The late-18th-century brick Dodge Warehouse still stands today at the foot of Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown. It is a reminder of the days when schooners crowded the wharves of a bustling Colonial tobacco port. Francis Dodge Sr. moved here from Massachusetts just two years before John Adams relocated a federal workforce of fewer than 200 people from Philadelphia to the new capital.
Fifty years later, Dodge and his six sons had built a sizable and highly profitable shipping concern, which included a steamboat nostalgically named the Salem. The Dodges, whose New England ways had clearly adapted to entrenched Southern ones, would come to play a part in the largest concerted slave escape ever attempted on the Underground Railroad.
On the morning of April 16, 1848, three slaves belonging to Francis Dodge Jr. were missing. He wasn't alone. Forty other local slave owners were missing a total of 77 slaves. That number included 15-year-old Mary Edmonson and her 13-year-old sister, Emily, two intelligent and attractive young women from Montgomery County who fled with four of their older brothers.
The plan had been in the works for some time. For several years, New York abolitionist William Chaplin had been working with black activists in Washington to free slaves. This was their most audacious plan so far. In March, Chaplin wrote to wealthy New York abolitionist Gerrit Smith -- the likely financier of the venture. Chaplin told Smith that they were waiting for a ship and that "[t]he number of persons here, who are anxious to immigrate, is increasing on my hands daily -- I believe there are not less than 75," including two sisters "of great interest" as well as their brothers.
One month later, a 54-ton vessel named the Pearl tied up at a quiet spot near the Seventh Street wharf. By prearranged signal, the escapees quietly slipped through the streets, crossed the Mall, where construction was just beginning on the Washington Monument, and made their way onto the ship. Their destination -- by way of the Potomac River south to Chesapeake Bay, then up the bay to the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal -- was freedom in the North.
Inside the ship, Mary and Emily Edmonson settled on boxes placed between two portholes with their brothers surrounding them. A few small lanterns illuminated the faces of their fellow fugitives -- adults and children -- who bore the surnames Bell, Brent, Calvert, Dodson, Marshall, Pope, Queen and Smallwood -- names well known here today. Some, including Mary and Emily, were related to free blacks who already owned homes. The slaves who crowded together in the Pearl's hold on that April night in 1848, 13 years before the outbreak of the Civil War, were forebears of Washington's black middle class.
Near midnight, the schooner pulled away from a drizzly city, where slave traders legally operated in and around the Center Market at Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, about a mile north of the wharf. But when Sunday dawned under a blanket of still fog, the ship's two white captains, Daniel Drayton and Edward Sayres, had barely budged the ship past Alexandria. Inside the cramped quarters, the passengers anxiously prayed for wind. By afternoon, the sun broke through the clouds and a brisk breeze filled the sails of the little schooner. The Pearl was finally on its way down the Potomac.
The sisters began an incredible journey that spring, one that extended far beyond 1848. Ordinarily, scant information would be found concerning two enslaved teenage girls from Montgomery County. But there is, in fact, a wealth of information.
In 1853, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of what is arguably the most powerful American novel of the 19th century, published a chapter on the Edmonsons in her nonfiction account of slavery. Two years later, Drayton published his memoirs detailing the daring escape. Then, in 1930, Carter G. Woodson, the eminent editor, scholar and father of Black History Month, published The Fugitives of the Pearl, a novelized version of the incident written by John H. Paynter, a graduate of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Paynter was the grandson of Mary and Emily's older sister Elizabeth Edmonson Brent. He grew up surrounded by family with firsthand knowledge of the escape attempt.
These three books, corroborated by and supplemented with
private letters, news-
paper accounts, court records, city directories, wills, photographs, census materials, land deeds and more recent journal articles, flesh out two extraordinary lives.
The Pearl soon ran into trouble. It had the misfortune to pass a steamer whose captain made note of the suspicious-looking schooner and reported its movements on reaching Washington. Then, when the Pearl reached the mouth of the Potomac, a fierce storm cut off any chance to sail up Chesapeake Bay.
In the face of the storm, Drayton later reported, he wanted to turn south toward the Atlantic to avoid capture. But Sayres, who owned the boat, refused. Instead, they turned into a creek that runs into Cornfield Harbor, near Point Lookout, Md., to wait out the night.
