Saturday, January 25, 2014

Threads of Memory 1: Portsmouth Star for Ona Judge Staines

Threads of Memory
Block 1: Portsmouth Star
by Becky Brown
The first block in the 2104 free block-of-the-month here at Civil War quilts is Portsmouth Star, a new block with an old-fashioned look, named for Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The coastal town was a place of refuge for Ona Judge Staines and uncounted other African-Americans looking for liberty. The townspeople, as John Whipple informed George Washington in 1796, were “in favor of universal freedom.”

Threads of Memory
Block 1: Portsmouth Star
by Jean Stanclift

On June 1st, 1796, a ship named the Nancy sailed into Portsmouth harbor near what is now the New Hampshire/Maine border. An African-American girl named Ona Marie Judge made her way from the ship to the town. Just fifteen, the runaway slave hoped to pass as a free black in Portsmouth's small African-American community.

Ona's new life collapsed one day that summer when she passed an old acquaintance on the street. Elizabeth Langdon, eighteen-year-old daughter of New Hampshire's Senator, recognized the fugitive from visits to Ona's mistress's parlor. Elizabeth tried to say hello but Ona brushed by without a word, hoping the wealthy white girl would believe she'd been mistaken.

Elizabeth was confident she knew Ona and word soon reached the Virginia slave owners that their property resided in New Hampshire. Ona's master and mistress wanted her back and knew they had constitutional rights to recover the runaway. Under the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, Portsmouth's officials were obliged to arrest Ona and hold her.

"Absconded from the household of the President
of the United States, ONEY JUDGE, a light
mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black
eyes and bushy black hair..."

Ona's master was quite familiar with the Fugitive Slave Act. As President, George Washington had signed the law. Washington pressured federal appointees to return the girl he called Oney. His correspondence, visible online at the Library of Congress, tells some of the story. 

When Ona was in her seventies she talked to two newspaper correspondents about her escape. Their articles tell the other side.

When they moved to the new capital of Philadelphia the first family brought eight slaves from their Virginia plantation. At the age of ten Ona became Martha Washington's personal maid. Oney "was handy and useful…being perfect Mistress of her needle," wrote Washington. 

The President's House in 
Philadelphia. Ona came to work here
in 1790.

She recalled that her life in the President's household posed no hardships but she wanted freedom, particularly after she learned the Washingtons planned to will her to granddaughter Elizabeth Parke Custis. Ona apparently did not care for Eliza Custis, a few years her junior. She was determined "never to be her slave."
Gilbert Stuart painted this picture of Eliza Custis the year
Ona ran away. Between Ona's opinion
and the portrait, we get an idea of Eliza's personality.

Realizing Washington's presidency would soon be over, Ona made the most of her last weeks in Philadelphia.

"Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go, I didn't know where; for I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty. I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left Washington's house while they were eating dinner."

Ona's escape by ship took her from Philadelphia
north to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Captain John Bolles or Bowles

Somehow she booked passage on the Nancy commanded by Captain John Bolles. "I never told his name till after he died, a few years since, lest they should punish him for bringing me away."

Martha Washington with a slave
By Edward Savage

Like many slave holders, the Washingtons believed outsiders stirred up discontent. Martha was of the opinion that a deranged Frenchman had seduced Ona. Joseph Whipple, the New Hampshire official charged with returning Ona, explained that the escape was Ona's idea---her "thirst for compleat freedom…had been her only motive for absconding."  An angry George Washington fussed, "I am sorry to give you, or any one else trouble on such a trifling occasion, but the ingratitude of the girl, who was brought up and treated more like a child than a Servant…."

Letter from Whipple
"I have ascertained the fact that the person mentioned is in this town."

Whipple warned the Ex-President it would be difficult to persuade Ona and just as hard to kidnap her, despite the fact that New Hampshire still sanctioned slavery. "I am informed that many Slaves from the southern states have come to Massachusetts & some to New Hampshire, either of which States they consider as an asylum; the popular opinion here in favor of universal freedom has rendered it difficult to get them back to their masters."

Washington instructed Whipple to use charm. "If she will return to her former service without obliging me to use compulsory means to effect it, her late conduct will be forgiven." Whipple should avoid violence, any measures that "would excite a mob or riot." Whipple's last letter on the topic, mailed right before Christmas 1796, announced the banns for Ona's marriage to Joseph Staines had been published. He was pessimistic he could act without causing the riot Washington hoped to avoid. 

Portsmouth Star by Becky Brown
from my Ladies's Album reproduction collection for Moda---
in shops in March.

