On the Road

I traveled to Louisiana to see if I could trace Mary and Emily’s journey. After the Union docked in New Orleans, they were turned over to a man named Wilson. The city directory listed a slave trader named Jonathan Wilson. He advertised in the newspaper how people could easily reach his slave jail by streetcar. The building is still there today. It turned out that it was two blocks from my hotel.

Both John H. Paynter and Harriet Beecher Stowe tell us that there was a terrible outbreak of yellow fever in New Orleans in 1848. Mary and Emily were valuable “property.” With the outbreak, it was too dangerous to keep them in New Orleans. They were sent back to the jail in Washington, D.C. This gave the Edmonson family and supporters a chance to free them.

Abolitionists held a fund‑raising event in New York City for the sisters. It was very expensive to pay to free human beings. We know from the land records in Maryland that even if their father sold his farm, it would not be enough to buy the freedom of even one of the sisters.

The girls’ supporters finally gathered every penny they needed to purchase their freedom. With great joy, Mary and Emily stepped out of the slave jail as free young women.

Discovering Their Path

Now free, Mary and Emily’s education came first. Harriet Beecher Stowe helped to finance their studies. They attended a school in New York where they learned to read and write.

I traveled there to read the school records concerning Mary and Emily. I found copies of Emily’s letters to Stowe and family members. It was very moving to read her own words and see her handwriting. Sadly, Mary died of tuberculosis while at Oberlin College in Ohio. An Ohio newspaper reported that she was buried in a cemetery there.

Following Their Journey

Emily returned to Washington, D.C., to be with her family. She taught at a teacher’s school for young black women.

Three of the Edmonson brothers ended up free. A wealthy man from New York donated ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​$900 for Richard’s freedom. Paynter reported that Emily raised money in the North to free her brother Ephraim.

Samuel escaped on a ship leaving New Orleans. Paynter said that he traveled to Australia and England. It was very difficult to find any evidence to prove this. But then I looked at the U.S. census for 1870. It showed that Samuel had returned to Washington, D.C., after the Civil War with his wife and children. The census reported that one child had been born in Australia and the other in England. This proved that Paynter’s family history was correct.

John Edmonson was the only brother who never made it home. The U.S. census for 1870 describes a black, Marylandborn farmer living in Louisiana. He was named John Edmonson. He was the right age and very likely was the missing brother. His name then disappeared from the records. He may never have made it home to see his family.

Telling Their Story

Eventually, I had enough information to publish a book. If you’d like to know what I discovered, you can read my book. It’s called Escape on the Pearl.

The Pearl escape changed American history. Two years after it happened, slave trading was outlawed in the nation’s capitol. Many of the traders simply moved to Virginia or Maryland, but it was a start. It would take more than a decade and a Civil War before slavery would be abolished throughout the United States. One of the most rewarding parts of my research was learning what became of people on the Pearl.

I found the descendants of the Edmonson family. I also discovered what happened to many of the other passengers on the Pearl. They were teachers, doctors, financial planners, and so many other things.

This story is part of the story of America. There are other American stories waiting to be discovered and researched. I will continue to look. Who knows what story will be revealed to us next?

author Mary Kay Ricks

Escape on the Pearl The heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad Mary Kay Ricks