Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Attempted Exodus

It turns out the largest attempted escape along the Underground Railroad occurred by sea rather than land. On Saturday, April 15, 1848 seventy-six slaves left their owner’s homes in Washington and attempted to gain their freedom by stowing away on a schooner named the Pearl.

The group’s conductor was Daniel Drayton, who was a bit of a zealot, drifter, and abolitionist. For urban slaves, who in general lived a relatively more comfortable life by being employed as domestic servants and skilled labor, the biggest fear was being “sold South” to New Orleans or Natchez. There, in the Deep South, grueling days in the heat of the cotton fields coupled with a higher occurrence of disease led to a decreased life expectancy. Learning of the plight of a slave family about to be separated and sold South, Drayton travelled to Philadelphia to seek out a boat that could ferry the family to freedom. At the docks he met a ship pilot named Edward Sayres, who having no cargo to haul, agreed to sail from Philadelphia to DC and back for the low sum of $100.

Sayres and Drayton, along with the cook Chester English arrived in Washington on April 13th. After selling a load of wood at the 7th Street docks, the Pearl sailed a little further down the Potomac to a place called “White-house Wharf,” which was known to be more secluded than an open dock. Shortly after sunset slaves, hearing of the departing ship by word of mouth, boarded the schooner. They came from all over the city. Among them was a house maid owned by former first lady Dolley Madison.

With a full cargo hold, the Pearl attempted to set sail, however, the Potomac is a tidal river below the Great Falls. Unable to fight the current, the Pearl was forced to anchor near Alexandria. They were loosing precious time; their masters in Washington would soon notice their disappearance. As daylight broke, they were able to sail out toward the Chesapeake. Though the Pearl made progress, luck was not with them. A storm with great winds forced them to weigh anchor yet again, this time at Cornfield Harbor, just above Point Lookout, Maryland.

Back in Washington, the alarm had been raised by church time on Sunday morning. A posse organized to find the missing slaves and set sail to catch the slaves on the Salem, a steamer. Around 2:00 am on Monday morning, passengers on the Pearl heard the blow of a steamer’s whistle. The game was up, the posse had found them. Boarding the Pearl, the posse proclaimed their discovery shouting, “Niggers, by God!” The escaped slaves considered fighting, but they were unarmed and to resist was futile. All passengers aboard the Pearl, were bound and transferred to the Salem.

As the Salem passed Alexandria, crowds on shore cheered to see the captured slaves on the decks. They were greeted at the 7th Street docks, by throngs of people calling for beatings and lynching—particularly the lynching of Drayton. Paraded through the streets, several of the captured slaves wept, but proclaimed that they did not regret their attempt at freedom. The captives were placed in the jail at Judiciary Square, their fates uncertain. Bail for each slave was set at $1,000. For Drayton, Sayres, and English bail was set at $76,000, a nearly insurmountable sum at the time.

After a time, owners of the slaves conferred. It was agreed that all slaves would be sold South. The very fate the runaways feared most had now come to fruition. Families were separated, and not much is known about them once the slaves were sent to New Orleans (The exception to this is the Edmondson sisters, who deserve a posting of their own, so I’ll save their story for another time). English, who had no knowledge of the plot prior to the departure of the schooner from DC, was released. Drayton and Sayres got off relatively easy, considering they could have been hanged. Appeals of their conviction reduced their sentences, and the two were imprisoned for failure to come up with the money for their fines. After four years in prison, abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner appealed to President Fillmore to pardon the men. Both were released in 1852.
But wait! There’s more. After all, how did the posse know to look for the runaways by sea? Especially when escape by land was much more probable? The answer to this may lie with a hack driver. Judson Diggs was a free man of color, who reportedly gave word of the escape plans in exchange for money. Whether or not he was actually the informant has been disputed, but in any case a group of young black men found him after the escape in a square bounded by L, M, 18th Streets and Connecticut Avenue. In anger, the men forced Diggs from the cart, rolled him in to a nearby stream (now actually running beneath the pavement) and stoned him. Surviving the encounter, Diggs was shunned by the black community for the rest of his life.

Sources: Daniel Drayton, Personal Memoir of Daniel Drayton.

Josephine F. Pacheco,
The Pearl: A Failed Escape on the Potomac.

Mary Kay Ricks,
Escape on the "Pearl".

Picture Source: Northern Illinois University, "Slave Auction," Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project.

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