Passenger on the Pearl: The True Story of Emily Edmonson's Flight from Slavery

Passenger on the Pearl: The True Story of Emily Edmonson's Flight from Slavery

by Winifred Conkling


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The page-turning, heart-wrenching true story of one young woman willing to risk her safety and even her life for a chance at freedom in the largest slave escape attempt in American history.

In 1848, thirteen-year-old Emily Edmonson, five of her siblings, and seventy other enslaved people boarded the Pearl under cover of night in Washington, D.C., hoping to sail north to freedom. Within a day, the schooner was captured, and the Edmonsons were sent to New Orleans to be sold into even crueler conditions. Passenger on the Pearl is the story of this thwarted escape, of the ramifications of its attempt, and of a family for whom freedom was the ultimate goal.

Through an engaging narrative, informative sidebars, and more than fifty period photographs and illustrations, Winifred Conkling takes readers on Emily Edmonson’s journey from enslaved person to teacher at a school for African American young women. Conkling illuminates a turbulent time in American history, showing the daily lives of enslaved people, the often-changing laws affecting them, the high cost of a failed escape, and the stories of slave traders and abolitionists.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616201968
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 01/13/2015
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 810,075
Product dimensions: 6.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)
Lexile: 1160L (what's this?)
Age Range: 12 - 14 Years

About the Author

Winifred Conkling learned about Emily and Mary Edmonson and their attempted escape on the Pearl when a statue of the sisters was erected in Alexandria, Virginia, in 2010, at the site of the building that once held the Bruin and Hill slave pen. (The building now houses commercial office space.) Curious, Conkling began to research the story of the girls’ journey to freedom and was thrilled to find extensive primary source materials, including an account written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the bestselling nineteenth century novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the autobiography of Daniel Drayton, one of the captains of the Pearl.

Conkling studied journalism at Northwestern University and received her master of arts in writing for children and young adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has written more than thirty nonfiction books for adults, most involving health and consumer topics. Her first book for children, Sylvia & Aki, won the 2012 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award for Older Readers and the 2012 Tomas Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and three children.

Read an Excerpt

A Mother’s Sorrow

WHEN AMELIA CULVER met Paul Edmonson, she had no intention of ever marrying. Milly, as she was known, enjoyed spending time with Paul at church on Sundays, and the more she learned about him the more she cared for him, but she did not want to be his wife. She realized that she had fallen in love, but she was not concerned about love. Milly knew the truth: She was enslaved, and in Montgomery County, Maryland, in the early 19th century, her future did not belong to her.

At the time, Paul was enslaved on a nearby farm. They would not be able to live together as man and wife because they had different owners; but if they married, Milly and Paul would be able to see each other from time to time. Any children they might have would be born into bondage, owned by Milly’s master. Milly understood that the joy of marriage and family would end in heartbreak when her children--her babies--grew old enough to be torn away from her to work or to be sold in the slave market.

Despite what seemed like inevitable sadness, Paul asked Milly to marry him. She turned him down. Milly longed for love and family, but still more, she longed for liberty. “I loved Paul very much,” Milly said. “But I thought it wasn’t right to bring children into the world to be slaves.”

Milly’s family and others at Asbury Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., urged her to reconsider Paul’s offer, arguing that Paul was a good man and it was her Christian duty to marry and have children.

Paul proposed again, and this time she accepted.

“This Child Isn't Ours”

As Milly had predicted, the painful realities of love within slavery soon followed. “Well, Paul and me, we was married, and we was happy enough,” Milly said. “But when our first child was born I says to him, ‘There ’tis now, Paul, our troubles is begun. This child isn’t ours.

“‘Oh, Paul,’ says I, ‘what a thing it is to have children that isn’t ours!’

“Paul, he says to me, ‘Milly, my dear, if they be God’s children, it ain’t so much matter whether they be ours or no; they may be heirs of the kingdom.’” Milly tried to find peace in his words, but she still worried.

In the early years of her marriage, Milly and her young children lived with her mistress, Rebecca Culver, and Culver’s married sister in Colesville, Maryland. It was not uncommon for an enslaved person to be freed when his owner died, and in 1821, Paul’s owner freed him in her will. While many owners did not recognize slave marriages, Culver allowed Milly to work as a seamstress and live with Paul and their children on a local farm. Milly and Paul continued to have children, increasing Culver’s wealth significantly.

