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Pearl Incident

Washington, D.C.

An 1848 attempted escape of enslaved African Americans in antebellum District of Columbia differentiated the immorality from the illegality of helping the enslaved to escape. By the 1840s, the District was a slaveholding community surrounded by slaveholding states. Even so, the District had one of the largest concentrations of free African American populations in the south, and was located close to free states and the Chesapeake Bay, providing opportunities for escapes.

On April 15, 1848, 76 freedom seekers escaped from owners in Washington City, Georgetown, and Alexandria; these African Americans were workers in homes, boardinghouses, hotels, and perhaps even the White House. Organizers of the escape included: free men like Paul Jennings (a former slave of James Madison and butler of Daniel Webster) and Daniel Bell, enslaved African Samuel Edmonson, and white abolitionists Gerrit Smith and William Chaplin.

The intended means of escape was a 54-ton bay-craft schooner called the Pearl, moored at the 7th St. Wharf on the Potomac River and chartered by Daniel Drayton. To succeed, the schooner needed to reach the Chesapeake Bay, 100 miles away, and continue 120 miles to Frenchtown, NJ. Free African American Judson Diggs betrayed the secret, and the steamboat Salem overtook the schooner.

The attempted escape outraged proslavery advocates, who feared for their own security given the size of the escape. The captured freedom seekers and Pearl crew were paraded in chains in Washington, and a slave trader attacked Drayton. Since abolitionists were publicly blamed for the attempted escape, a large mob attacked the National Era, an abolitionist newspaper edited by Gamaliel Bailey.

Northern newspapers covered the attempted escape and the fate of recaptured, who were sold south. Members of the Edmonson family were redeemed from New Orleans with help from northern sympathizers. Drayton was convicted, but Senator Charles Sumner obtained a presidential pardon for him in 1852. Subsequent publicity won followers to the anti-slavery cause.

With more support in Congress, the interstate slave trade was abolished in DC as part of the 1850 Compromise and Harriet Beecher Stowe was inspired to write a novel serialized (1851-52) in the National Era, titled Uncle Tom’s Cabin.