Author Archives: Dana Marecheau

The Pearl Stampede 1848


Emily and Mary Edmonson

Mary and Emily Edmonson (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Daniel Drayton—captain of The Pearl—his accomplice Edward Sayres, and 77 freedom seekers fled Washington D.C on Saturday, April 15, 1848, in what Mary Kay Ricks describes as “one of history’s most audacious escapes.” [1] The goal of this escape was to sail from Washington D.C., down the Potomac River to freedom. [2] However, strong winds would disrupt their pursuit of freedom. [3] On April 18, 1848, The Pearl and its participants were captured.[4] After three days of being on the sea, Mary and Emily Edmonson—among 77 freedom seekers— returned home. Their new fate was what many freedom seekers feared most: being separated from their family and sold in the deep South.

Once back in Washington D.C., The Edmonson sisters and the other 75 freedom seekers—4 of whom were their brothers—walked through the mob of proslavery protesters, who anticipated their arrival.

Slave Pen

Slave Pen (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

While in jail, the sisters were separated from their brothers. [5] Knowing the tragic fate of the Edmonson children, a brother in law saw them, “fainted away, fell down, and was carried home insensible.” [6] Mary and Emily Edmonson’s free sister also tried to visit them, but could not enter the jail.  Looking through the iron gates, Mary and Emily “saw their sister standing below in the yard weeping.”[7]





Historian Stanley Harrold calls the 1848 Pearl stampede the “most influential mass escape” in antebellum American history.[8]  At first the escape was not explicitly referenced as a stampede. However, senators debating the event on nearby Capitol Hill made allusions to the Pearl escape using language that described the event as a mass escape. Shortly after the capture of the freedom seekers and during the riots incited by a proslavery mob, senators were forced to dispute the future of slavery in the District of Columbia. Referencing The Pearl, one pro-slavery senator from South Carolina, John C. Calhoun, denounced “these piratical attempts, these wholesale captures, these robberies of seventy-odd of our slaves at a single grasp.” [9] He even declared that “the crisis has come, and we must meet it, and meet it directly,” foreshadowing the debates over the Compromise of 1850. [10] Four years later, in the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, the term stampede appeared in the same column as the report of the pardoning of The Pearl participants Daniel Drayton and Edward Sayres.  The report read, “that in the border States, there is very frequently a stampede among the negroes – large number going off together.” One year later, when President Millard Fillmore –who had originally signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 into law– issued a pardon for the two abolitionists involved in the escape in 1853, a Georgia editor explained that they had been involved in “the great slave stampede.”[11]


On the evening of April 15, 1848, Daniel Drayton and Edward Sayres successfully left Washington D.C., setting sail down the Potomac River. Onboard The Pearl, Mary and Emily Edmonson were accompanied by their four brothers. After The Pearl’s departure, Captain Sayres decided to anchor in Cornfield Harbor, near Point Lookout, after strong winds did not allow them to “ascend the bay.” [12]

stampede map

Back in Washington D.C, slaveholders noticed their enslaved people missing and frantically searched for them. The next day a steamboat—the Salem— departed from Washington D.C.  in pursuit of The Pearl and the freedom seekers. Captained by Samuel Baker, the men on board the Salem were “armed with muskets and other weapons.” [13] Meanwhile, The Pearl was still anchored on the river.

On the morning of Monday, April 17, 1848, at around 2 am, the Salem finally caught The Pearl. [14] As the heavily armed men entered onboard, one of the Edmonson siblings reportedly said, “Do yourselves no harm, gentlemen, for we are all here!” [15] Overpowered, the freedom seekers surrendered without a fight and awaited their new fate.

newspaper clipping of Pearl capture

Boston, MA Daily Atlas, April 22, 1848 (Genealogy Bank)

