Pearl incident

The Pearl Incident was the largest recorded escape attempt by slaves in the United States. On April 15, 1848, seventy-six slaves attempted to escape Washington D.C.

People involved

Washington DC allowed the ownership and trading of slaves. One of the people who despised slavery and was desperate for money was Daniel Drayton. He was offered money to transport slaves to freedom. “He encountered Edward Sayres,” the pilot of “the Pearl." Once payment was shown, he agreed to participate and prepared to set sail. “In the darkness of the night seventy-six colored men, women, and children found their way to the schooner. On Saturday, April 15, their freedom was at hand thanks to Drayton, Sayres and English, the cook.

Escape attempt and capture

The plan consisted of sailing down the Potomac River, then up Chesapeake Bay to freedom. However, the wind prevented the schooner from going up the bay so they anchored for the night. Their delay gave the slave owners time to realize their slaves were missing and send out a search party. Daniel Drayton effectively explains the logistics of their capture. “A Mr. Dodge, of Georgetown, a wealthy old gentleman, originally from New England, missed three or four slaves from his family, and a small steamboat, of which he was the proprietor, was readily obtained. Thirty-five men, including a son or two of old Dodge, and several of those whose slaves were missing, volunteered to man her; and they set out about Sunday noon.” The boat, the Salem, found the Pearl on Monday morning and took the slaves and men back to Washington DC.


Many questions have arisen as to how the armed men knew to sail down river to find the Pearl. Author John H. Paynter describes the traitor very effectively. “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.

Aftermath in DC

A public outcry erupted, and the mob searched for people to blame. One such man was Dr. Gamaliel Bailey, the publisher of the anti-slavery newspaper, the National Era, who the slave owners suspected of aiding in the Pearl incident. A mob of slave owners almost destroyed the newspaper building. Once the mob dissipated, the slave owners debated how to punish their slaves. They sold all “the seventy-six blacks (men, women, and children) to Georgia and Louisiana agents.”


Drayton, Sayres, and English were put on trial, with Horace Mann as their main lawyer. Author Richard C. Rohrs and Daniel Drayton successfully explain the court process. The trials commenced the following July, where both Drayton and Sayres were charged. English was released, and after appeals were filed and charges were reduced, Drayton and Sayres were convicted and went to jail due to their inability to pay their fines. After four years in jail, Senator Charles Sumner sent a letter to President Fillmore, asking him to pardon the men. The President agreed to the pardon in 1852.


The event pushed Congress to include, in the Compromise of 1850, “the end of slave traffic, though not of slavery, in the District of Columbia.”

The failed attempt was part of the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.


External links

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