Getting Started

As my search began, I soon found a book called Fugitives of the Pearl written in 1930 by John H. Paynter. He was the grandnephew of Mary and Emily Edmonson and their four brothers.

Next, I found a book that had been written by Daniel Drayton, one of the Pearl’s captains. And a book about slavery by Harriet Beecher Stowe had a whole chapter on the Edmonson family and the Pearl escape. A few years after the escape, Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an anti‑slavery novel that even President Abraham Lincoln knew about.

Many of these important works have been preserved for us to read. Each of these sources gave me an account of what happened. But, I wanted to find out more details. I looked at census records that track population changes and show where people lived. I also looked at other historical documents like ship passenger lists, court cases, deeds showing land ownership, church records, newspaper articles, and other papers. These materials are called primary sources. They were created near the time the event took place.

The girls and their brothers were taken to New Orleans, Louisiana, to be sold. The ship’s records listed their height. Mary was 15 years old and 5’6” tall, and Emily was 13 years old, and shorter at 5’1.”

Learning More

Like an image coming into focus on a camera lens, I began to get a clearer picture of the Edmonson family.

From official land deeds, I learned that Mary and Emily’s father, Paul Edmonson, was a free man. He owned a 40acre farm north of Washington, D.C. Paul Edmonson was freed when his owner died in 1821.

Recreating the Past

From the agricultural census of 1850, I learned a lot about the family farm. They had fruit trees and grew potatoes, wheat, oats, and corn. There were three horses, three cows, and five pigs.

It sounded like a wonderful place to grow up. But the Edmonson siblings could only live there when they were very young. At 13, they went to work in some of the finest houses in Washington, D.C. The money that they earned went to their owner, not
to them.

They had to work because they were slaves. They were slaves because their mother was a slave. The law in all slave states and territories said that, if the mother was enslaved, so were her children. The writers Paynter and Stowe both said that Paul’s wife, Amelia, was enslaved. They added that she belonged to a woman who lived near the Edmonson farm. Court records that I found showed that Paynter and Stowe were right.

As I continued my research, I relied on newspapers. Newspapers of the day, especially abolitionist ones, wrote about the escape. An abolitionist was a person who believed that slavery was immoral and should be abolished immediately. I was able to read most of these historical newspapers at the Library of Congress. Many are available online, but not all. I traveled to Ohio and New Orleans to read some local newspapers.

At the National Archives in Washington, D.C., where many important American papers are kept, the records of the New Orleansbound ship, the Union, listed details of its passengers. Mary and Emily’s brothers were Samuel, Ephraim, Richard, and John. They ranged in age from 21 to 30 years old.