As the Pearl passengers and crew tried to sleep, the Dodges' Salem, with a posse of 34 well-armed men aboard, steamed down the Potomac in pursuit. Believed by some to have been tipped off by a grudge-bearing black hackman named Judson Diggs, the pursuers were just as likely to have acted on the report of the captain who had passed the Pearl.
One posse member later testified in court that the Salem had nearly given up the search when it spotted the schooner, partly hidden in the low marshes. The weaponless fugitives onboard considered making a stand. But resistance was futile in the face of the armed posse. One of the pursuers entered Drayton's cabin with a carbine. Another, described as intoxicated, suggested hanging Drayton from the yardarm, but more prudent men prevailed.
The Pearl was towed back to Washington, where angry crowds began to gather. With all of the men's hands bound, the fugitives were marched north from the steamboat wharf to the D.C. jail at Judiciary Square. Drayton reported that when the procession approached the hotel where slave trader Joseph Gannon plied his business -- the current site of the National Archives -- Gannon lunged at him with a knife. Authorities threw the two captains into a horse-pulled hack to haul them safely to jail.
Attention shifted quickly to the slaves. A voice from the crowd taunted Mary and Emily, asking them if they were ashamed for causing all this trouble. Emily replied that they would do the same again. When the girls' brother-in-law John Brent saw the runaways paraded by -- the brothers shackled and Mary and Emily walking with their arms around each other's waist for support -- he collapsed in the street.
Like many African American families in the Washington area, Mary and Emily's was an amalgam of free and enslaved individuals intertwined through marriage and circumstance. According to the 1850 U.S. Census, the population of the District of Columbia was just over 43,000. About 10,000 were free African Americans. About 3,600 were enslaved.
Paul Edmonson, Mary and Emily's father, was listed as a free man in a special 1832 Maryland census conducted for the purpose of encouraging free blacks to emigrate to Liberia. He chose to stay and three years later purchased 20 acres in the Norbeck area of Montgomery County, just east of what is now Georgia Avenue. Twelve years later, just months before six of his children boarded the Pearl, he purchased another 20 acres.
The girls' mother, Amelia Edmonson, was owned by a mentally incapacitated woman named Rebecca Culver, who lived in Colesville. In a 1796 will, Culver's father had bequeathed to her a young slave named Amelia, a feather bed and a modest sum of money. When Amelia married Paul Edmonson, she was allowed to live with him and raise their 14 children. But there was a catch: Under law common to all slave states, the 14 children born to Amelia and Paul Edmonson inherited their mother's legal status -- enslaved.
Mary and Emily were hired out to work as servants in two of Washington's elite private homes at a time when such houses were scarce and most senators and congressmen lived in boardinghouses. It was a common practice for slave owners to hire out their slaves to work in Washington's hotels, boardinghouses and private homes. Rebecca Culvers's sole support derived from the Edmonsons' labor.
Before they boarded the Pearl, Mary and Emily set out to say goodbye to three married sisters, whose husbands and friends had been allowed to purchase their freedom some years earlier. Those sisters, like all others in the free black community, faced the everyday constraints of the Black Codes. In addition to needing a permit for gatherings of more than seven people, free blacks were subject to a curfew, required to prove their free status when challenged and proscribed from most jobs. At one point, it became illegal for blacks even to fly kites. And a week after the Pearl left the city, Georgetown authorities banned permits for all black gatherings, with the exception of weddings.
After the Pearl fugitives reached the D.C. jail -- a garishly painted facility known as the "Blue Jug," on the site of today's National Building Museum -- disparate forces converged on them. An angry pro-slavery crowd followed outspoken abolitionist Joshua Giddings, an Ohio congressman who some thought was linked to the escape attempt. Giddings had to be quickly extricated from the crowd before he came to physical harm.
The mob, estimated by newspapers at 1,000 to 3,000 people, settled in for a three-day disturbance in which insults and bricks were hurled at the office of the National Era, a moderate abolitionist newspaper that had recently opened downtown.
The disturbance was soon brought to the attention of President James K. Polk, who ordered his Cabinet members to support attempts to calm the mob. He later wrote in his diary that "the outrage committed by stealing or seducing the slaves from their owners and the attempt of abolitionists to defend the white men who had perpetrated it was the real cause of all the trouble."