The next day, a large mob formed at the wharf in Washington D.C., awaiting the arrival of Edward Sayres, Daniel Drayton, and the captured freedom seekers. [16] As they walked off the boat, a report described “several small collections of blacks [with] tears rolling down many cheeks.” In particular, “one gray headed old woman” yelled, “O, my son, … must I see thee no more forever!” [17]

News of the capture caused pandemonium from the streets of Washington D.C. to the senate chambers on Capitol Hill.  On the night of Wednesday, April 19, 1848, a mob of pro-slavery protesters “gathered at the National Era newspaper [an antislavery newspaper] office and threatened to destroy it.” [18] Simultaneously, a “heated debate” in Congress—sparked by the capture of The Pearl— occurred between pro-slavery and antislavery advocates about the future of slavery in Washington D.C. [19]

Shortly after Mary and Emily Edmonson’s escape attempt, their father Paul Edmonson solicited the help of abolitionist William Chaplin.  Eventually, both men helped raise enough money to purchase the Edmonson sisters’ freedom. On Tuesday, November 7, Mary and Emily Edmonson were freed. [20] Their release gained national attention, as the Boston Daily Bee reported that the Edmonson sisters “were restored to liberty and their family. [21]

1848 Timeline

One year later, in March of 1849, Daniel Drayton and Edward Sayres were tried by the court for their participation in The Pearl escape. Both were found guilty and “convicted of transporting slaves on seventy-four separate indictments.” [22] However, after three years in prison for “not being able to pay the fines” for their conviction, President Fillmore pardoned them, granting their release. [23]


Newly freed Emily and Mary Edmonson joined the abolitionist movement. In 1850, they were most famously known for attending a public protest against the Fugitive Slave Act in Cazenovia, New York. [24] Eventually, both sisters seized the opportunity to become educated. They first moved to New York to enroll in Central College during the fall of 1851, and then went on to study at Oberlin College, with the help of abolitionist and writer Harriet Beecher Stowe. [25]

However, while studying at Oberlin College, Mary Edmonson—only twenty years old—died of tuberculosis. [26] After the death of her sister, Emily Edmonson left Oberlin to be with her family. Once settled at home in Washington D.C., Emily wrote to a family friend assuring them she was safe. Still mourning her sister’s death, Emily wrote, “Some days it seems as though I could not live without her… but when I think of how happy she is in heaven, I feel like wiping away all my tears.” [27]

Emily edmonson newspaper feature

Rochester, NY Frederick Douglass’ Paper, January 4, 1855 (Genealogy Bank)

Despite her sister’s passing, Emily Edmonson sustained her involvement in the antislavery movement, working closely with abolitionist Frederick Douglas. In his 1855 newspaper, it reported that Emily Edmonson gave a talk at Corinthian Hall about her experiences as an escapee on The Pearl. This abolitionist paper described her account as “new and thrilling” as people heard it “from the lips of one of the suffers.” [28]

Now older, Emily Edmonson married her husband Larkin Johnson and had four children— Emma, Ida, Fannie, and Robert. [29] Emily and her small knit family finally moved near the Anacostia River where she lived until her death on September 15th, 1895. [30] Today, a memorial statue of Mary and Emily Edmonson stands in Alexandria, Virginia as a constant reminder of their legacy.

Edmonson Statue

Statue of Edmonson Sister in Alexandria, Virginia (Courtesy of Smithsonian)

[1] Mary Kay Ricks, Escape on the Pearl: Passage to Freedom from Washington (New York: Harper Collins, 2009) 1

[2] Mary Kay Ricks, Escape on the Pearl: Passage to Freedom from Washington (New York: Harper Collins, 2009) 30

[3] Mary Kay Ricks, Escape on the Pearl: Passage to Freedom from Washington (New York: Harper Collins, 2009) 62

[4] Mary Kay Ricks, Escape on the Pearl: Passage to Freedom from Washington (New York: Harper Collins, 2009) 82

[5] Harriet Beecher Stowe, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (B. Tauchnitz, 1853) 113: 2) [Google Books]

[6]Harriet Beecher Stowe, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (B. Tauchnitz, 1853) 112: 2) [Google Books]

[7] Harriet Beecher Stowe, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (B. Tauchnitz, 1853) 113: 2) [Google Books]

[8] Stanley Harrold, Border War: Fighting Over Slavery Before the Civil War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010) 131

[9] Cong. Globe, 30th Cong., 1st sess., 501 (1848), accessible at American Memory Project, Library of Congress.

