August 11th, 2009


Schooner Pearl and her attempt to free slaves

Last night, I ran across an interesting article about the maritime history of this city. It's called A Capital Waterfront: Maritime Washington, D.C., 1790-1880. I learned a lot about the DC Waterfront that I didn't know. The chief products transported by boat through and from this area were tobacco, flour, coal, and timber. However, the river and waterfront warehouses suffered a lot from ice flows in the springtime and wartime difficulties during 1812 and the Civil War. Still, boats came and went - including paddleboats and sailing vessels. One schooner, called Pearl, became famous in 1848 for attempting to take a boat-load of slaves to freedom. She was tracked down and caught before she could finish her mission and it stirred up a lot of anger amongst the slave owners in the Washington area.

After searching for schooners in American Memory, I ran across the memoirs of the captain of the Pearl! It's a fascinating read about a fellow at a critical time in America's history. He relates how he got involved in the Pearl incident out of a simple desire to help a couple of slaves whom he had heard about. He traded some lumber along the way and had along with him the ship's owner and a cook/crewman. After he was caught and imprisoned, his jail-keepers eyed him as some kind of adventurous or powerful figure - but he was just trying to sleep on the cold, hard stone floor, wondering if he would end up staying there for the rest of his life. He was apparently imprisoned for 4 years, but I haven't gotten that far in reading yet. Some of the lines from the book are quite interesting:

"I came to Washington, not to preach, nor to hear preached, emancipation, equality and brotherhood, but to put them into practice...Saturday evening, at supper, I let English [the cook] a little into the secret of what I intended. I told him that the sort of ship-timber we were going to take would prove very easy to load and unload..." page 27

"The idea of being torn in pieces by a furious mob was exceedingly disagreeable." page 38