More threats were hurled on the floor of the Senate. Sen. Henry S. Foote of Mississippi invited the outspoken abolitionist Sen. John P. Hale of New Hampshire to visit his state. There, Foote assured Hale, on the record, he would soon "grace one of the tallest trees of the forest, with a rope around his neck."
Meanwhile, slave traders had arrived at the Blue Jug. With the aid of family and friends from Asbury Chapel, an African American Methodist congregation that the Edmonson family had helped to establish in 1836, Paul Edmonson desperately tried to delay the sale of his children. The family was particularly alarmed that the two sisters, steeped in Methodism, were now on a trajectory leading to a New Orleans market known to cater to men who sought young women for sex. But before the family could raise a deposit large enough to protect the girls, slave trader Joseph Bruin, of Bruin & Hill in Alexandria, stepped forward with $4,500 to purchase the six siblings.
Bruin transported Mary and Emily and their brothers to his slave pen at 1707 Duke St. Before long, they were transferred to Baltimore and loaded onto a 180-ton brig named the Union that was bound for New Orleans. The ship's manifest described Mary as 5-foot-6, Emily as 5-foot-1, and their complexion as brown.
After a journey marked by bad weather, rough seas and a shortage of water, Mary and Emily, along with their brothers, were taken to a slave pen on the Esplanade at the eastern edge of the French Quarter. In an 1849 book titled New Orleans -- As It Is, the anonymous author graphically described the pens as "a long row of low buildings, and on the front step, [and] on the side-walk, the slaves are made to stand for exhibition from 9 o'clock in the morning till 4 o'clock in the afternoon."
Bruin's slaves were required to be "on show" and ready for inspection much of every day. The Edmonsons later reported to Stowe that the first time Emily was presented to a serious buyer, her tears doomed the sale. She was slapped and threatened with a whipping should she be caught crying again.
But the selling season was ending and there would be few high-end purchases of what some described as "fancy" girls. When yellow fever broke out, Bruin made arrangements to return the sisters to the safer climate of Alexandria. Three of their brothers were sold but a fourth, Richard, returned with them as a nominally free man. John Jacob Astor III had donated $900 to help free the Edmonsons. But it was not enough to purchase the freedom of even one of the sisters. So it was used to buy Richard's freedom.
Underground Railroad operative Jacob Bigelow, a Washington attorney, traveled to Alexandria to negotiate with Bruin, because supportive Methodist ministers in New York were balking at the exorbitant sale price of $2,250 for the two girls. Soon, an impatient Bruin was threatening to send Mary and Emily to the Carolinas in an overland coffle, a common transport by foot in which the men, and sometimes the women, were handcuffed and then strung together in pairs with a long chain. With negotiations bogged down, a worried Paul Edmonson left for New York to plead for help to free his daughters.
Edmonson took letters from Washington supporters -- black and white -- to garner help from the ministers in New York. One letter quoted Bruin, a practicing Methodist, as allowing that "if there is a real Christian upon earth . . . Mary Edmonson is one." But he wouldn't let religion stand in the way of business. Finally, Bigelow lit a fire under the New York ministers. He bluntly told them that these girls "of elegant form and very fine faces" were destined to be sold for prostitution. The sisters' plight captured the imagination of the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, a young Congregationalist preacher who had recently arrived at the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn.
On October 23, 1848, Beecher unleashed a passionate plea for the two young women. "A sale by a human flesh dealer of Christian girls!" he exhorted a rapt gathering. After suggesting the wrenching details of the girls' likely fate, he said, "Suppose them so comely that no price less than $3,000 would purchase them. Suppose this, and act as you would act then!" An observer reported that the people in the pews were visibly shaken, and in response men emptied their pockets while women tore off jewelry to contribute to the cause.
Some years later, Beecher recalled that "of all the meetings I have attended in my life, for a panic of sympathy I never saw one that surpassed that." That day he found a voice that would propel him to the forefront of the antislavery movement.
With money in hand, Paul Edmonson and William Chaplin, the Washington activist who had helped to arrange the Pearl escape, hurried to Bruin's slave pen in Alexandria. Bruin took their money and released Mary and Emily, but not before he gave each girl $5 with which to celebrate their freedom.
