The Pearl Incident of 1848 is the largest recorded non-violent slave escape attempt that might have been successful if it weren’t thwarted by an embittered slave. According to some historians, the incident inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The escape involved a Chesapeake Bay schooner called The Pearl. At the time, Washington, D.C. was active in the slave industry, despite a growing number of abolitionists decrying the practice. Daniel Drayton, the white owner of the Pearl, worked in conjunction with them and free Blacks to concoct the plan.
According to varying accounts, the plan was hatched by Paul Jennings, a former slave to President James Madison, and Paul Edmonson, whose enslaved wife and 14 children were still being held. Drayton, who was sympathetic to the slaves’ plight, agreed to help with the escape/
The plan was to sail down the Potomac River and then cross over the Chesapeake Bay into the free state region of New Jersey. On April 15, 1848, a concerted effort to shuttle some 77 slaves and their family members to Drayton’s boat took place. Judson Higgs, a driver who helped deliver the escapees to the boat, was promised funds by one of the fugitives. When he wasn’t paid the promised amount, Higgs told slaveholders about the plans.
With Higgs’ help, an armed posse sailed down river to a Point Lookout, Maryland and captured the slaves. They were returned or sold into harsher conditions in the Deep South. A pro-slavery riot broke out in Washington upon the slaves’ return and the fallout made it harder for the Underground Railroad to operate in the region.
Drayton and his co-pilot were jailed for four years but were pardoned by President Millard Fillmore in 1852. Jennings was never charged with a crime although he was a prominent fixture of the plan.
Sisters Mary and Emily Edmonson (pictures) among the 77 recaptured slaves on the Pearl, became figures of the abolitionist movement. After their capture, they were to be shipped to New Orleans to become prostitutes. Their father couldn’t afford to buy their freedom, but he was assisted by abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Beecher, a preacher, was the head of the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York and the congregation raised funds to get the Edmonson sisters away from the slaveholders clutches.