Our blog posts over the last several weeks have focused on African-Americans interred at Congressional Cemetery. As promised, this week’s blog entry focuses on The Pearl. While relatives of Ann and Lucy Bell are directly involved in the events pertaining to the Pearl, those relatives are not actually buried at Congressional Cemetery. There are, however, white men interred at Congressional Cemetery who were involved in legally defending and financially supporting people involved in the events leading up to and surrounding the Pearl. The purpose of this blog post is to summarize the Pearl, with a particular focus on the Bell family and people interred at Congressional Cemetery.
There is a lot of information about the Pearl and its impact on abolitionists and the movement to fight slavery in the United States. If you want to learn more about The Pearl, I encourage you to check out the sources in the “Bibliography” section of this blog post.
The Pearl Incident
On the evening of April 15, 1848, around 77 slaves boarded the Pearl, a 54-ton bay-craft schooner that was anchored in the Potomac River, as part of an attempt to secure their freedom. This attempt is the single largest known escape attempt made by enslaved African Americans. The people seeking refuge from slavery came from different walks of life–they were men, women, children, mothers, fathers, old, middle-aged, and young. Most of the enslaved people were descendants of Africans who were brought to the mid-Atlantic region on Liverpool slave ships to be sold to tobacco planters in Maryland and Virginia. The slaves that boarded the Pearl primarily worked in homes, boarding houses, and hotels. Allegedly, Dolley Madison owned one slave who boarded the Pearl. One of the enslaved people was also believed to have worked in the White House while James K. Polk was in office.
In order for the escape attempt to be successful, the schooner would have had to remain undetected and travel over 100 miles down the Potomac River to the Chesapeake Bay. Then, the schooner would have had to travel about 120 miles up the bay, across the Delaware Canal, and along the Delaware River to reach its final destination in New Jersey.
The night of April 15, 1848 was slightly foggy and windy. Unfortunately, the wind died down after the schooner moved about half a mile. The wind did pick up the next morning, but it was too late. On the morning of April 16, 1848, several slave owners quickly realized that their slaves were missing. Immediately, the hunt to find the missing slaves began. The slave owners and other civilians searched surrounding roads. A group of civilians boarded the Salem, a steamboat owned by the Dodge family of Georgetown who owned slaves aboard the Pearl. The people on board of the Salem came across the Pearl in Cornfield Harbor, near Point Lookout State Park in Maryland.
Initially, the unarmed slaves tried to fight off their capturers, but Drayton convinced the slaves to surrender. The Pearl was then towed back to Washington D.C. Daniel Drayton, Captain Edward Sayres, and Chester English were taken from the schooner and interrogated. Drayton, Sayres, and English were manacled before they were taken to jail. English convinced the capturers that he believed the slaves were on a pleasure cruise and he was released. During the procession to jail, the owner of Cannon’s Slave Mart lunged towards Drayton with a knife and cut Drayton’s ear. Drayton and Sayres were ultimately charged with 77 counts of theft and 77 counts of illegal transportation of slaves. Their bond was placed at $77,000 each.
Horace Mann, a well-known advocate of public education, defended Drayton and Sayres in court. Initially, Mann consulted with David Hall (Range 34, Site 63), who had successfully represented John Bush in court when Bush was caught working with Charles Torrey and Thomas Smallwood in an Underground Railroad operation. Hall informed Mann that Philip Barton Key, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, would receive $10 for each indictment. Therefore, Key had a financial stake in the outcome of the trial. Most notably, Hall guided Mann, who was unfamiliar with the D.C. court system, through the intricacies and customs of the Washington D.C. court system. Hall later withdrew as counsel for the defense. On June 28, 1848, Drayton and Sayre’s case went before a grand jury. Drayton and Sayres were both convicted of 36 indictments of larceny (one charge for each of the 36 slave owners with slaves on board of the Pearl). Drayton and Sayres also faced $10,000 in damages. After four years and four months in jail, President Millard Fillmore pardoned Drayton and Sayres.
As for the slaves on board of the schooner, the women and children were left unfettered. Brian and Hill, an Alexandria-based slave trading business purchased the captured slaves from their owners and sent most of the slaves to New Orleans, securing the fate of most, if not all, of the refuges to a life of enslavement. Yellow fever hit New Orleans. Consequently, the slave traders transferred the unsold slaves back to Alexandria.