Four weeks later, Mary and Emily stood in that same New York church and watched Beecher hold their bill of sale triumphantly over his head. Now, supporters were being asked to contribute money to send the sisters to school.
The sisters were able to begin basic literacy classes and soon were enrolled in the interracial New York Central College in Cortland, N.Y., where they did laundry and cleaning to support themselves. With their new high profile and appealing singing voices, they were in demand at anti-slavery rallies around New York state.
Chaplin wrote to Gerrit Smith that the rescue of the Edmonson sisters had "excited extraordinary interest in New York and has done and will do more for the anti-slavery cause in the hearts of the people than any one hundred thousand dollars."
In the summer of 1850, as Congress was about to pass the Fugitive Slave Act granting slave owners almost unbridled power to seize runaway slaves in the North, prominent abolitionists called for a protest convention in Cazenovia, N.Y.
Mary and Emily decided to go. So many others did, too, that on the second day the overflowing crowd was moved outdoors into an apple orchard. There, amid the speeches, resolutions and singing, a daguerreotypist set up his camera. This rare image of an abolitionist rally shows Mary Edmonson standing next to Gerrit Smith. She is just behind the greatest antislavery orator of them all -- 33-year-old Frederick Douglass. Emily, on the other side of the seated Douglass, casts a sideways glance into the crowd.
Under Douglass's gavel, the convention declared all slaves to be prisoners of war, condemned a slaveholder's property right as a robber-right, and warned of an inevitable insurrection of the Southern slaves unless they were emancipated. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act one month later. The law invigorated the abolitionist movement. Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was the Rev. Beecher's sister, soon wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, a fictionalized treatment of slavery that often is remembered for what is seen as a demeaning portrait of the main character. Demeaning or not, the book brought the realities of slavery into the homes of America.
While Mary and Emily continued their studies in New York, Paul and Amelia Edmonson became increasingly concerned that their still-enslaved younger children would soon be sold. With Paul ailing, Amelia boarded a train to New York to seek help to free her children.
Mary and Emily met their mother at Rev. Beecher's home. He immediately turned them over to his sister, Harriet. The Edmonsons were certainly known to the writer. In the concluding remarks of Uncle Tom's Cabin -- which was initially serialized in the National Era newspaper in Washington -- Stowe had cited Mary and Emily as evidence that attractive young slave women could be sold for sex. As Mary, Emily and their mother began to tell their story, Stowe realized she had powerful material on her hands for her current project, a nonfiction account of slavery designed to counter critics who charged that she had painted an unrealistically harsh portrait of slavery in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Stowe vowed to free the younger Edmonson children and their mother, too.
And she would do more. She would send Mary and Emily to the Young Ladies Preparatory School at Oberlin College in Ohio, where they boarded with Prof. Henry Cowles and his wife, Minerva. Stowe wrote to Minerva Cowles that the sisters were of a "noble family" and that they had been forced to work beyond their strength to support themselves while they studied. She added that she feared for Mary's health.
Six months later, Mary was battling tuberculosis. She wanted Emily to take her home to Washington, but Stowe resisted, fearing that the recent publication of The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, with an entire chapter devoted to the Edmonsons and the Pearl affair, might expose the girls to danger in the nation's capital.
Mary would never see her mother again. By the middle of May, Emily and the Cowles family were on a round-the-clock vigil. Paul Edmonson managed to reach his daughter's side just before she died on May 18, 1853, at age 20. Five years after his enslaved daughter had boarded the Pearl, she was buried as a free woman of color in an Oberlin cemetery.
A despondent Emily, unable to continue her studies without her sister, returned home with her father. Emily later wrote to the Cowleses to thank them for their kindness. "Though I am in Washington with all of my dear friends," she wrote, "my heart still lingers around Oberlin, for I have left there, beneath the green turf, one that I loved as I did myself."
Stowe arranged for Emily to study under and work for Myrtilla Miner, a formidable white woman who, in 1851, had opened a school in Washington to train young black women to be teachers. Frederick Douglass had warned Miner that the project was far too dangerous an undertaking in a city where slavery was still legal. Nonetheless, Miner eventually purchased land for the school on a circle in an undeveloped part of the city that would later be named for Civil War admiral Samuel Dupont.