Ona married sailor John Staines. A year passed in which she gave birth to daughter Eliza before she heard from the Washingtons again. Frustrated with Whipple's inaction, Washington sent nephew Burwell Bassett to retrieve her. Bassett tried persuasive lies, promising Ona that on her return the Washingtons would free her, something George Washington had actually dismissed as a bad example to the other slaves. Ona recalled her response to Bassett: "I am free now and choose to remain so."

 The Langdon's house, still standing,
was a decade old at the time of the plot to kidnap Ona.

Bassett returned to Portsmouth while John Staines was at sea, planning to take Ona and the baby by force. He sketched his plot to Elizabeth Langdon's father at whose home he was lodging. Senator John Langdon sent a messenger warning Ona to run. 

Senator John Langdon warned Ona of
the Washingtons' kidnap plans.

Portsmouth Star
by Dustin Cecil
in my Civil War Jubilee collection plus white.

The story's end appeared in the newspaper account fifty years later: "She went to the stable and hired a boy with a horse and carriage to carry her to [the Jack's house] in Greenland [New Hampshire] where she now resides, a distance of eight miles, and remained there until her husband returned from sea."

Washington Mourning Picture
Published by Pember & Luzarder, 1800,
 from the Library of Congress
Ona was unlikely to have mourned Washington's passing.

Washington died late in 1799. "They never troubled me any more after he was gone." Ona and her husband raised two or three children in Portsmouth. After being widowed she returned to the house of her Greenland friends, the free black family of John Jacks. In the 1840s, newspapermen found her there, poor and ill but glad to tell her tale.

Ona Judge Staines's story tells us of a network of help in the nation's early years, an Underground Railroad decades before that name or railroads of any kind appeared. Ona absconded on her own but she remained free due to the kindness of many people, among them friends in Philadelphia, ship captain John Bolles, Joseph Whipple who stubbornly refused to act in Washington's behalf, Senator Langdon who alerted her to flee and the Jacks family who took her in when she needed refuge.

What We Can Learn About the Underground Railroad from Ona Judge's Story

Officials often refused to enforce the slavery laws.

Refugees like Ona could live out in the open because authorities did not enforce the laws. New Hampshire was a slave state in the 1790s and her owner had all the clout one could wish for, but officials like Whipple chose not to act. Others like Langdon surreptitiously assisted her. We can only guess their motives, but Whipple suggested that "popular opinion" in the town threatened civil disorder if Ona was arrested.

Block # 1
Portsmouth Star for Ona Judge
12" Block

 Refer to your favorite block for shading ideas.

A -  Cut 1 square 4-1/2"
B - Cut squares 5-1/4"  x 5-1/4" (4 in all) and cut each  into 4 triangles with 2 diagonal cuts. You'll need 2 light squares for 8 triangles; 1 dark for 4 triangles and 1 medium for 4 triangles.

C - Cut squares 2-7/8" x 2-7/8" (4 squares in all ) and cut into 2 triangles with a diagonal cut. You'll need 2 medium light squares and 2 medium dark squares for 4 triangles each.

D - Cut strips 2-1/2" by 4 7/8".  Trim one end to a 45 degree angle. Or use the picture below as a template. You need 4 going one way; flip over the template and cut 4 going the other.

To print a template click on this picture. Save it to a JPG or Word file.
Print it out so the cutting line at the top is 4-7/8" long.

 Piecing the Block

You can find much more about Ona Judge Staines’s life by reading several primary documents online. 

Read two interviews by clicking on this link to a site about the President’s House in Philadelphia.

Read correspondence between George Washington and Joseph Whipple concerning Ona by clicking on this link to the website of the Weeks Public Library in Greenland, New Hampshire.

See three of Whipple’s letters by going to the Library of Congress website American Memory.
Type Joseph Whipple in the search box at the top right. When the results appear, click on the three letters in the George Washington Papers collection near the top of the first page (letters 2, 3 and 4).

Read more about Ona Judge Staines at these sites:

Portsmouth Star
Dustin's All-Ticking Version
This is real ticking---not a printed quilt-weight fabric.

Make A Quilt A Month

Set nine Portsmouth Star blocks together with a 3" border to create a 42" quilt. 
Alternate 5 blocks with one background and 4 with another for variety.

Another Option

You could rotate those smaller half-square triangles
to create a layered look but it would require set-in seams (Y seams)  in each corner.

Calm down; you can do it.


Rosemary Youngs said...

Thank you so much Barbara, can you let us know the size of the Sashing, would like to do the sashing as I go and I'm not sure if it is 3, 3 1/2 or 4 inches. Thank you.

Denniele said...

Beautiful blocks by Becky and Dustin! The one made from ticking is very interesting! Intriguing story. Thank you.

susan said...

