Quaker women in the eighteenth century were inow as the 'First Women Feminists'. Their strength in spite of tremendous advesity has been an inspiration to generations.
Due to traumatic family circumstances, Rebekah Bradford is forced to sign an indentured servant, contract, to leave her home in London and work for a Philadelphia Quaker Family.
Rebekah's journey through life takes her from servanthood to wife and mother and business woman during a period when Quakers were struggling to maintain their identity as the colony attempted to find a place in history that was often in stark conflict with its founder, William Penn.
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London, Eighth Month 1715
Joseph Bradford trudged homeward on a crowded street on the outskirts of London, the holes in his gloves exposing his calloused hands. A broad- brimmed Quaker hat tipped to one side of his head. Slumped shoulders belied his years.
With so much filth around, no wonder my beloved Mary is ill. He kicked a pile of decaying garbage aside. She deserves much more than this. It’s not fair. Rebekah is the brightest fourteen-year-old in her class. She shouldn't have to quit school to take care of her mother and brothers. She’s losing her childhood through no fault of her own. He looked down at his stiff, chaffed hands. If only I could make enough shoes to hire a maid, she could go back to school. He shook his head and tried to wring away the ache in his neck. I doubt that will ever happen. He gripped his rumbling stomach. The seaman last week was my first customer in two months.
Joseph opened the door of his small house and his two sons, ages five and seven, rushed to his side. The dark circles beneath their eyes accentuated their hungry faces.
“Father, what didst thou bring us for supper?” They said in unison.
Joseph stooped and pulled his sons against his breast. Tears welled in his eyes. He watched his daughter add water to the pot at the hearth. “Rebekah, what is for supper?”
Rebekah looked up and smiled sadly. “We only have two potatoes and three carrots left. I’ve chopped them thin and made soup, but it is not nearly enough for us.”
Joseph hugged his daughter. “I love thee,” he said. “Things will be better tomorrow. A ship’s officer is picking up a pair of sea boots before evening. When he pays me, I’ll go to the market and buy food as well as medicine for thy mother.”
Joseph’s eyes drifted to his wife’s thin frame huddled under a tattered blanket in a bed in the corner. He knelt beside her and took her hand. “Good evening, Mary. How art thou today?” A faint smile spread across the sick woman’s face. “Hello, Joseph. I’m glad thou art home,” she whispered. “I’m tired and have been coughing a great deal, but the children have been very helpful today.”
“I’ll get some food for thee. That will give thee strength.” Joseph took a wooden bowl and spoon from the shelf, filled the bowl with weak soup, and carried it to his wife's bedside. He leaned down and kissed her on the forehead. He lifted a spoonful of soup to her lips. “God willing, soon I’ll sell a pair of shoes and can buy groceries and medicine. If Rebekah helps me in the shop tomorrow, I will be able to finish the sea boots earlier.”
After feeding his wife and the children finished their meager meal, Joseph Bradford took the Holy Bible from a shelf and joined his children at the timeworn kitchen table. As was their custom, the Bradford family ended their day with devotions and prayer. Tonight Joseph’s prayers were even more desperate. He prayed for his family, health, peace, and understanding from the community toward his Quaker friends. His bowed head fell lower on his chest as he humbled himself before God in thanksgiving, ever mindful that his family had a mighty God to lean upon.
When Joseph Bradford looked up, he was moved by the awe and sweet innocence on his children’s faces as they looked up at him. If only they could have an easier life than he had had. “I know these are difficult times, but it will not always be this way,” he promised.
He took both his sons’ hands in his. “Thou must always remember to trust in God, treasure family, and work hard. Being able to read is the key to making thy dreams come true. Whatever the cost, thou all must learn to read.”
“We promise, father.”
Joseph turned to his daughter across the table. “Rebekah, promise me thou wilt help thy brothers’ dreams come true and teach them to read. Thou hast already surpassed what thy mother and I have been able to attain. I’m certain that someday thou wilt be blessed for all thy hard work.”