[10] Cong. Globe, 30th Cong., 1st sess., 502. (1848).

[11] “Insubordination of Negroes” Boston, MA The Liberator, October 1, 1852; “Reminiscences,” Macon (GA) Weekly Telegraph, August 2, 1853.

[12] Daniel Drayton, Personal Memoir of Daniel Drayton (New York: B. Marsh, 1855) 32

[13] “Capture of Runaway Slaves” Washington D.C. Daily Atlas, April 22, 1848

[14] Mary Kay Ricks, Escape on the Pearl: Passage to Freedom from Washington (New York: Harper Collins, 2009) 78

[15] Harriet Beecher Stowe, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (B. Tauchnitz, 1853) 110: 2) [Google Books]

[16] 1848-04-22 Boston, MA Daily Atlas– Captured of Runaway Slaves [GB]

[17] New Lisbon, Ohio Anti-slavery bugle, May 5, 1848

[18] Daniel Drayton, Personal Memoir of Daniel Drayton (New York: B. Marsh, 1855) 42

[19] Mary Kay Ricks, Escape on the Pearl: Passage to Freedom from Washington (New York: Harper Collins, 2009) 5

[20] Mary Kay Ricks, Escape on the Pearl: Passage to Freedom from Washington (New York: Harper Collins, 2009) 195

[21] Boston, Massachusetts Boston Daily Bee, November 11, 1848

[22] House Executive Document, 34th Congress 1st Session (1855-1856) [WEB]

[23] House Executive Document, 34th Congress 1st Session (1855-1856) [WEB]

[24] “Edmonson Sisters”, women and the American Story, New York Historical Society [WEB]

[25] Mary Kay Ricks, Escape on the Pearl: Passage to Freedom from Washington (New York: Harper Collins, 2009) 230, 236

[26] Samuel Momodu, “The Edmonson Sisters (1832-1895),”, September 28, 2016, [WEB]

[27] Emily Edmondson to Mr. and Mrs. Cowles, June 3, 1853, Henry Cowles Papers, Box #3, Record Group 30/27, Oberlin College Archives. [WEB]

[28] Rochester, New York Frederick Douglass’ Paper, April 01, 1855

[29] Mary Kay Ricks, Escape on the Pearl: Passage to Freedom from Washington (New York: Harper Collins, 2009) 209

[30] Mary Kay Ricks, Escape on the Pearl: Passage to Freedom from Washington (New York: Harper Collins, 2009) 349


Database Report- Google Books and Google Ngram Viewer

definition of stampede

Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanism, (1859) (Courtesy of Google Books)

Search Summary

  • Search conducted by Dana Marecheau July 10-12, 2019.
  • Keywords: slave stampede, stampede of slaves, negro stampede, stampede of negroes, stampeding, stampede
  • Totals: 15 hits

