April 16th, 1848

Enslaved Africans Try to Escape Washington, D.C., Aboard Ship

In mid-nineteenth century Washington, D.C., slavery was legal, pervasive, and a source of significant and growing tension. Abolitionists maintained a forceful presence in business and politics throughout the city and enslaved people escaping bondage in the nation's capital often fled to Pennsylvania, a free state only eighty miles away.

In 1848, two white abolitionists, Daniel Drayton and Edward Sayres, decided to charter a sixty-four-foot cargo ship nicknamed the Pearl to help enslaved people in the Washington area escape to Pennsylvania. On Saturday, April 15, at least seventy-five enslaved adults and children from Washington, Alexandria, and Georgetown boarded the Pearl and embarked upriver. Saturday was a traditional day of rest for enslaved people and the abolitionists reasoned the escape would not be detected for at least a day.

The plan seemed destined for success until the wind unexpectedly changed direction at the mouth of the Potomac River, forcing the group to anchor and wait for better weather. By Monday, white slave-holding families in the city had been alerted to the escape. Thirty armed men promptly boarded a steamboat and chased down and captured the Pearl while it was still at rest. Mr. Drayton and Mr. Sayres were imprisoned until they were pardoned by President Millard Fillmore in 1852. The escapees were re-enslaved and many were sold to cotton and sugar plantations in the southwest. The escape attempt sparked three days of riots in Washington, as pro-slavery rioters attacked local abolitionists.