The Pearl Incident in 1848 was the largest recorded escape attempted by slaves in United States history. On April 15, 1848, seventy-seven slaves attempted to escape Washington D.C. by sailing away on a schooner called The Pearl. Their plan was to sail south on the Potomac River, then north up the Chesapeake Bay and Delaware River to the free state of New Jersey, a distance of nearly 225 miles. The attempt was organized by both whites and free blacks, who expanded the escape to include many more slaves. Paul Jennings, a former slave who had served President James Madison, helped plan the escape.
The slaves, men, women and children, found their passage delayed by winds running against the ship. Two days later, they were captured on the Chesapeake Bay near Point Lookout in Maryland by an armed posse traveling by steamboat. As punishment, the owners soon sold most of the slaves to traders who took them to the Deep South. Freedom for the two Edmonson sisters was purchased that year with funds raised by Henry Ward Beecher's Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York.
When the ship and slaves were brought back to Washington, a pro-slavery riot broke out in the city. The mob tried to attack an abolitionist newspaper and other known anti-slavery activists. Extra police patrolled for three days to try to contain the violence, until the unrest ended. The events provoked a slavery debate in Congress. They are believed to have influenced its provision in the Compromise of 1850 that ended the slave trade in the District of Columbia, although not slavery in the jurisdiction. The escape inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe in writing her novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and added to abolitionist support in the North.
Three white men were initially charged on numerous counts with aiding the escape and transporting the slaves; the captains Daniel Drayton and Edward Sayres were tried and convicted in 1848. After serving four years in prison, in 1852 they were pardoned by President Millard Fillmore.
Like the surrounding states of Maryland and Virginia and others to the South, Washington, DC was a "slave society," as defined by the historian Ira Berlin in his Many Thousands Gone: A History of Two Centuries of American Slavery. It had a major slave market and was a center of the domestic slave trade; with its connection to the Chesapeake Bay by the Potomac River, it was a transit point for slaves being shipped or marched overland from the Upper South to markets or owners in the Deep South. Numerous families in the city held slaves, generally as domestic servants and artisans. Some owners hired out their slaves to work as servants or on the waterfront and in other urban jobs.
Abolitionists, both free blacks and whites, were active in the city in trying to end the slave trade and slavery. In addition, since the 1840s, there had been an organized group that supported the Underground Railroad in the district. White supporters included the abolitionists William L. Chaplin and Gerrit Smith of New York, who helped find the captain Daniel Drayton and pay for a ship. The black community made the project its own, notifying so many families that soon there were 75 slaves who wanted to be part of the escape.
In 1848 free blacks outnumbered slaves in the District of Columbia by three to one; the community demonstrated in its planning for the escape that it could act in a unified way. They wanted to plan an event that would capture the attention of Congress (which was dominated by representatives from the South because of the three-fifths compromise under the Constitution) and the country to promote an end to slavery in the District of Columbia.
For two days prior to the slaves' escape, many city residents had been celebrating the news from France of the expulsion of King Louis Philippe and the founding of the French Second Republic, with its assertion of universal human rights and liberty. Some free blacks and slaves had plans to gain such freedom for many slaves. People gathered to hear addresses in Lafayette Square in front of the White House. As the historian John H. Paynter recounted,
"Among the addresses which aroused the large crowd to enthusiasm were those of Senator Patterson of Tennessee and Senator Foote of Mississippi. The former likened the Tree of Liberty to the great cotton-wood tree of his section, whose seed is blown far and wide, while the latter spoke eloquently of the universal emancipation of man and the approaching recognition in all countries of the great principles of equality and brotherhood."
Paul Jennings, a former slave of President James Madison, was among the free black organizers of the escape. Among the slaves planning to leave were six siblings of the Edmonson family, and a variety of other families. The Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay provided a water route to the free states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but the organizers had to acquire a ship to transport the slaves over the 225 miles of water. Jennings confessed his role in organizing the escape in a letter to his mentor, the northern senator Daniel Webster, an abolitionist. Jennings escaped public notice at the time for his role.
The captain Daniel Drayton was from Philadelphia and supported abolition, but admitted that he was offered money to transport the slaves. He found a ship and willing partner in Edward Sayres, the pilot of the 54-ton schooner, The Pearl. His only other crew was Chester English, a cook.
"In the darkness of the night seventy-six colored men, women, and children found their way to the schooner." With Drayton and Sayres accepting the risk of transporting them, on Saturday night, April 15, the slaves boarded the ship. Chester English, the cook, was on The Pearl to supply the passengers until they reached freedom.
The slaves included six grown siblings from the family of Paul and Amelia Edmonson; because Amelia was a slave, their fourteen children had been born into slavery. Paul Edmonson was a free black. The two sisters and four brothers had all been "hired out" by their master to work for pay in the city.
Escape plan and capture
The organizers intended for the ship to sail 100 miles down the Potomac River, then 125 miles north up the Chesapeake Bay to freedom in New Jersey, a free state. But, the wind was against the schooner, so the ship had to anchor for the night. The next morning, numerous slaveholders realized their slaves were missing and sent out an armed posse of 35 men by one slaveholder's steamboat.
