The Bell Family

Drayton: Susanna Armstead's 11 slaves for $5000

Eleven members of the Bell family, on one of the general larceny charges against Drayton.

The Bells, the Kings, the Marshalls, the Queens, the Rosiers, the Washingtons, and the famous Edmonsons were fugitives sharing a surname captured from The Pearl. Presumably they were families--certainly the Bells and the Edmonsons were. Some other fugitives shared surnames and may have been related, such as two men by the last name of Rix or Ricks, but they had different owners. Another group had no surname but were explicitly described as family: a woman only referred to as "Mary Ann" with sons Charles and John. Even amongst this small sample of slaves, the family-splitting effect of slave-trading can be surmised; an Edward King is owned by a (John) W. Kirkwood, while a female trio of Kings is owned by Francis Dodge Jr., and two other Kings are owned by a John Y. Young.

The Bells were initially interesting because there were so many of them. On board The Pearl they had nearly double the members of the Edmonson family (eleven, while the Edmonsons had six). Mary Kay Ricks writes in her book Escape on the Pearl that all the Bells were originally owned by a Robert Armistead; the Bell patriarch was a freeman named Daniel, and his wife Mary and his six children were owned by Robert. Mary was manumitted outright upon Robert's death, and he also signed for the manumission of the six children the Bells had at the time once they reached assigned ages between 30 and 40 (Ricks 56). Disaster struck when Mr. Armistead's widow Susanna had no intention of recognizing these manumissions, as her "only significant assets were human beings" and was well situated to slip into poverty were she to lose them (Ricks 58, 113).

By the time of the escape, Mary Bell and her now eight children and two grandchildren were desperate to avoid sale after a series of legal battles of Susanna's instigation. When the fugitives were being dispersed, Daniel Bell summoned help to purchase his family. He was able to purchase his wife Mary and their youngest son Thomas with the help of D.C.'s black community and a white man named Thomas Blagden, who had helped the Bells with earlier legal trouble (Ricks 108). But like most whites who financially helped free slaves, Thomas Blagden "fully expected to be reimbursed" (108). 

The Bells were one of several families aboard The Pearl hoping to reach freedom--and more importantly, hoping to stay together. 

Calley Pierce, Junior Researcher, OC History Lab 2016