It was a chilly April night in 1848. Seventy-seven enslaved people quietly slipped away from their homes. They set out in small groups toward a sailboat. It was anchored in the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. The ship was called the Pearl.
It was 13 years before the beginning of the American Civil War. These heroic men, women, and children were attempting the largest escape from slavery on the Underground Railroad.
It was an ambitious plan. Sail south on the Potomac River, then north to New Jersey. It was a journey of some 36 kilometers (225 miles).
The Pearl had not sailed far before the winds died down. Her sails went flat. The ship dropped anchor to avoid being pushed back by the tide. There was nothing to do but wait.
Meanwhile, the slave owners realized that their “property” was gone. They formed an armed posse and began to search. They boarded a fast‑moving steamboat. It soon found the Pearl.
The slaves were captured and taken to a jail in Washington, D.C. An angry mob protested the escape. Loud voices in the U.S. Congress spoke out against the Pearl escape. But, a few other 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 for a high profit.
The Pearl escape made people aware of the evils of slavery. It also influenced Congress to end the slave trade in Washington, D.C., in 1850. Then, somehow, the story of the Pearl disappeared. I wanted to find it again.
Pearl Captured here
I was researching the history of Washington, D.C., when I found an account of the Pearl. I learned that there were two teenage sisters on board, Mary and Emily Edmonson. Four of their brothers were also there. I wanted to learn all I could about them.
I started my hunt for information at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.