“I had mostly sewing,” Milly said. “Sometimes a shirt to make in a day--it was coarse like, you know--or a pair of sheets or some such, but whatever ’twas, I always got it done. Then I had all my housework and babies to take care of and many’s the time after ten o’clock I’ve took my children’s clothes and washed ’em all out and ironed ’em late in the night ’cause I couldn’t never bear to see my children dirty. Always wanted to see ’em sweet and clean. I brought ’em up and taught ’em the very best ways I was able.”

Culver was mentally challenged and she was never able to manage her finances on her own. In 1827, Culver’s brother petitioned the court in Montgomery County to have her ruled legally incompetent. The judge agreed and named her brother-in-law, Francis Valdenar, as guardian of her business affairs, which included oversight of Milly and her children.

By the mid-1830s, Milly had given birth to fourteen children, eight girls and six boys. She lived in constant fear that they would be taken from her. “I never seen a white man come onto the place that I didn’t think, There, now, he’s coming to look at my children,” Milly said. “And when I saw any white man going by, I’ve called in my children and hid ’em for fear he’d see ’em and want to buy ’em.”

In time, Milly’s fears were realized. As was common practice at the time, when any of her children reached age 12 or 13, he or she was taken from home and hired out to families in the Washington, D.C., area to live and work as domestic slaves. Their wages were sent back to Culver, who depended on this income.

Heartbroken, Milly begged her girls not to marry until they were free so that they would not become mothers of children born into slavery. She said, “Now, girls, don’t you never come to the sorrows that I have. Don’t you never marry till you get your liberty. Don’t you marry to be mothers to children that ain’t your own.” Each of the Edmonson children, both the boys and the girls, shared their mother’s belief that aside from their duty to God, nothing was more important than freedom.

An Uncertain Future

Over the years, Valdenar had allowed the five oldest Edmonson sisters--Elizabeth, Martha, Eveline, Henrietta, and Eliza--to buy their freedom. They raised the money by taking on extra work and keeping a portion of their earnings, or by accepting money from family and friends. By 1848, Culver was in poor health, and she faced growing debts. Six of the Edmonson children were hired out at the time. There were no plans for their imminent sale, but the siblings realized that their futures were far from secure. Slave owners prized the Edmonson children for their honesty, intelligence, and morality; slave dealers prized them because they could demand a high price on the auction block. Would Valdenar sell one or more of them to pay Culver’s expenses?

If they were sold, they could end up in fine homes working as domestics and butlers or they could end up in the Lower South, working as field hands or, worse yet, as “fancy girls” in the New Orleans sex trade. The two hired-out Edmonson sisters, Mary and Emily, had pale complexions and fine features, which meant that they could fetch a high price in the southern market. They were only 15 and 13 years old, respectively--a bit young to be sold into this line of work even by the standards of the time, but their true age did not matter. In such circumstances, slave traders were known to falsify documents and add

All of the enslaved Edmonson children had discussed with their parents the possibility of running away. They faced difficult choices: If they stayed, they risked being sold south at their owner’s convenience. If they ran away and were caught, they faced the likelihood that they would be sold to harsher owners in the South.

While she had not experienced such hardships herself, Emily had seen coffles of slaves shuffling down the streets of the city, men and women walking with shackles around their ankles and handcuffs on their wrists, paired together and linked by long metal chains. These human herds were driven like cattle or swine down Pennsylvania Avenue and the streets of Washington, D.C., chained together so that they could not flee while being moved from one place to another. Most coffles were bound for the Deep South to labor as field slaves on cotton and sugar plantations. Field slaves performed backbreaking work from sunrise to sunset, often under the watchful eye of an overseer with a bullwhip; house slaves spent their days cooking and cleaning and watching children.

The only option Emily and her enslaved brothers and sisters saw to ensure their freedom and safety was to flee--and to pray that they could avoid getting caught. When the Edmonson family learned of a bold escape planned for a spring night in April, they decided to take the chance. A lifetime of freedom was worth the risk of capture, they reasoned.

Table of Contents


ONE. A Mother’s Sorrow
TWO. Escape: April 15, 1848
THREE. Against the Tide
FOUR. Chasing the Pearl
FIVE. Capture
SIX. Back to Washington
EIGHT. Baltimore
NINE. New Orleans
TEN. An Unexpected Reunion
ELEVEN. $2,250: The Price of Freedom
TWELVE. Ransomed
THIRTEEN. The Trial of Captain Daniel Drayton
FOURTEEN. A Radical Education
FIFTEEN. Chaplin’s Surrender
SIXTEEN. Pardoned
SEVENTEEN. “The Last Two Drops of Blood in My Heart”
EIGHTEEN. Emily, Alone
NINETEEN. Homecoming
Time Line
The Edmonsons: A Family Tree
Sources and Notes
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