On a chilly April evening in 1848,
77 enslaved people quietly slipped away from their homes.
They set out in small groups toward a two-masted sailboat anchored in the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. The ship was called the Pearl.

Thirteen years before the beginning of the American Civil War, they were beginning the largest attempted escape on the Underground Railroad. These heroic men, women, and children were leaving behind their families and the only world they knew in search of their freedom.

It was an ambitious plan. Sail south on the Potomac River, then north up the Chesapeake Bay and Delaware River to New Jerseya journey of some
360 kilometers (225 miles).

But the Pearl had not sailed halfway before the winds died down, and her sails went flat. With no wind to combat the tide, the Pearl dropped anchor to avoid being pushed back upriver. There was nothing they could do but wait.

Meanwhile, the slave owners had come to realize that their “property” was gone. They formed an armed posse and began to search. Some of the men boarded a fast-moving steamboat. It soon found the Pearl.

The slaves were captured, taken back to Washington, D.C., and marched up to the jail. Some angry white residents began a riot to protest the escape. It lasted three days. Loud voices in the U.S. Congress spoke out strongly against the attempted escape. But, a few other senators and congressmen called for the end of slavery in the nation’s capital.

At the jail, slave traders purchased most of the escaped slaves from their owners. The traders took them south to sell them to cotton planters for a high profit.

The Pearl’s two white ship captains were tried and found guilty of helping the slaves escape. They were fined and sent to prison.

At that time, the attempted escape became well known across the country. It made more people aware of the evils of slavery. It would also influence Congress to end the slave trade in Washington, D.C., in 1850. Then the story of the voyage of the Pearl disappeared. I wanted to find it again.

Washington D.C.



Pearl Captured here


St. Mary’s County

Potomac River

Asking Questions

I first stumbled on the account of the Pearl when I was researching the history of Washington, D.C. I discovered that two of the people on the Pearl were teenage sisters, Mary and Emily Edmonson. Four of their brothers were also there. I was determined to learn everything I could about them.

I had many questions. Who else was on the ship? How was the escape planned? What happened to these people? I started my hunt for information at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.