Rosemary, Are you going to make the flying geese sash? I don't think I have the courage. Love the story and the block for our first one, don't you?

Rosemary Youngs said...

Susan, I am going to make the flying geese, I'm going to foundation piece it. It will be really easy.

WoolenSails said...

Love the first block and the way it was fussy cut to get the design, really nice block for fussy cutting.


Barbara Brackman said...

Rosemary I will work on this today. Becky's done with the geese. You might want to see the next thing she has thought up for her other set before you commit yourself.

Nancy said...

OMG! I don't know when I've laughed so much over a quilt block pattern! Love that last picture and comment. Thanks, Barbara, for brightening my morning! I plan on tackling this block, but not the y-seam version :)

Rosemary Youngs said...

Thank you so much Barbara, thank you also Becky for all of the work that you put into the pattern, I love the flying geese, can't wait to see what else you thought up. :)

dustin cecil said...

Becky, that bird is perfect.
for my next oil portrait sitting, i'm borrowing a page from eliza custis' book. that stance is BOSS!
thanks, Barbara for the great post.


LJ said...

I love history and this story was so interesting and such a great read. Thanks so much.

Sandy said...

What a fascinating story. I don't know if I'm going to follow along with the blocks this time (too many projects bla bla bla), but I'll definitely be reading the posts!

I love the ticking block!

Mary Says Sew! said...

You can skip the set-in Y-seams in the corner squares by constructing the corner squares as half log cabins, with two "logs".

Is there any evidence Martha Washington quilted herself, or did she have seamstresses made quilts attributed to her?

Shirley said...

Oh this is one beautiful block! And really easy to make. I did cheat a little and make the pieces a bit oversize then trimmed to fit.

grandparentsplus2 said...

I love this block because of its beauty, historical significance, and the fact that we live on the seacoast of NH. Thank you very much.

Lori said...

this is wonderful, thanks for sharing. I am making a civil war quilt for my sons wedding for next year. Is there a way to make this an 8" block?

Cissa K said...

Thank you for another interesting and informative post. The block is really beautiful.

Barbara Brackman said...

Since I made these blocks up they don't have a BlockBase number. If you want to reduce it to 8" you will have to redraft it in a digital program like BlockBase or Electric Quilt or draft it by hand. Not hard with graph paper.

Louise Bell said...

Lori, I am thinking of doing a second set of blocks, 8" and have drafted this one in EQ. If you e-mail me at, I can send you the rotary cutting instructions.

desertskyquilts said...

Great beginning! I love the story of Ona, and the information it adds to my knowledge of the times. Thanks! I like the version with the turned in points, and I will just do it as a 4-patch without a set in seam, and with a rectangle for two of the squares. =)

Sandy D said...

Very interesting story of Ona. Like the block and your fabrics very much. I am definetly going to make the block without the set in seams as well.

Nann said...

Love the history. Awed by the example in ticking. I would (I will!) do the corners as HST + square, then sewn to a rectangle.

Gail said...

As a NH resident who lives in the seacoast area, I was very interested in reading this block's story.

Debra G said...

Isn't it ironic that Ona named her daughter Eliza?!
Barbara, is there yardage info on the entire quilt yet? Love this first block!

sewgrateful said...

Barbara, I too was wondering about the yardage requirements before I cut into fabric and not have enough. Love the history on this one since I live in an area in NY rich in Underground Railroad history. Thanks so much for your hard work. Sewgrateful

Patricia said...

I think I have ruined the fabric for the first block :( Are the cutting directions posted for the ticking block? If not, I would really ask Dustin to do so. For the block to come out correctly, the stripes should be going a certain way---I don't want to waste more fabric trying to figure it out since I don't have a lot. Thanks in advance!

ldylatuna said...

Thank you Barbara for this beautiful block. I will make mine with a combination of French General, Civil War Repo and Fabric for a Cure.

Nancy said...

Here is what struck me first after I read Ona's story. She didn't at all like Washington's granddaughter Eliza, but she named her first child Eliza? Why? Fascinating story tho. I reread it again.
Thanks for doing this again Barbara! I look forward to more blocks and stories such as this.

Barbara Brackman said...

Re: the stripes. This is not my skill area. Here's what I do when I have to plain stripes. I make a photocopy of the fabric and cut up the photocopy first to see how the stripes should go. This saves fabric.

Re: Eliza---Elizabeth with all its nicknames Betsy, Lizzie and Eliza, was one of the most common names at the time. I bet Ona had another friend named Eliza.

Maureen Timerman said...

I love this...and signed up for the email, but I never get them??

