Mapping Slavery in D.C.: A Digital Project Proposal

Last semester, I spent some time researching the history of slavery in Washington, D.C. for my fellowship at the White House Historical Association. One of the topics that I studied was the history of the Pearl incident, which was one of the largest attempted slave escapes in the United States. On March April 15, 1848, 77 enslaved people attempted to leave D.C. on the Pearl schooner, charting course to freedom in the Northeast. Unfortunately, adverse weather forced the Pearl to anchor near Point Lookout, Maryland that night. The next day, the Pearl fugitives were transported back to D.C. Several of the enslaved people who attempted to escape were resold by their owners and transported to the Deep South. Through my research, I have found a couple of newspaper articles that list the names of the Pearl fugitives as well as their owners. I have also found sources and census records that fill in the narratives of a couple of the Pearl fugitives. For example, Ellen Stewart was resold after the Pearl incident and gained her freedom with the assistance of abolitionists William Chaplin and Dr. Joseph Evans. Mary and Emily Edmonson obtained their freedom through funds raised by abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, and their story contributed to parts of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.   

Somewhat connected to the people involved in the Pearl incident, I also spent some time researching the enslaved individuals who worked for families at the Cutts-Madison House and the Daniel Webster’s House (currently the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Building) on Lafayette Square. My research primarily focused on Paul Jennings. Jennings was formerly enslaved by James and Dolley Madison. He was purchased in 1847 by Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, and the two worked out an agreement for Jennings to purchase his own freedom. Webster arranged similar agreements with some of his other servants, including Monica McCarty, Henry Pleasants, Sarah Smith, and Ann Bean. Before his death, Webster included statements in his will to ensure that his African-American servants obtained their freedom.

For my digital project, I am interested in using a tool like Google My Maps to visualize either the lives of the Pearl fugitives or the enslaved individuals who worked on Lafayette Square.

With the Pearl incident option, I would conduct more research about the lives of the enslaved individuals who attempted to escape on the Pearl to demonstrate the impact of sale and separation that the families and enslaved individuals faced during the aftermath of the Pearl incident. I hope to trace as many of the Pearl fugitives as I can; however, I am unsure of the records and sources available. As a result, I am planning to start with the families and individuals that I know more about such as Ellen Stewart, the Edmonson family, and the Bell family.

With the Lafayette Square example, I think it would be important to conduct more research about the people who lived on the Square as well as the buildings and structures on Lafayette Square as the historic landscape changed over time. I am most familiar with Daniel Webster’s and Dolley Madison’s relation to slavery in the neighborhood. As a result, if I choose to pursue this option, I will conduct more research to gain additional insight into the different people who lived on the Square or had businesses on the Square.

This is an image of Dolley Madison’s house on Lafayette Square where Ellen Stewart and Paul Jennings worked.
Image Credit: Library of Congress

I am unsure whether ArcGIS Story Maps or a combination of Google My Maps and WordPress would present the information more effectively. I would like to include both geographic and narrative information about the Pearl fugitives and/or the enslaved individuals working on Lafayette Square (depending on the option that I choose). I like the narrative functions and presentation style of Story Maps. However, I think that content created in My Maps and WordPress offer more simplified, adaptable presentations that could more easily incorporate additional individuals and narratives if I wanted to continue this project in the future. Part of my inspiration for this proposal comes from the O Say Can You See: Early Washington, D.C., Law, and Family project, which includes an interactive map formed from city directory data. The software that the project uses for the map might be too technical. However, I think it provides a good example as I continue to work out details for my project.

With either option, I hope that this resource will be helpful for anyone studying the history of slavery by contributing to our understanding of the challenges that enslaved individuals faced. I also hope that this resource would help add to the narrative of enslaved individuals by showcasing their experiences through geographic visualization.

Thanks for reading!

2 Replies to “Mapping Slavery in D.C.: A Digital Project Proposal”

  1. Mia, I love this idea. I think your choice of software makes sense, especially since you can embed a My Map directly into a WordPress site. I think the Pearl incident would be particularly to map the movements of enslaved people and allows you to explore that in greater detail. Also, I like that it centers on the experiences of enslaved people rather than their oppressors.

  2. This is a really great idea. It’s an important topic and a timely one to engage with. Your focus on specific incidents effecting enslaved people in D.C. is both powerful in drawing out centrality and cruelty of slavery and it’s clear centrality to American History. Focusing this kind of close attention on these enslaved people is also a powerful way to make all of this less abstract and more concrete and specific.

    In that context, I think there are a number of ways you could develop and scope this. I think you’ve identified the right set of tools to explore and my suggestion there would be to start to try out a few different tools at once with some initial info on a small number of people to get a sense of which tool would work best for you. Then I think the other big question will involve how to scope the project, do you focus more deeply on rounding out stories of a small number of individuals? Or do you try to do more limited work on individual narratives and do more work to represent everyone involved to illustrate a broader story through the visualization that the map presents? Both are viable options and I imagine much of it will depend on what kinds of information you can gather from sources and what you end up feeling like the primary goals for this are for your target audience. In any event, great thinking and I’m excited to see how this project develops if you do indeed make it the project you develop further.

Leave a Reply to josh-reynolds Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.