The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Desperate for freedom, 77 enslaved people tried to escape aboard the Pearl. They almost made it.

The largest nonviolent escape attempt by enslaved people in American history unfolded in the nation’s capital in 1848.

This abolitionist illustration depicts slavery in Washington, D.C., with the Capitol building in the background. (Library of Congress)

A previous version of this article identified the wrong president as the one who pardoned Daniel Drayton and Edward Sayres. It was Millard Fillmore, not James K. Polk.

Paul Edmonson was a free Black man. But his children weren’t.

Though his wife Amelia was allowed to live with him on his Maryland farm in Montgomery County, she was still enslaved. And in pre-Civil War America, a Black baby’s status as enslaved or free passed through the mother. So their children, 14 of whom lived to adulthood, were considered the property of his wife’s enslaver, who lived solely off the income brought by “hiring out” the Edmonson’s children.

Over the years, the three oldest daughters had had their freedom purchased by their husbands; their oldest son had been caught in an escape attempt and “sold South.” The Edmonsons were desperate to find a path to freedom for the rest of their children. That’s how they became involved in the largest nonviolent escape attempt by enslaved people in American history.

It happened in Southwest Washington on April 15, 1848. Now, community members have formed the Pearl Group — named after the ship on which 77 Black Americans tried to escape to freedom — and commemorated the incident Thursday evening in an in-person and virtual event that attracted more than 100 people. They hope it will become an annual event.

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By the 1840s, about 40 percent of Black Marylanders were free. And over the border in the District of Columbia, where many of the Edmonson children worked, there were three times as many free Black people than there were enslaved, according to 1850 census data unearthed by Mary Kay Ricks, who has written about the Pearl incident in the Washington Post Magazine and in the book “Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad.”

It was that free Black community that came up with the plan: Hire a ship and crew to quietly spirit away enslaved Black people in the middle of the night and sail to the free state of New Jersey. They enlisted the help of White abolitionist William Chaplin, who got funding and hired a captain and in turn chartered a ship.

The whisper network among the District’s Black community found “not less than 75” people “anxious to immigrate,” Chaplin wrote, including a man former first lady Dolley Madison enslaved and purportedly another in President James K. Polk’s White House. Six were Edmonson children — four sons and two daughters named Mary and Emily. The girls, then 15 and 13, were servants in the homes of Washington’s elite.

Even before the escape attempt, Chaplin noted the Edmonson sisters to other abolitionists in New York. They were beautiful, light-skinned, polite and pious Christians — just the sort of formerly enslaved they liked to showcase in anti-slavery events.

April 15 was a Saturday night. Many enslaved people were allowed to rest on Sundays, so they hoped their enslavers wouldn’t notice their absence until Monday. The escapees quietly left the homes of their enslavers, made their way to the Southwest docks and boarded the Pearl. Along with the 77 escapees there were only three others onboard: Daniel Drayton, the captain; Edward Sayres, co-captain and shipowner; and a cook.

They set sail in the small hours of April 16, southeast at first down the Potomac River to get around southern Maryland. Then they were supposed to head north up the Chesapeake Bay, to the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal and freedom. But the wind betrayed them, becoming so still it took all of Sunday to sail down the Potomac. Then, a storm forced them to anchor the ship near Point Lookout in Maryland.

When the White residents of Washington realized the escapees were missing, they didn’t have to rely on the wind. They got a steamship to give chase and caught up with the Pearl where it was anchored. The ship was towed back to Washington under the point of several guns, and as the escapees were carted off to jail, an angry crowd harassed them. Drayton and Sayres were abused so harshly by the crowd that authorities had to hide them for fear they would be killed. A pro-slavery riot raged for three days.

Nearly all of the escapees were sold South, including Mary and Emily Edmonson and their four brothers. At a slave market in New Orleans, they faced being sold as sex slaves, but when an outbreak of yellow fever hit, the slave traders, wanting to protect their merchandise, sent them back to a slave pen in Alexandria. (A bronze sculpture of the sisters now stands near the site where they were kept on Duke Street.)

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When their father learned where they were, he enlisted the help of White abolitionists in New York to raise the funds to buy their freedom. They were emancipated in November 1848 and educated in New York, where they made anti-slavery speeches and attended anti-slavery meetings. Mary died at 18 of tuberculosis; Emily later returned to the District and helped to settle Anacostia alongside fellow Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Though the escape attempt was unsuccessful, it had far-reaching consequences; the saga of the Edmonson sisters garnered national attention in abolitionist newspapers, and two years later, the slave trade, but not slavery, was banned in the District.

Drayton and Sayres were imprisoned for four years until President Millard Fillmore pardoned them. Slavery ended in Washington on April 16, 1862, 14 years to the day after the Pearl tried to sail away.

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