Barbara Brackman said...

Maureen--- I am surprised the emails are not coming. Usually they come about a day late. The other option is become a follower and when you go to your google homepage new posts show up.

Judith Blinkenberg said...

Thank you! Your new line of the Ladies is in at Fat Quarter shop. I just need to find out what I need. This block is very nice and your information always such a learning experience.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ladies! New to this internet BLOG thing...trying to find a way to communicate and ask...Did I miss the yardage involved for this quilt? I would like to know I have enough background fabric to start. I followed the last one and LOVE it. My email is

Dale said...

I love it all! My block is completed for this month and I even ordered the 'Taking Liberty' book from my favorite on-line book store.

Anonymous said...

I love this and am looking forward to following along for the first time on a BOM. I'm also looking for yardage on the quilt.Thank you

Maer Hatz... said...

Thank you for putting the time to research each block!! I'm so excited to follow along on this BOM - my first one with you! I'm also active in a Civil War group so this will be a wonderful addition!!

Debbie Hitesman said...

I'm determined to create this beautiful quilt as a gift for my daughter. I wondered, is there a way to copy and keep the story that comes with the block? I think it would make it more meaningful if I gave her a file with the stories with the quilt. I can't find away to copy and paste the info. Is there a secret to it?

Victoria said...

Hello, is there a yardage for all the quilt blocks yet as I would like to do them in the same line and get one of the authentic ranges to do it in, thank you.

Barbara Moore said...

This will be my first BOM project, I just finished the first block. I decided to use the alternate setting for the small squares, but instead of having to sew set-in seams, I added two small background triangles to the small square, then made large background triangles to complete the corner squares. Looking forward to the next block!

Julie Vernon said...

GLORIOUS BLOCKS! I will have to try -- read try please -- to make these. Each is each different with the different fabrics!

Thumbs up everyone for your beautiful work.

Mark Lauer said...

Can anyone tell me the names of all the blocks? I know the first is the Portsmouth Star but what about the others? I'd love to get started on the others!


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Passionate Quilter said...

I hate to be stupid, but how does one download the pattern, and is the monthly email a reminder or does it have a special link to download and/or print the directions.

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Lisa said...

How do you print out the patterns for the blocks?

Noa Tonnis said...

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Cheri Branca said...

Wouldn't it be easier to make the four outside corners, each with a HST and then a matching square and a rectangle? (I draft paper piecing patterns for all your blocks, so I look at designs in that way, but regular piecing would be easy done that way too.)

Pamela said...

Would love to print the patterns but can't figure out how. I read through the comments, and it seems others are having the same issue. Any answers for us?

Pamela said...

How does one PRINT these patterns?

Passionate Quilter said...

Pamela, I tried to figure it out and could not, although if you place your mouse over the picture of the block, right click and you should be able to select a print selection.

What I did was put it in EQ7 because I could not get a "real" print out .pdf file.

I never found a place to click on to get to a .pdf.

Hope this helps.


Farmhousesewer said...

I cannot get the template to print the correct size. Any suggestions?

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Dear Barbara Brackman

Hereby a quick note to say that I have just ordered your book on Amazon; Civil War Sampler. But, I've been told that I shall have to wait between two to thirteen days for it - how on earth am I going to contain my excitement! Makes one think, in the good old days, one may have waited months for a parcel to arrive.

Your work is ever so inspiring, thank you.

Kind regards

Catherine's Country Quilts

This comment has been removed by the author.

Dear Barbara

'Civil War Sampler' arrived today and I am thrilled with it! Off to find some fabric...

May God bless you.

Catherine's Country Quilts

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Concha de Aromadetela said...

Hola, soy novata en esto pero me gusta mucho. Estoy encantada de haberos encontrado. En clase vamos a empezar la civil war quilt y la semana que viene empiezo el primer bloque. Estaremos en contacto y muchas gracias por toda la informaciĆ³n que dais en vuestro blog. Muchos besos

KimB said...

I too am so thankful to Barbara for doing this BOM, I purchased 6 fat quarters at a local festival 2 months ago, 2 weeks ago I went to a local quilt shop, they were having a sale so I grabbed 6 different Civil War fabrics, ends up all of them are her latest collection. Then I googled free civil war block patterns and here I am.
For those of you wondering how to download each month, I installed a pdf (you know the format for Adobe files) printer application so when I select printer in my browser I save the page as a pdf file. Hope this helps

sharong said...

What fabrics did Becky use in the first block?

costlules said...

The actually distinctive thing about it is that there are no matching seams within the blocks. Nice for newbies, or those wanting a quick and straightforward quilt to make.