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On April 16, 1848 a bay schooner called the Pearl set sail from the Anacostia river and southwest waterfront in the District of Columbia, carrying about seventy-seven enslaved African Americans on a secret mission to freedom. While the daring escape failed with the capture of the ship in the Chesapeake Bay, it was the largest documented slave escape and a milestone in the tortured road from slavery to freedom in the United States. This largely untold story has recently emerged and shines a spotlight into American history and our collective past.

In February 1848, Paul Jennings, William Chaplin, and other members of the local Underground Railroad cell start planning the escape of two or three female enslaved in danger of being sold far from home.  Charles Cleveland receives a letter from Washington asking him to engage a ship to carry escaped enslaved to freedom through the Chesapeake Bay.


In March 1848, Gerrit Smith, a wealthy anti-slavery New Yorker, receives a letter from William Chaplin informing him that the plot has expanded to 75 slaves.  Daniel Drayton returns to Philadelphia to find a ship, after meeting with the organizers in Washington, D.C. He meets Edward Sayres, captain of the bay schooner Pearl.

April 13, 1848, The Pearl docks at the Seventh Street Wharf on the Potomac River after droping "wood supplies" on the Anacostia at Buzzards Creek, the current and funture home ofthe "Spirit of the Pearl" schooner at the Matthew Henson Center.

April 15, 1848, About 77 enslaved and indentured people board the Pearl in cover of darkness.  The cargo schooner could hold more than the enslaved members of the Bell and Edmondson families. Others learned of the daring plan and asked to join. Drayton accepted all those who could get on board by midnight. Casting off in the dark, they sailed down the Potomac, escaping to their freedom. The largest slave escape in the history of the United States was in progress.  The schooner is forced to dock overnight due to the lack of wind.  

April 16, 1848, At dawn, the Pearl catches the wind and sails towards the Chesapeake Bay.  Earlier that morning, the slaves’ owners discover the escape after “questioning” a local carriage business owner, and engage the steamboat Salem to pursue the Pearl.

41 enslaved human owners in Washington, Maryland and Virginia awoke the next day to discover 77 people missing. Banding together on the steamer Salem, organized by the then Justice of the Peace, law enforcement officers and others, a posse of 35 armed white men headed out in hot pursuit of The Pearl. Winds pouring down the Chesapeake had forced The Pearl to anchor, waiting for a weather change, and the ship and its passengers were apprehended. The pursuit of family freedom was stymied, but many of the families on The Pearl survived and, when freedom came, they thrived. 


Frederick Douglas is pictured above (left) with Mary and Emily Edmonson at the Cazenovia Fugitive Slave Law Convention in New York City.  This picture helps to illustrate how ethnically diverse the abolitionist movement had become.   The New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. Underground Railroad cell(s) were very involved in the planning, organization and implementation of the escape.  

People of faith and the church of that time served as the life blood for communications and the driving force behind the movement to abolish slavery locally and nationally.  The escape on the Pearl Schooner, reignited the abolitionist movement. Thus, led to a series of events and congressional and presidential  actions that later laid the foundation for the emancipation of slavery in Washington D.C., the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Civil War.  Read More.