The Pearl Incident – An Indelible Part of the Wharf’s History

One hundred seventy-two years ago, on April 15, 1848, the largest recorded slave escape took place right here at The Wharf on a 65-foot schooner called The Pearl.  On that day, 77 slaves from Washington City, Georgetown, and Alexandria boarded the ship near 7th Street SW in hopes of making a 250-mile cruise to freedom in New Jersey.  While it did not end well, the incident inspired at least two notable efforts to end slavery by Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The District Wharf, which officially opened in October, 2017 is considered “new” by some, but the fact is that the waterfront area in Southwest, DC has been home to a Wharf for hundreds of years.  The Municipal Fish Market, which opened in 1805, is the oldest continuously operating fish market in the U.S. During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, would greet wounded troops as they arrived at the Wharf on paddle steamships.  And there is the story of what is known as The Pearl Incident

Paul Jennings

The escape attempt combined the coordination and planning of several individuals including two freed slaves, Paul Jennings and Paul Edmondson.  Jennings had been a slave to President James Madison and was active in DC’s anti-slavery movement. Jennings was free but his wife was not, and by law, that meant their 14 children remained enslaved. They lived on a farm in Montgomery County which is today the site of Leisure World retirement community, according to the Sandy Spring Slave Museum

Jennings and Edmondson plotted the escape with the help of Daniel Drayton, who the previous year had helped a family escape DC by boat to Frenchtown, NJ. For the larger escape, Drayton chartered The Pearl, which was owned and captained by Edward Sayres. 

On the night of April 15, 1848, 77 slaves made their way in the rain to 7th Street, SW to board The Pearl. At this moment, another figure arose who would play a critical role in the plot.  According to The Washington Post, a cab driver named Judson Diggs, a freed slave, brought an escapee to the Wharf in his trunk. Not only was Diggs upset that the escapee had no money to pay the fare, he also knew Paul Edmondson’s daughter, Emily, was onboard.  Diggs was in love with Emily and even proposed marriage, which was met with “laughter” and “distaste.”

The escape route was clear.  The Pearl would depart the Wharf and head 100 miles south down the Potomac River to the Chesapeake Bay, then head up the bay another 120 miles, along the Delaware River to New Jersey. 

Under the cover of night, The Pearl departed the Wharf and eventually made it to Point Lookout at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.  Unfavorable winds and tides forced The Pearl to drop anchor and wait until the weather improved.  

As morning dawned the next day, a posse hired by enraged slaveholders, was assembled to find and recapture the 77 slaves. They were tipped off by none other than cab driver, Judson Diggs. The posse boarded a steam ship named The Salem and headed down river eventually spotting and capturing The Pearl in Cornfield Harbor near Point Lookout.  

The Pearl was towed back to DC where the slaves, Drayton, Captain Sayres, and his first mate, were paraded in lock and chain through the streets of DC before angry mobs. 

Many of the slaves were sold to plantations in the deep south. Meanwhile Drayton and Sayers were charged with 77 counts of theft and 77 counts of illegal transportation of slaves. Interestingly, they were prosecuted by Philip Barton Key, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia who was the son of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the words and music of the national anthem.

Tensions ran high in DC as rioting engulfed the city for several days between abolitionists and those in favor of slavery. The incident, however, may have led to progress. A year later in 1849, a congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln introduced legislation, albeit unsuccessful, for the compensated emancipation of slaves in the District. Lincoln did not give up. On April 16, 1862, President Lincoln signed legislation freeing slaves in the District, the first freed by federal law.  Emancipation Day continues to be celebrated in DC every year on April 16. 

The incident was also cited in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s,  A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1853.  The book was a companion to her 1852 publication, Uncle Tom’s Cabin that shined a light on the evils of slavery and eventually helped to end it.

Credit must be given to the developers of the District Wharf for designating one of the more popular thoroughfares at the Wharf, Pearl Street.  It is appropriately located parallel to 7th Street SW, from where The Pearl was launched and includes a historic marker mounted in the bricks of Wharf Street commemorating the largest recorded slave escape.



The Pearl Incident Photo Gallery



Editor’s note: There are several interesting reads about the Pearl Incident including:

Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad – book by Mary K. Ricks

“Escape on The Pearl”The Washington Post

Failed Escape Sheds New Light on D.C. Slavery, NPR book review

How a ‘Judas’ foiled America’s largest escape attempt of 77 slaves in 1848 – Face2FaceAfrica

The Largest Attempted Slave Escape in American History – The History Channel

© 2020 Wharf Life DC | Washington, DC

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