His Majesty's Ship Grafton, out of London and bound for Barbados, encountered heavy seas and strong winds for three days. The ship suffered severe structural damage, and five crew members were washed overboard and drowned. The rest of the crew was demoralized and frightened, forcing the Grafton to return to London for repairs. When the ship docked, more than half the remaining crew left the ship and disappeared into the narrow streets of the city. Confusion and frustrations engulfed the ship’s officers. “Lieutenant Briggs, we have to be back at sea before the winter storms begin,” Captain Clive Burroughs shouted. “The Royal Navy will not tolerate this kind of disloyalty. Those deserters must be caught and hanged. In the meantime, form the remaining marines into a press gang who will force twenty-five strong men into service. Go to the pubs, the shops, anywhere you can find able-bodied men, preferably experienced seamen. We have every legal right to impress men into the Royal Navy, whether they want to or not.”
“Yes, Sir.” Lieutenant Briggs gave his commander a sharp salute, pleased with his new assignment. Of all the officers on the ship, he knew how to make men obey.
Within an hour, the press gang was organized. The sun was lowering into the western horizon when the press gang from the Grafton entered the outskirts of London. Most Londoners were sitting down to their supper, and the streets were deserted.
“I want to go to the pubs before it gets too late,” Lieutenant Briggs shouted to his marine sergeant. “Finding twenty-five men is going to take time, so let’s press the first men we see, whether they have had sea experience or not. They’ll learn once they’re on board.”
The press gang continued down the dark streets with only a faint glow from the moon. “I agree,” the marine sergeant said, smiling to himself. “I want to get this over as soon as possible so I can do some drinking myself.”
A candle flickered in a window at the end of the block. As the press gang approached, they saw a cobbler bent over his bench hammering on a pair of boots. His muscular arms and shoulders evoked power and strength.
Lieutenant Briggs opened the door and entered the cobbler's shop. “He’s perfect,” he said to no one in particular.
“May I help thee?” Joseph Bradford asked as he rose from his cobbler’s bench. He handed Rebekah the finished sea boots.
“You are hereby pressed into the Royal Navy. Fall in,” Lieutenant Briggs commanded. “I cannot join His Majesty’s Navy. I am a Quaker.”
Rebekah set the boots on the customer counter and ran to her father's side. “You were not asked to state your religious preference. You were ordered to fall in.” “But my wife is gravely ill with consumption. We need the money from these shoes I’ve made to pay the apothecary to treat her.” He drew Rebekah even close to himself. “Are you disobeying my command?”
Joseph set his jaw. “I must obey the God of peace.”
“Do you know the penalty for disobeying a lawful order?” Lieutenant Briggs shouted. Joseph’s muscles tightened, his eyes glazed. “My faith propels me to obey the God of Heaven and earth rather than man.”
Turning to the marine sergeant, Lieutenant Briggs commanded, “Bring him along. We’ll punish him later for his disobedience to a lawful order.”
The sergeant nodded to two burly marines who grabbed the cobbler by the arms while a third marine yanked Rebekah away from her father and held her with her feet dangling in mid-air.
Joseph twisted his arms free from their grasp, flung them from him, and ran toward the back door. He flung open the door and raced into the alley. He knew the marines were interested in him and wouldn't harm Rebekah. He had to survive to protect his family.
The marine holding Rebekah tossed her aside like an empty gunnysack and joined the chase. She scrambled to her feet and dashed after them.
“Halt in the name of the king!” Lieutenant Briggs shouted.
Joseph ignored the command and increased his pace. A dog barked in the distance. His heart pounded. As he ran, he focused on the turn in the alleyway a few yards before him. Suddenly a shot rang out. Joseph slumped to the ground, blood streaming from the back of his head.
“Father!” Rebekah ran screaming to his side. “Don’t die.”
Joseph reached for his daughter’s hand, his eyes searching her young face. “Promise. Dreams. Love God.”
Joseph Bradley closed his eyes and Rebekah pressed his hand against her tear-stained face. “I promise, Father.” She knew he had passed from this life into God's hands, but she spoke as though the portals of heaven stood open to hear her vow. "I will not let thee down. We will stay together and I will teach the boys to read God’s word.”
The sun shone through the slats of the simple one-room dwelling. The flames in the fireplace burnt low as the chill of early spring permeated the Bradford family home. Rebekah looked at the large pile of wood near the hearth as the pot of meat and vegetable soup was beginning to bubble over the fire. The heating soup splashed against the rim, threatening to boil over. She watched the tiny spikes of soup leap in the middle of the kettle. That was what the time since father's death seemed like to her, everything searing hot and leaping this way and that, almost out of control.
