he was Christopher Sheels when Christopher was about 16 years old.  Christopher returned to Mount Vernon in 1792.  There, the household used him as a waiter.  Louis-Philippe, the future king of France, and others noted that only mulattos worked inside the house as a rule.  (2  Therefore, it's apparent that Christopher Sheels was a mulatto like Oney Judge.   And like Oney Judge, there's little doubt that he took his father's last name.  In 1799, when Christopher was about 24 years old, he asked Washington's permission to marry a mulatto girl at another farm.  He got it.  Then, Washington discovered that Christopher and his wife also planned to escape.  But it seems that he was not punished.  When Washington died in 1799, Christopher Sheels was in the room.  Unfortunately, he was part of Martha Washington's 'dower share' and was not freed.  Nothing is known of him after 1802.


Is there more to be learned about these Americans?  Perhaps their names tell a story.


Owney Judge


Judge is both an English surname and an Irish surname.  In Ireland, it's a partial translation of Mac an Bhreitheamhan / Son of the Judge, indicating descent from one of Ireland's hereditary judicial families.   Mac an Bhreithimh is a modern variation.  Families of this name are found in Co. Sligo, western Ulster, and Co. Cork. (3)(4)


But 'Oney' or 'Owney' isn't an English name at all.  It's pure Irish. Not far north of the Mac an Bhreithimhs  in Co. Cork, we find the tribal territory of the Uaithne straddling the modern Tipperary/Limerick border, i.e., the baronies of Owney (Uaithne) in Co. Tipperary and Owneybeg (Uaithne Beag = 'Little Uaithne') in Co. Limerick. (5)(6)(7)  Coghlan points out that anglicizations of Uaithne include Oney, Owney, Hewney, and also 'Anthony' for males. (8)   Woulfe confirms that the O'Mores, the O'Loghlens, and other families (like the Mac an Bhreithimh?) used Uaithne and its anglicizations as a first name. (9)  The O'Mores (Ó Mórdha) were seated just east of the Uaithne territory in what is now Co. Laois. (10)  The O'Loghlens (Ó Lochlainn) were based in Co. Clare, the county adjoining Limerick and Tipperary to the north. (11)  Due south from Limerick and Tipperary is Co. Cork.  


It's said that Oney's father, Andrew Judge, was an English tailor.  You can see his indenture papers at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/mgwquery.html by typing ‘’Andrew Judge’’ into the search engine. (12)   Isn't it odd that an English-American father and an African-American mother would give their child a name which was well-recognized as a Gaelic name in the 18th century? (13)  This oddity suggests the possibility that Andrew Judge was actually an Irishman, perhaps from Co. Cork, and that his original surname was Mac an Bhreithimh.   


That possibility is buttressed by the fact that an individual by the name of Cornelius McDermott Roe acted as a witness on Andrew's indenture.  'Cornelius' is an English cover-name for the Gaelic name Conchobhar. 'McDermott Roe' is a phonetic anglicization of Mac Diarmada Ruadh / The Red McDermott.  The Mac Diarmada Ruadh family are one of three branches of the great family of Mac Diarmada, second in prestige in their part of Ireland only to their close-relatives, the Ó Conchobhair ('O'Connor') Kings of Connacht.  The Mac Diarmada Ruadh family were seated in Tír Thuathail, now called the parish of Kilronan, Co. Roscommon. (14)   Isn't it interesting that an Irishman, obviously an Irish speaker who was so proud of his Gaelic surname that he used its full traditional form, served as the witness on this indenture?  Why?  Just Coincidence?  Or was there a language problem?  Did they need a translator?  Did Andrew Judge, who signed his name with an X, speak only Irish?  Is that why an Irish-speaker from Co. Roscommon was brought in to act as a witness?


Christopher Sheels


As for Christopher, "Sheels" is solely an Irish surname. There is little doubt, therefore, that Christopher Sheels was an Irish-American.  Sheels and its variations (Shiel, Sheals, Shields, etc.) are anglicizations of Ó Siadhail.  This family was renowned as physicians and surgeons in many parts of Ireland.  For example, "Owen O'Sheil, known as the 'Eagle of Doctors,' was physician to the armies of the Confederate Catholics of Ireland from 1642 to 1650." (15)   The main branches of this family were seated in what is now Co. Offaly and Co. Donegal. (16  There is only one family of Ó Siadhail.  They are all related.  The well-known Irish-American actress Brooke Shields is a modern representative of the family, and no doubt a distant relative of Christopher.




It seems apparent that Martha Washington held in bondage at least two Irish-American slaves, perhaps more.  All in all, however, it doesn't really matter whether or not Oney Judge and Christopher Sheels were Irish-Americans.  They were human beings, Americans, who wanted freedom as much as George Washington.  Their story finally needs to be told, and organizations like the Independence Hall Association are telling it.





I am extremely thankful to Edward Lawler, Jr., Historian of the Independence Hall Association, for his help as I researched this article.




Coghlan, Ronan.  Irish First Names.  Belfast:  Appletree Press, 1985.


Independence Hall Association, www.ushistory.org


MacLysaght, Edward.  The Surnames of Ireland.  Dublin:  Irish Academic Press, 1980.


Mac Niocaill, Gearóid.  Ireland Before the Vikings.  Gill History of Ireland, Volume 1.  Dublin:  Gill and MacMillan, 1972.


O'Rahilly, Thomas F.  Early Irish History and Mythology.  Dublin:  Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1972.


Thompson, Mary V.  Different People, Different Stories: The Life Stories of Individual Slaves from Mount Vernon and Their Relationships with George and Martha Washington.  A Talk Given at a Symposium Entitled “George Washington & Slavery” at Mount Vernon, Virginia, November 3, 2001; revised, 4/22/2002


Woulfe, Rev. Patrick.  Irish Names for Children.  Dublin:  Gill and MacMillan, 1979.


Woulfe, Rev. Patrick.  Sloinnte Gaedheal Is Gall.  Reprint - Kansas City, Mo.:  Irish Genealogical Foundation, 1992.




1.   http://www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse/news/oj052245.htm

2.   Thompson, Mary V.  p. 15-16

3.   MacLysaght, p. 1, 26

4.   Woulfe, Sloinnte Gaedheal Is Gall, p. 310

5.   Woulfe, Sloinnte Gaedheal Is Gall, p. 517, 601

6.   Mac Niocaill, p. 8

7.   O'Rahilly, p. 10, 538

8.   Coghlan, p. 38, Hewney; p. 56, Owney

9.   Woulfe, Irish Names for Children, p. 38

10.  Woulfe, Sloinnte Gaedheal Is Gall, p. 619

11.  Woulfe, Sloinnte Gaedheal Is Gall, p. 585

12.  http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/mgwquery.html, agus clóscríobh “Andrew Judge” isteach san inneall cuardaigh

13.  Coghlan, p. 38, Hewney; p. 56, Owney 

14.  Woulfe, Sloinnte Gaedheal Is Gall, p. 350

15.  Woulfe, p. 643-644 

16.  MacLysaght, p. 271



Copyright © 2015 by Gerald A. John Kelly

All Rights Reserved - No reproduction without written permission of the author



Please enter the code
* Required fields
There are no entries yet.
Print Print | Sitemap
Copyright © 2014 by Gerald A. John Kelly - 1&1 MyWebsite