The mayor of Washington publicly assailed the school on the grounds that it would attract free blacks to the city. To protect themselves and the school, Emily and Miner practiced their pistol shooting. To further secure the school, Paul Edmonson and his wife and younger children -- all finally emancipated through Stowe's efforts -- moved into a cabin on the grounds.
In 1860, as the election of Abraham Lincoln signaled upheaval in the country at large, Emily Edmonson's world was changing, too. Her older brother Ephraim, whom she had left in New Orleans, was now free and listed as a city resident in the Washington directory. By this time, brother Samuel had successfully escaped from New Orleans to the West Indies. Of the four brothers with her on the Pearl, only John was unaccounted for. Emily, along with her father and younger siblings, became a property owner. She was the only member of the family who could sign her name on the deed; the others made their mark. She signed as Emily C.E. Fisher, indicating that she had married. Little is known about this union except that it was short-lived and probably was ended by her husband's death. Later in 1860, Emily married Larkin Johnson.
According to a grandson's journal, Paul Edmonson died on April 16, 1863, at age 84. His death came exactly one year after slavery was abolished in the nation's capital by an act of Congress. Not long after his death, four of his grandsons took up the fight for freedom as soldiers in the Union Army. The names of Edward Young, John H. Brent, Richard Edmonson and Ephraim Edmonson -- the last two were sons of Pearl veterans -- are inscribed on the African American Civil War Memorial on U Street NW.
Emily's mother purchased a home at 1741 L St. NW, just west of Connecticut Avenue, where she would live for the rest of her life. In a will drafted in 1865, Amelia Edmonson stated that she had finally heard from John, the last of the six siblings from the Pearl to surface.
Amelia Edmonson, enslaved in Montgomery County until she was close to 70 years old, died in 1874 at age 92. She was buried in a Quaker cemetery on Adams Mill Road, on property now owned by the National Zoo. Her remains were later moved to Woodlawn Cemetery across the Anacostia River.
Emily and Larkin Johnson purchased two lots on Howard Road SE from the Freedman's Bureau and became founding members of the Hillsdale community in Anacostia. Years later, one of Emily's granddaughters wrote that "Grandma & Frederick Douglass were like sister and brother -- great abolitionists. I sat on his knee in his office in the house that is now a museum in Anacostia where we were born." That land passed down through Emily and Larkin's four children, with the last parcel remaining in descendants' hands until 1963, when it was sold to the D.C. government.
Emily Catherine Edmonson Fisher Johnson died in her Howard Road home on September 15, 1895. Her death certificate contains treasured information: the family's African roots. It states that her father was born on the island of Madagascar.
On an overcast afternoon last June, a few miles from where the Pearl was captured in Southern Maryland so many years ago, Edmonson descendants Paul Johnson and Diane Young joined a small group gathered along a bank of the St. Mary's River. Johnson, a retired federal senior executive who lives in Northwest Washington, is descended from one of Mary and Emily's older sisters. He is a member of the Asbury United Methodist Church that Mary and Emily once attended. Young, a Montgomery County school media specialist, is descended from Mary and Emily's oldest sister and the brother-in-law who collapsed when he saw them paraded as captured runaways.
Johnson and Young were here to honor and celebrate a more recent journey down the Potomac. Five days earlier, under the sponsorship of the Potomac Heritage Partnership and the Alexandria Seaport Foundation, students from the Muncaster Challenge Program for middle school children in Montgomery County set sail from the Seventh Street wharf. The students, all removed from neighborhood schools for behavioral reasons, had been placed in Muncaster's innovative program, which fashions the study of mathematics, English and other core subjects around the Underground Railroad. Under the supervision of an experienced sailing instructor, they had sailed more than 100 miles, stopping along the way to share the Pearl story with students from other schools.
With the students' two-masted sailboat rocking gently in the background, Johnson announced to the students and their supporters that his family was creating a nonprofit Edmonson foundation to educate the public about a family that demonstrated perseverance, integrity and love in the face of extraordinary challenges.
Later, Paul Johnson and his wife, Amy, along with Diane Young and her grown daughter, Dawne, drove to Cornfield Harbor. Standing on a bridge that stretches over a creek flowing into the harbor, the Edmonson descendants quietly looked out over the water where a crowded schooner on a journey for freedom once sought shelter.
Mary Kay Ricks is a freelance writer who conducts walking tours. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.