On the Road
I traveled to Louisiana to try to trace the sisters’ journey. After they arrived, they were turned over to a man named Wilson. The city directory listed a slave trader named Jonathan Wilson. He advertised how people could easily reach his slave jail by streetcar. It turned out that it was two blocks from my hotel.
In 1848, however, there was a terrible outbreak of yellow fever in New Orleans. Mary and Emily were valuable “property.” Slave traders didn’t want them to get sick. They sent the girls back to the jail in Washington, D.C. This gave supporters a chance to free them.
Abolitionists held a party in New York City to raise funds for the sisters. It was expensive to pay to free human beings. Supporters finally gathered every penny they needed to purchase the girls’ freedom. With great joy, Mary and Emily stepped out of the slave jail. Finally, they were free!
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. They learned to read and write.
I traveled there to read the school records. 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 years later in college.
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 to free her brother, Ephraim.
Samuel escaped on a ship leaving New Orleans. Paynter said that he traveled to Australia and England. The U.S. census for 1870 showed that Samuel had returned to Washington D.C., after the Civil War. He brought his wife and children with him.
John Edmonson was the only brother who never made it home. The U.S. census for 1870 describes a black farmer in Louisiana named John Edmonson. His name then disappeared from the records.
Telling Their Story
Eventually, I had enough information to write and publish a book. You can read it. 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 capital. It would take a Civil War, however, to abolish slavery throughout the United States. What became of the people on the Pearl?
I found the descendants of the Edmonson family and many of the other passengers. They were teachers, doctors, and so many other things.
For me, learning what happened to the people on the Pearl was one of the most rewarding parts of my research. There are more American stories waiting to be discovered. I will continue to look. Who knows what story we will discover next?