Top Results

  • “He [John Brown] was particularly inquired of,” explained Andrew Hunter, a witness who testified before Congress on January 13, 1860, as part of the Harpers Ferry hearings, “… as to his intending to stampede slaves off, and he promptly and distinctly replies that that was not his purpose… He stated in substance, as I recollect, that his purpose in coming to Virginia was simply to stampede slaves, not to shed blood; that he has stampeded twelve slaves from Missouri without snapping a gun, and that he expected to do the same thing in Virginia, but only on a larger scale.” (The United States Senate, Senate Document, (1860) 130: 62) [WEB]
  • “From animals the term is transferred to men: … From information which has reached us, there would seem to have been a considerable stampede of slaves from the border valley counties of Virginia during the late Easter holidays.— (Balt.) Sun, Apr. 9, 1858.” (John Russel Bartlett, Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms, (1859), 445) [WEB]
  • “THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY INAUGURATED— STAMPEDE OF CONTRABANDS.” (Life and Public Service of Major-General Butler… the hero of New Orleans, etc, (1864), 49) [WEB]
  • “It was not anticipated that the first movement would have any other appearance to the masters than a slave stampede, or local insurrection at most.” (James Redpath, The Public Life of Capt. John Brown, with an Auto-biography of His Childhood and Youth, (1860), 144) [WEB]
  • “John Brown conceived the idea that these mountain ranges, so broken, so wild, afforded an excellent pathway for a grand stampeded from the Slave States— a grand exodus into the Free States, and, through the latter, into Canada.” (British and Foreign Anti-slavery Society, British and Foreign Anti-slavery Reporter, (1860) 126) [WEB]
  • “The same Wild Tom [a freedom seeker originally from Charleston] had been seen, within a short time past, lurking about the neighborhood; and it was suspected that the late stampede had not taken place without his aid and his assistance.” (Richard Hildreth, Archy Moore, the White Slave: Or, Memoirs of a Fugitive, (1856), 294) [WEB]
  •  “We learn from the Fact that “still another slave stampede came off a few miles before Maysville on Wednesday night last. Five negroes— three of them very fair and delicate mulatto girls – succeeded in crossing the river. — All trace was lost a few miles back of Ripley. Brown county.” (Freemen’s Manual, (1853), 1:153) [WEB]
  • “SLAVE STAMPEDE. – The Cincinnati Commercial says there was a serious negro stampede from plantations sixty miles back of the river, in Kentucky, on Saturday night. Of eleven slaves who decamped five succeeded in crossing the Ohio, a few miles below this city, yesterday. Their pursuers were in town last night, but learning that the fugitives had got twelve hours.” (Freemen’s Manual, (1853), 1: 154) [WEB]
  • “NEGRO STAMPEDE. — Twenty- five negroes ran away from their masters, in Boone county, Kentucky, on the night of the 2d inst. Among those who have lost their servants are two ministers of the gospel… A STAMPEDE. — The “Underground Railroad” would seem to be in excellent order. A company of 29 slaves from Kentucky reached here on Monday evening last,  and were safely convey to the Canada side the next morning. They were all hale young men and women, none of them over 35 years of age, for whose recapture, we hear, liberal offers are proclaimed.” (American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, The Annual Report . . . of the American and Foreign Anti-slavery . . . with the Addresses and Resolutions, (1853), 144-145) [WEB]
  • Slave Stampede. — The slaves in Mason county, Va., are becoming migratory in their habits. Within the last fortnight eight have made their escape to parts unknown. —Ledger.” (The Friend, (1854), 27: 63) [WEB]
  • “Many of them who had fought at his side through Kansas held that what they should aim at ought to be a grand stampede of negroes; that getting together as man as they could – some hundreds or thousands— they should carry them across the frontier into Canada, only fighting when it was necessary to cover their retreat.” (The Baptist Magazine, (1860), 352) [WEB]
  • “The driver who marks it out, has to remain on the ground until it is finished, and has no interest in over-measuring it; and if it should be systematically increase very much, there is danger of a general stampede to the “swamp”— a danger the salve can always hold before his master’s cupidity.” (Fred. Law Olmsted, Our slaves states:, (1856), 435-436) [WEB]
  • “This is ‘the infected district”— the part of the body spiritual upon which the gangrene of slavery still lingers; and in this chapter we propose to show, that notwithstanding the stampede of slaveholders in 1845, we are now, as a Church, more deeply and criminally involved in slaveholding that at any former period of our history”. (Hiram Mattison, The Impending Crisis of 1860: Or, The Present Connection of the Methodist Episcopal Church with Slavery, and Our Duty in Regard to it, edition 4., (1859), 41) [WEB]
  • “So some say; while others believe that the “stampede” has been a very large one. The great phenomenon in this case is, the intense terror which existed at Washington, eighty mile off, and through slave States, when twenty-two men took possession of Harper’s Ferry on behalf of the negroes.” (Eneas Sweetland Dallas, Once a Week, (1859), 1: 488) [WEB]
  • “A negro stampede for Mexico, has been discovered at Lagrange, Texas.”(Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-room Companion, (1851), 1: 239) [WEB]