Drayton described the capture in his later memoir:
"A Mr. Dodge, of Georgetown, a wealthy old gentleman, originally from New England, missed three or four slaves from his family, and a small steamboat, of which he was the proprietor, was readily obtained. Thirty-five men, including a son or two of old Dodge, and several of those whose slaves were missing, volunteered to man her; and they set out about Sunday noon."
In 1916, the historian John H. Paynter identified Judson Diggs as the slave who had betrayed the fugitives. He had driven one of the participants to the dock. After the man failed to pay him, Diggs reported the suspicious activity. Paynter, a descendant of the Edmonson siblings had interviewed descendants of the escapees. He wrote: “Judson Diggs, one of their own people, a man who in all reason might have been expected to sympathize with their effort, took upon himself the role of Judas."
Supporters of slavery were outraged about the attempted escape, and an angry mob formed. For three days, crowds were riled in the Washington Riot, and numerous police were called in to protect one of their targets. They fixed on Gamaliel Bailey, the publisher of the anti-slavery newspaper The New Era. As they suspected him because of his record of abolitionist publishing, a mob of slave owners almost destroyed the newspaper building, but were held off by the police. (The abolitionist Frederick Douglass later took over the paper and renamed it The New National Era.)
Once the mob dissipated, the slave owners debated how to punish their slaves. They sold all seventy-seven slaves to slave traders from Georgia and Louisiana, who would take them to the Deep South and the New Orleans slave market. There they would likely be sold to work on the large sugar and cotton plantations, which held two-thirds of the slaves in the South by the time of the Civil War. Friends and families scrambled to try to locate their loved ones and buy them from the traders before they were taken south. The case of the two young and attractive Edmonson sisters particularly attracted national attention.
Drayton, Sayres, and English were initially indicted; the educator Horace Mann, who had helped the slaves from the La Amistad mutiny, was hired as their main lawyer. The following July, both Drayton and Sayres were charged with 77 counts each of aiding a slave escape and illegally transporting a slave. English was released because his role was minor and indirect.
After appeals were filed and charges were reduced, a jury convicted both Drayton and Sayres. They were sentenced to jail because neither could pay the fines associated with the convictions and the court costs, amounting to $10,000. After they had been imprisoned for four years, Senator Charles Sumner, an abolitionist, petitioned President Millard Fillmore for pardons for the men. The President pardoned them in 1852.
In response to the escape attempt and the riot, Congress ended the slave trade in the District of Columbia, although it did not abolish slavery. Prohibiting the slave trade was a provision of the Compromise of 1850, which dealt primarily with the issue of how new states in the West would be admitted, as to the question of slavery for them.
- Mary Kay Ricks, Escape On The Pearl: The Heroic Bid For Freedom On The Underground Railroad, New York: William Morrow, 2007
- Mary Beth Corrigan, "The Legacy and Significance of a Failed Mass Slave Escape", H-Net Reviews: Josephine Pacheco, The Pearl: A Failed Slave Escape on the Potomac, April 2006, accessed 12 Jan 2009
- John H. Paynter, “The Fugitives of the Pearl (excerpt)”, The Journal of Negro History, 1 (July 1916), 4, at HU ArchivesNet, Howard University, accessed 23 January 2007.
- "David T. Patterson", Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress
- Josephine F. Pacheco, The Pearl: A Failed Slave Escape on the Potomac, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 53, 55-58.
- Wilhelmus Bogart Bryan, A History of the National Capital: From its Foundation through the Period of the Adoption of the Organic Act, 2: 1815-1878 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1916), 385. Note: Ricks' 2007 book and other sources state the number of slaves as seventy-seven.
- Daniel Drayton, Personal Memoir of Daniel Drayton: For Four Years and Four Months, A Prisoner (For Charity’s Sake) in Washington Jail, Boston, MA: B. Marsh, 1853; reproduced in Project Gutenberg, pp. 13, 29-53, accessed 2 February 2007
- Constance McLaughlin Green, Washington: Village and Capital, 1800-1878, 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962), 176.
- David L. Lewis, District of Columbia: A Bicentennial History, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1976), 54-56.
- Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, (Boston: John P. Jewett & Co, 1852; reprint edition, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960), 491.
- Paynter, John H., The Fugitives of the Pearl (1930), book-length fictionalized account published by Carter G. Woodson
- Drayton, Daniel, Personal Memoir of Daniel Drayton: For Four Years and Four Months, A Prisoner (For Charity’s Sake) in Washington Jail (1853)
- Paynter, John H., “The Fugitives of the Pearl (excerpt)”, Excerpted and reprinted from The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 1, No. 3, July 1916, Howard University Archives
- Rohrs, Richard C., "Antislavery politics and the Pearl incident", Encyclopedia.com[dead link]
- The Pearl Coalition, Official website
- Simmons, Deborah, "The Pearl incident", The Washington Times, 8 January 2004