The Pearl

“Why had not these black people,” Daniel Drayton wrote from his prison cell, “so anxious to escape from their masters, as good a light to their liberty as I had to mine?”

On Thursday evening, April 13th, 1848, the city of Washington was celebrating news of the founding of the French Second Republic. While citizens set public squares ablaze for the triumph of democracy, sailor Daniel Drayton loaded up a small schooner owned by Edward Sayerswith human cargo. Around 76 slaves boarded this vessel named The Pearl, complicating an escape plan that originally only involved 11. Compounded with the desire for freedom, these enslaved African-Americans joined such a venture to evade threats--such as the death of an owner--that could result in a sale and split them from their loved ones.

That Monday morning, Drayton’s plan was foiled.  The unfortunate combination of winds halting The Pearl and the betrayal by fellow slave Judson Diggs, directly resulted in The Pearl’s capture by the posse aboard The Salem. All of the fugitives and crew members  were transported back to Washington D.C. to face their fate. Upon docking in Washington, those on The Pearl were greeted by angry mobs and owners eager to rid themselves of disobedient slaves. Drayton and Sayers faced criminal charges, and eventual trial, for stealing and transporting the fugitives. However, those fleeing on The Pearl  endured a punishment synonymous with death: sale into the vicious slave markets of the Lower South.

The Pearl was the largest and most publicized non-violent escape attempt of the 19th century, and even though unsuccessful, it made an indelible impact. It further polarized public opinion and influenced the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, proving the question of slavery was not to be answered without a fight.

Calley Pierce and Siena Marcelle, Junior Researchers, OC History Lab 2016