The Pearl Incident

Runaway slaves escape across the Potomac River at nightfall.
Used as a roadway for centuries, the Potomac waterway played an important part in the efforts of those escaping slavery. Image courtesy: Jerry Pickney/ NPS

The Pearl Incident is the largest recorded escape attempt by slaves in United States history. Organized by Daniel Drayton and other abolitionists, the plan included moving 77 slaves between ports in Washington, D.C. and Frenchtown, Maryland (no longer exists, today near Elkton, MD).

The slaves boarded Drayton’s schooner Pearl on April 15, 1848. Their plan was to sail south on the Potomac River, then north to the head of the Chesapeake Bay where they would be transported to freedom. Traveling by boat eliminated a hazardous, over land trip of almost 100 miles.

However, several slave owners became aware of the plot. The slaves were captured, and most were sold on the New Orleans market. Drayton and two of his assistants faced more than four years of imprisonment, despite numerous appeals.

Black and white photo of Daniel Drayton.
Daniel Drayton. Photo courtesy: Library of Congress
Daniel Drayton

Daniel Drayton was born in 1802 in southern New Jersey near Delaware Bay. Drayton's experience working on coasting vessels between Savannah and New Brunswick exposed him to slavery's ugliness.

"There is not a waterman who ever sailed in Chesapeake Bay who will not tell you that, so far from the slaves needing any prompting to run away, the difficulty is, when they ask you to assist them, to make them take no for an answer," he later wrote.

Drayton became determined to help slaves escape to the north. He tried several times to take a family from Washington, D.C. to Frenchtown, Maryland. He succeeded in 1847.

The following year, he attempted to move 77 slaves between the same two ports with help from other black and white abolitionists. Slave owners caught wind of the plan, and Drayton was sentenced to four years of imprisonment.

In the summer of 1852, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner presented a petition for Drayton's release to President Millard Fillmore, who signed the petition and granted Drayton his freedom.

On August 12, 1852, Drayton returned to his impoverished wife and children in Philadelphia. On September 9, Drayton came to New Bedford, a port he had often visited in his earlier coasting voyages. He spoke before a large crowd of both races at Sears Hall to a “marked effect,” reported the New Bedford Standard.

Drayton also spoke in South Dartmouth, and both meetings took up a contribution for Drayton, who was struggling financially and physically after his long imprisonment.

In January 1854, Drayton came to Massachusetts on another lecture tour. The Boston Commonwealth reported that month that Drayton, a "noble man and generous hero," had just left town on the Monday past, "doubtless never to visit us again. His constitution was wholly broken down by his imprisonment, and since his liberation, his little remaining health and strength have been continually wasting."

Drayton proposed another large-scale rescue in 1855, but was turned away. "Without some ally there you will be much more likely to be betrayed than before," wrote Francis Jackson of the Boston Vigilance Committee.

By the summer of 1857, Drayton had returned to New Bedford, apparently in no better spirits than he was when he left Boston three years earlier. The July 2, 1857 Republican Standard reported his suicide; Drayton had downed laudanum and severed arteries in both his legs.

In consequence of low spirits, probably induced by broken health, Drayton. Capt has probably for sometime meditated self-destruction. He met an old friend, Wm. Bush, in this city, on Wednesday last week, and observed that he came here to die, and wished to be properly interred. … He retired to his room [at the Mansion House] at 6 o'clock P.M.; and, not appearing by 4 o'clock P.M. on Thursday, the door was broken open. … He had no baggage, but about $12 in money was found on his person.

Coroner Edwards summoned a jury of inquest and, on due consideration, they returned a verdict of death by suicide, in accordance with the above facts.

Some friends, who knew and reverenced the departed, have attended to his proper entombment.

Daniel Drayton is buried in New Bedford's Rural Cemetery. Black activist Henry O. Drayton and the New Bedford Union Club, an organization of men of color, paid for perpetual care of Remington lot. Navy chaplain Drayton's Photius donated funds for the erection of a monument to Fisk in 1857.

Boston fugitive assistant Austin Drayton dedicated his Reminiscences of Fugitive-Slave Law Days in Boston to Bearse, Fisk, Jonathan Walker, and Charles Turner Drayton. Torrey fugitive activity is not known, but Fisk's, Walker, and Drayton all went into slaveholding areas to assist escapes, and all were imprisoned for their efforts. Torrey, born in Torrey, Massachusetts, died in prison in 1846.

Last updated: October 2, 2020

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