The Pearl

A Failed Slave Escape on the Potomac

By Josephine F. Pacheco

320 pp., 6 x 9, 11 illus., 1 table, notes, index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-1500-4
    Published: March 2014
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-7432-0
    Published: March 2010
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-8892-6
    Published: March 2010

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In the spring of 1848 seventy-six slaves from the nation's capital hid aboard a schooner called the Pearl in an attempt to sail down the Potomac River and up the Chesapeake Bay to freedom in Pennsylvania. When inclement weather forced them to anchor for the night, the fugitive slaves and the ship's crew were captured and returned to Washington. Many of the slaves were sold to the Lower South, and two men sailing the Pearl were tried and sentenced to prison.

Recounting this harrowing tale from the preparations for escape through the participants' trial, Josephine Pacheco provides fresh insight into the lives of enslaved blacks in the District of Columbia, putting a human face on the victims of the interstate slave trade, whose lives have been overshadowed by larger historical events. Pacheco also details the Congressional debates about slavery that resulted from this large-scale escape attempt. She contends that although the incident itself and the trials and Congressional disputes that followed were not directly responsible for bringing an end to the slave trade in the nation's capital, they played a pivotal role in publicizing many of the issues surrounding slavery. Eventually, President Millard Fillmore pardoned the operators of the Pearl.

About the Author

Josephine F. Pacheco (1920-2008) was Distinguished Professor of History Emerita at George Mason University, where she directed the Center for the Study of Constitutional Rights. She coauthored, edited, or coedited six other books, including Three Who Dared: Prudence Crandall, Margaret Douglass, Myrtilla Miner: Champions of Antebellum Black Education.
For more information about Josephine F. Pacheco, visit the Author Page.


"[An] important book. . . . Every serious student of history should read this book. Pacheo's compelling narrative and graceful prose make it easily accessible to lay audiences and specialists alike."--NC Historical Review

"A thorough treatment and a good place to start for anyone interested in the Pearl."--Journal of the Early Republic

"This book gives rare insight into slavery in the nation's capital."--Black Issues Book Review

"Pacheco's tale is masterfully told. . . . We are in Josephine Pacheco's debt for bringing this neglected story to deserved attention. Clearly the story could become part of a larger synthesis on slave resistance and the coming of the war, a topic that Pacheco's important book foreshadows."--Civil War History

"An important addition to the growing literature on fugitive slaves and the persons who aided them. . . . By skillfully weaving the story of the ill-fated Pearl into the history and politics of slavery in the nation's capital, Pacheco also provides a revealing vantage point into the larger political debates that swirled in the late 1840s. . . . Pacheco helps restore the movement broadly known as the Underground Railroad to its rightful place in the history of abolitionism and the politics of slavery."--Journal of American History

"Pacheco offers a compelling narrative of first-rate historical craftsmanship."--Register of the Kentucky Historical Society