The Pearl Incident in 1848 (fourteen years before United States 16th president Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809 – April 15, 1865), signed the (D.C. Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862), was the largest recorded nonviolent escape attempt by slaves in United States history.
Daniel and Mary Bell initiated the planning for the largest slave escape in the history of United States. Daniel was a free African American blacksmith working in the Navy Yard in the District of Columbia. Mary Bell was still a slave and as well as their children according to the “Partus Sequitur Ventrem “that the child followed the status that of his or her mother”. Daniel tried many times to purchase his wife and children freedom form their owner, but was unsuccessful in do so.
The escape was organized by both whites and free blacks, including free black Paul Jennings (1799–1874), a former slave to United States 4th President James Madison, Jr. (March 5,1751 – June 28, 1836). The Bells approached William Lawrence Chaplin (October 27, 1796 – April 28, 1871), a radical abolitionist who before helped several Washington D.C. slaves successfully run away before. Chaplin contacted a fellow activist in Philadelphia who recommended Daniel Drayton to organize the escape. Chaplin and abolitionist of New York Gerrit Smith (March 6, 1797 – December 28, 1874), provided the financial backing for the mission and Drayton took care of the details. Drayton found a ship and willing partner in Edward Sayres, the captain of the 54-ton schooner, The Pearl. Sayres only other crew was Chester English, a cook. News of the Pearl spread like wildfire through the slave community.
When Drayton arrived to Washington shortly before the voyage, he met with one of his contacts who told him that the plan had change dramatically. Drayton stated that he would welcome anyone who arrived on the boat “before eleven o’clock… the others would have to remain behind”.
Late in the evening of April 14, 1848, slaves across the city and surrounding areas slipped away and crept through the city, making their way to the Pearl. When Drayton and his crewman docked at the Wharf, they had no idea that there would seventy-six enslaved men, women, and children awaiting, including members of Jennings family and the Edmonson sisters. Drayton and Sayres accepted the risk of transporting them, and the slaves boarded the ship.
The Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay provided a water route to the free states. The plan was to sail down the Potomac River, and then end up at the Chesapeake Bay to Philadelphia, where the fugitives could hide from their white masters and live in freedom. The voyage would cover approximately 225 miles of water: 100 miles down the Potomac River, then 125 miles North up the Chesapeake Bay.
Casting off in the dark, the Pearl easily down the Potomac River, but when they approached the mouth of the river, tides and fierce winds prevented the ship from entering the Chesapeake Bay. The only option was to anchor for the night and hoping that any pursuit would be delayed as well.
At daybreak on Sunday, numerous slaveholders awoke to find no blaze in their fireplaces and no breakfast on their tables, then they realized their slaves were gone and they were outraged. A wealthy white slave owner from New England and had four slaves that also escape on the Pearl, owned a small steam boat called the Salem Volunteered to pursuit of the Pearl with 35 armed white men, and local law enforcement officers. The party of the Salem found the Pearl early Monday morning near Point Lookout in Maryland. The armed men quickly boarded the ship, realizing they was outnumbered the slaves along with their saviors surrendered and was towed back to Washington to face the consequences of their actions.
When the ship and slaves were brought back to Washington, supporters of slavery were outraged by the attempted slave escape, and a angry mob formed. The Pearl crew were paraded in chains in Washington, and the mob attack Drayton. The rioters fixated on Gamaliel Bailey, publisher of The New Era, an anti-slavery newspaper. They were convinced that Bailey had helped plan the mass escape (which he had not), because of his record of abolitionist publishing. The rioters threw bricks and stones and broke out the windows of the Era’s press office, no further damage was done to Bailey or his office.
Once the rioters dissipated, the slave owners debated how to punish their slaves. On April 21, 1848 they sold all seventy-six slaves who were involved in the Pearl Incident to slave traders from Georgia and Louisiana, who then sold them in the Deep South and the New Orleans slave market. There they would likely be sold to work on the large sugar and cotton plantation, where they would labor for the rest of their lives under the unforgiven sun of the South.
Daniel Drayton and Edward Sayres were charged with 77 counts each of aiding the escape – one count or each slave – and transporting the slaves. Cook Chester English was released because he had no knowledge of the Pearl’s cargo or destination. Educator Horace Mann, who had helped the slaves from the La Amistad mutiny, was hired as their attorney.
A jury convicted both Drayton and Sayres, and they were given prison sentences because neither could pay their fines and court costs, a total of about $10,000. After the men had served four years of their prison sentence, abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner petitioned the president for their release. In 1852, President Millard Fillmore pardoned Drayton and Sayres, who were by then widely admired in the black community.
In response to the escape attempt and the riot, Congress ended the slave trade in the District of Columbia, although it did not abolish slavery. Prohibiting the slave trade was a provision of the Compromise of 1850, which dealt primarily with the issue of how new states in the West would be admitted, as to the question of slavery for them.
Sixty-eight years later in 1916, historian John H. Paynter discovered that a slave named Judson Diggs was a driver who had been hired to take two slaves to the Wharf that April night in 1848. They arrived just in time to board the Pearl before it set sail. Diggs became irate when the men had no money to pay him for the ride.
When news spread the following day about the mass slave exodus, Diggs reported what he had observed at the dock that night. Paynter wrote: “Judson Diggs, one of their own people, a man who in all reason might have been expected to sympathize with their effort, took upon himself the role of Judas”.