The Edmonson and Bell families tried to buy back as many of their family members as possible. Reverend Henry Ward Beecher’s congregation used their funds to ensure the freedom of members of the Edmonson family. In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Reverend Beecher’s daughter, published Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s affiliation to the Pearl incident may have inspired her, at least in part, to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Meanwhile, Thomas Blagden (Blagden Vault), a wealthy landowner in the Anacostia area of D.C., provided funds to Daniel Bell to buy his wife and youngest son so that they could be free. These funds were provided to Bell with the expectation that Blagden would be fully reimbursed. Blagden also served on the grand jury in Sayres and Drayton’s trial.
The events of the Pearl caused the Washington Riot of 1848 due to accusations regarding the planners behind the attempted escape. The events are believed to have strengthened the cause against slavery and may have inspired Abraham Lincoln to ensure slaves in Washington D.C. were granted their freedom in 1862.
Three men were involved in securing and operating the Pearl: Daniel Drayton, Captain Edward Sayres, and Chester English. Daniel Drayton chartered the schooner for a total of $100. With assistance from two other men, Drayton brought the Pearl to a secluded spot near the 7th street wharf, where the Wharf Marina is currently located. Drayton was also was responsible for securing the schooner’s “cargo.” Captain Edward Sayres owned the Pearl. Sayres took charge of the ship and its one-man-crew, a sailor and cook named Chester English.
Three other men were directly responsible for informing enslaved members of Washington D.C.’s African American community about the Pearl and their plans to achieve freedom. These men were: Paul Jennings, Sen. Daniel Webster’s butler who was freed on the condition that Jennings would repay the purchase price of his freedom of $120 made in monthly installations in the amount of $8 a month; Daniel Bell, who financed the Pearl because he wanted to free his wife and children; and Samuel Edmonson, a “hired-out” slave with several family members that planned to board the Pearl.
Daniel Bell was employed as a blacksmith at the Navy Yard in southeast Washington D.C. Bell’s family was owned by Robert Armistead, a master caulker who signed manumission papers freeing Daniel Bell’s wife, Mary, and reduced the terms of slavery for Mary and Daniel Bell’s six children. The freedom of Daniel Bell’s family was threatened when Susannah Armistead filed an inventory of her husband’s property with the orphan’s court about three years after the death of her husband. In the inventory, Bell’s children were described as slaves for life, ignoring the manumission papers that reduced the Bell children’s period of enslavement and freed Mary Bell. One year later, Armistead submitted a final account of her husband’s estate, and in 1843, Armistead applied to Judge Nathaniel P. Causin of the orphan’s court to appraise the Bell children, which would allow the Bell children to be divided amongst Armistead’s children. Bell hired a lawyer, Joseph Bradley, to legally represent his family. Then, Daniel Bell turned to James Mandeville Carlisle to block the intended division of his family. In October 1847, Bell’s petition for freedom went to trial. In the trial, Armistead argued that her husband was mentally impaired prior to his death, during the time when he signed the manumission papers that freed Mary Bell and reducing the terms of slavery for the Bell children. Furthermore, Armistead claimed that Daniel Bell tricked her husband into signing the papers by waiting until Mary Bell was away from the house, taking her husband to a poorhouse, and with the help of the city’s guardian of the poor for their ward, Edward W. Clarke, forced her husband to sign the manumission papers. Unfortunately, the jury sided with Susannah Armistead. Daniel Bell appealed the court’s decision and hired Joseph Bradley to request a new trial under the premise that new evidence had materialized. In March 1848, the appellate court upheld the original jury verdict. Daniel Bell was low on funds, so Bell decided to make arrangements with the DC’s Underground Railroad Network. Bell’s legal letdown led him to create plans to escape via the Pearl.
At the same time that Daniel was fighting for better conditions for his family (in circa 1836), Bell’s sister, Ann Bell (Range 24, Site 113), filed a petition for freedom on behalf of herself and two sons against Gerald T. Greenfield, who had inherited Ann Bell. With the help of Joseph Bradley, Ann Bell won her suit for freedom against Greenfield.
Blakemore, Erin. “The Largest Attempted Slave Escape in American History.” History.com. August 23, 2017. Accessed February 14, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/the-largest-attempted-slave-escape-in-american-history.
“Pearl Incident / Daniel Drayton.” National Parks Service. Accessed February 14, 2019. https://www.nps.gov/nebe/learn/historyculture/pearlincident.htm.
Ricks, Mary Kay. “Failed Escape Sheds New Light on D.C. Slavery.” NPR. May 09, 2007. Accessed February 14, 2019. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=10103500.
Ricks, Mary Kay. Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008.
The Washington Post. Accessed February 14, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/horizon/aug98/pearl.htm.