On April 15, 1848, 77 enslaved and free women, men, and children sought freedom in the North on the schooner Pearl, boarding at night south of the Seventh Street Wharf, once located near here on the Potomac River. They were assisted by black and white abolitionists. The group intended to sail down the Potomac into the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware Canal toward New Jersey. Due to bad weather, they did not reach the bay, stopping at the mouth of the Potomac about 100 miles southeast of Washington. There they were overtaken by the 30 whites who had volunteered to stop them. After their capture, they were either imprisoned or sold into slavery in the South. A few secured their freedom and became abolitionists. Their desire for freedom widely publicized the prominence of slavery and the slave trade in a city that symbolized liberty. Although unsuccessful, it was the nation's largest single attempted escape.
The most well-known persons on the Pearl were members of the Edmondson family — Mary, Emily, Ephraim, Richard, and Samuel. Also on the Pearl was Alfred Pope, who would become an entrepreneur and leader in Georgetown's Herring Hill after emancipation. Daniel Drayton and Edward Sayres, white Philadelphians, chartered and captained the schooner.
John H. Paynter (1862-1947), a descendant of the Edmondson sisters, wrote an article for the Journal of Negro History in 1916 that described the event. In 1930 Paynter published an expanded version as the popular history book, Fugitives of the Pearl.
Walter C. Clephane, “Lewis Clephane: A Pioneer Washington Republican,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society 21 (1918): 263-277.
Stanley Harrold, Subversives: Antislavery Community in Washington, DC, 1828-1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003), 116-145.
David L. Lewis, District of Columbia: A History (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1976).
Hilary Russell, “The Operation of the Underground Railroad in Washington, D.C., c. 1800-1860: Final Research Report,” Historical Society of Washington, D.C., and the National Park Service, July 2001.
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