Slaves in the Family and Escape on the Pearl: A Report on Two Books that Used NARA Records

Today’s post was written by Damani Davis, an Archivist at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

Among the most tangible products validating the work of National Archives’ (NARA) reference staff are the books written by the many researchers we’ve assisted over the years. Often, there can be a type of synergistic or mutually beneficial relationship between these researchers and us as reference staff. Based on our knowledge of the records, we assist these authors by directing them to the specific records series or files that may potentially have relevance for their research; in turn, they are able to delve into these records in a far more deeply than we are able to do. As a result, we actually educate each other on the records. We inform them on how the records are arranged, their scope, and what may be pertinent to their topic; in turn, their research often unearths information from the records that we may have been unaware of.

The closing of NARA facilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic has given me the opportunity to read some of these books that I’ve had on hold for a long time and just didn’t have time to open. Some of these books I received from the actual authors after introducing them during the NARA book talks formerly sponsored by Doug Swanson and the Center for the National Archives Experience/Museum Services at the main Archives building in Washington, DC. Other books I either purchased myself or borrowed from the library in order to educate myself as a reference archivist on some of historical context and issues relevant to NARA records.

cover of the book Slaves in the Family
Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball (c) 1998

The first book, that I chose to read in the midst of this pandemic is Slaves in the Family, by Edward Ball. Slaves in the Family chronicles the author’s extensive genealogical research into both his own family—which was one of the most prominent and wealthy slaveholding families in antebellum South Carolina—and the families of the Black Americans who were the descendants of the enslaved that his family had owned. The Ball family owned several large rice plantations in the low country of South Carolina, throughout the hinterlands outside of Charleston. Most of his immediate research into his own family was pretty straight-forward and relied on extensive collections of the Ball Family Papers that were dispersed at several local repositories in the Carolinas, such as the South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston, the Library of the University of South Carolina, the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, and the Special Collections Library at Duke University.

Despite the ready availability of his own ancestors’ papers, Ball had to be more creative when it came to researching the lineages of the descendants of families formerly owned by his ancestors. First he joined the Afro-American History and Genealogy Society (AAHGS) in New York and used that network to identify African Americans in other cities and states that had family links to the South Carolina counties where the Ball family had been based. He then focused on those Black families that had strong oral family tradition linking them to the Ball Family. Next he would corroborate the families’ oral histories with “birth, marriage, and death records housed in county collections, as well as census returns, wills, and probate documents at state archives. With that information he was able to confirm “each lineage back to the years immediately after the Civil War.” After successfully linking “a family in freedom to a family in slavery,” he says that he “turned often to papers at the National Archives” including:

  • Freedmen’s Bureau Records (RG 105)
  • Freedman’s Bank Records (RG 101)
  • Military Service and Pension claims (RG 15) for those who served with the Union once they were freed. Often, those pension files would contain biographical information often referencing birthplaces and plantations. He would confirm the link to a Ball plantation by analyzing the slave lists in the Ball family papers.

Slaves in the Family is a highly-acclaimed book that was a New York Times best seller, won accolades in the reviews of other major newspapers, and won several awards, including a National Book Award. For me though, at well-over 400 pages, this book was a real slog to read. I’m certain this book will likely appeal to the many people who are absolutely fascinated by and love all aspects of genealogical research. The book delved very deeply into the intimate personal details of various generations and members of the Ball family. My personal passion, however, is more for history itself rather than the detailed intricacies of genealogy and family history (other than my own family). However, I did appreciate the various nuggets and themes relating to African American history that ran throughout the book.[1]

cover of the book Escape on the Pearl
Escape on the Pearl, by Mary Kay Ricks (c) 2007

The second book, Escape of the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad, by Mary Kay Ricks, did not win any of the major awards and accolades that accompanied Slaves in the Family, but it was by far a more enjoyable read for me. Although Ricks’ book focuses on a particular incident in American history, it reads almost like a good novel. It chronicles an 1848 incident in which over seventy enslaved persons in Washington, DC attempted to escape on the Underground Railroad with the assistance of abolitionists who had enlisted sailor. In this attempted escape, they boarded a schooner named the Pearl and sailed down the Potomac River with hopes of reaching the Chesapeake Bay. Once they entered the Chesapeake, they expected to sail up to Cecil County, Maryland where they planned to meet with a team of abolitionists who would escort them to Philadelphia by way of the Delaware Bay. It was the largest known attempted escape of slaves through the Underground Railroad. Ultimately, the plan failed, as they were caught down the Potomac before they could enter the Chesapeake. The book details the major political controversy and social conflict that resulted from this episode.   

Although this book centers on the personal histories of specific individuals, particularly the siblings Mary and Emily Edmonson (who were 15 and 13 years old at time of incident), their extended family in Washington, DC and Maryland, other enslaved individuals who had attempted to escape aboard the Pearl, the focus is not necessarily on genealogy. The individuals featured in this book are used to bring a personal dimension to the larger historical trends and themes that were ascendant in the nation in general and Washington, DC in particular during the years leading up to the Civil War. Using the particular stories of these individuals, the author is able to explore important historical themes such as growing tension between slave and free states, the rise of the abolitionist movement, the controversy and conflict surrounding slavery in the Nation’s Capital, the rise of the domestic slave trade in which tens of thousands of enslaved persons were being sold from Maryland and Virginia to the states in the deep South, and so on. This book struck a perfect balance in depicting individual biography in the midst of the larger historical narrative.

Supplementing records she accessed at other repositories, the NARA records used by Mary Kay Ricks in Escape on the Pearl include:

Speaking of one of my former colleagues in her acknowledgments she writes, “Many librarians, archivists, and curators aided in the research for this book. Robert Ellis and others at the National Archives helped me navigate the court records and other documents that greatly contributed to this story.”

Whereas in the first book, Slaves in the Family, the author focused more on his own unique family history and genealogy, with the broader history merely serving as the backdrop, Escape on the Pearl is a great read if you’re a person who has a strong interest and love for American/African-American history in general. Many important historical figures of this period appear in this account–such as Frederick Douglass, Charles Sumner, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Horace Mann, and many others. The author does a great job in personalizing historical themes such as the American Civil War along with the debates, conflict, & intrigue leading up to it, the history of the Nation’s Capital-Washington, DC, the Abolitionist Movement, the Underground Railroad, the Domestic Slave Trade, and so forth. This is highly recommended.

[1] Such as details on the preferences of early South Carolina slaveholders for enslaved persons from specific tribes and geographical locations in Africa which resulted in specific ethnic compositions of the enslaved population in that state; or, the Balls interaction with African American descendants dispersed throughout the US, particularly in Northeastern cities highlighting the history of Black migration, and other such historical themes. 

One thought on “Slaves in the Family and Escape on the Pearl: A Report on Two Books that Used NARA Records

  1. Great piece. I’ve read, “Slaves in the Family” but not “Escape of The Pearl”, Because of this blog post I will pick up “Escape of The Pearl”. The NARA is so important. I hope this will encourage more people to access the records.

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