Selected Images 



General Notes

  • Google Books and Google Ngram Viewer are both free online databases available to the public.
  • Most of the hits in Google Books were reports from Kentucky.
  • In the Life and Public Service of Benjamin F. Butler, an autobiography of the Union Army general and politician Benjamin Butler, stampede of contraband appears to reference a slave stampede.
  • The 1853 Freemen’s Manual is an anti-slavery publication, affiliated with the Free Soil Democrats.
  • In Hiram Mattison’s The Impending Crisis of 1860, he uses stampede to describe a group of slaveholders.
  • The Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-room Companion (1861) was a magazine of illustrations founded by Frederick Gleason.

Database Report- Quincy Whig


Canton Stampede

Quincy IL Whig, November 6, 1849 (Courtesy of Quincy Historical Newspaper Archive)

Search Summary

  • Search conducted by Dana Marecheau July 2-3, 2019.
  • Keywords: slave stampede, stampede, stampede of slaves
  • Totals: 8 hits

Top Results

    • “We find the following telegraphic despatch in the St. Louis Republican of Saturday last.– We had not before heard of this “stampede,” although Lewis county lies nearly opposite this: Quincy, Nov, 21. NEGRO STAMPEDE. – About fifty negroes, (men, women, and children,) with teams, owned by Miss Militer, McKim and McCutchin, of Sugar creek, and William Ellis of Monticello, Lew county Mo.’ started for parts unknown about one o’clock last night.” (Quincy IL Whig, November 6, 1849)
    • “We are getting a little tired of this disposition of our Missouri friends to lose their equilibrium, and charge that every slave stampede that takes places originates in this city.” (“Across the River,” Quincy IL Whig, July 7, 1854)
    • “We have been told that a few persons in Quincy, construe an editorial in our Daily of Friday last into something like an intimation that we would  justify lawless attacks upon abolitionists, by way of retribution for their supposed connexion with slave stampedes the other side of the river.” (“Editorial Misrepresentation,” Quincy IL Whig, February 12, 1853)
    • “The Muscatine Journal, speaking of a recent Slave Stampede in Northern Missouri and an unsuccessful effort to overtake the fugitive, says…” (“The Underground Railroad,” Quincy IL Whig, September 11, 1854)
    • “Another cause operating powerfully is the insecurity of this chattelized property. In Missouri, surrounded as she is by free States, stampedes of slaves are of frequent occurrence. You cannot take up one of the city paper without seeing an advertisement with its accompanying rewards for the recovery of runaway slaves.” (“Missouri and Slavery,” Quincy IL Whig, March 15, 1859)
    • “It appears by advice from Fortress Monroe that there is likely to be a stampede of slaves through Virginia.” (“Telegraph Notice,” Quincy IL Whig, June 1, 1861)
    • “We have been very anxious to know, upon what authority out Missouri neighbors charge that slave stampedes originate in Quincy.” (“Slave Stampede,” Quincy IL Whig, August 5, 1854)
    • “Stampede of Slaves from South Carolina.” (“Southern Conciliation,” Quincy IL Whig, March 30, 1861)

General Notes

  • The Quincy Historical Newspaper Archive is a free database comprised of newspapers published in Illinois from 1835 through May 1926.
  • When conducting the search, the word “stampede” by itself did not provide any relevant hits.
  • The term “slave stampede” provided the most relevant hits in the Quincy Historical Newspaper Archive.