As neighbors attended to her father's body, she had had the presence of mind to go back to the shop to secure it against other intruders. To her horror, the sea boots were not on the customer counter, nor her father's workbench. She turned aside everything, looking high and low. When at last she stood trembling in the middle of the room, tears blurred her vision. Through the prism of teardrops, she saw an envelope leaning against the moneybox her father kept on the shelf below the customer counter. Locking the box away was laughable. Her father joked that leaving it out might cause someone to put something in it.
She wiped her eyes and walked to the counter. The writing on the front simply said Cobbler. I'm the cobbler now. This was mine to open. Holding it steady to make an even tear across one end, she held her breath and slowly peeled away the edge.
Coins, many coins filled the envelope. The note was short—Cobbler, the boots are worthy of the hire. I'm adding a bonus for having them ready early. Consider the extra a commission for another pair when I return to port next year.
Rebekah sat down and dumped the coins in her lap. There was enough money to pay for the boot leather for the new commission, fill the wood box, and buy meat and vegetables, candle wax, medicine, and a heavier blanket for her mother. Her father's funeral expenses were more than she expected, but with careful management, she would have enough to keep her family from starving for three months. She locked the shop and hurried away to begin her life as the family provider.
Rebekah tucked the new wool blanket tighter around her sick mother lying on her rope bed in the corner of the room. “But mother, I cannot leave thee,” she protested. “I promised Father I would take care of thee. I can keep the shop open. He taught me to make shoes and boots.”
She looked at the Quaker gentleman standing at the head of her mother's bed, beseeching him with her eyes to understand and support her claim. He had a kindly face, but today that wasn't comfort enough.
Mary Bradford lifted her frail hand and intertwined her fingers with those of her daughter. “Rebekah, please understand. This is the only way our family can survive. Thou art not strong enough to work the leather, to soften it, and stretch it on the pegs. Thou art not tall enough to use the rendering vats safely. This is the only way.”
Rebekah’s eyes filled with tears. She lifted her mother’s hands to her lips and kissed them. “Who will care for thee? Who will teach the boys to read?” Her lips trembled, the image of cradling her father’s head in her lap when he took his final breath flashed before her. “I promised father I would teach them. I cannot go back on my promise.”
Mary Bradford sank deeper into her pillow. Her fragile hand relaxed within her daughter’s firm grasp. “God will surely find a way for thee to keep thy promise to Father.” She hesitated and took a deep sigh. “John Reynolds promises to leave enough money for my care and the care of thy brothers if thou wilt agree to work for him for five years.”
Mary’s eyes moistened. “Rebekah, I know it’s difficult, but remaining in London will only hold poverty and hopelessness for thee. Being in Philadelphia among Quakers will protect thee from carnal talkers and worldly influence.”
Rebekah looked away to avoid seeing the pain in her mother’s eyes. She sat still observing their humble home as if for both the first and last time. If she had to leave, she wanted to remember every detail. She had spent many hours leaning over the brick fireplace trying to stretch the meager food other Quakers had gifted her family. The straw mats where she and her brothers slept were stacked neatly in the corner. Wooden bowls and plates carefully lined the shelf her father had hung beside the hearth. A table with two crudely carved benches sat in the center of the room. A straight, high-back chair was under the small window. If she tried hard enough, she could still see her father resting in the chair after a long day working in his cobbler shop.
Rebekah wiped a tear from her eye and lifted her gaze to John Reynolds. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to leave my family,” she said softly. “I'm all they have left.”
Compassion and firmness intensified on his face. “Rebekah, I know this is a difficult time for thy family. However, thou must trust God to meet all thy needs. Perhaps when thy brothers are older they may be able to come to America to join thee.”
Rebekah was silent, numb with fear and trepidation. For mother’s sake, I must be strong. I know they are right.
Clearing his throat Friend Reynolds said. “The High Street Quaker Meeting will care for thy family. London is too unsafe for Quakers today, especially young women.”
Hearing those words, Rebekah buried her face in her hands and began sobbing uncontrollably. “Father… my beloved father. Why did they have to kill him? He was a man of peace and love. It is not fair.”
Mary Bradford’s weak voice trembled. “Thy father died because he treasured God and his family more than life itself,” she whispered. “As you said, he remained true to his faith of love and peace by refusing to be pressed into the King’s Navy. We must follow his example and be brave.”
The shadows lengthened while Rebekah’s sobs grew further and further apart. Finally, she dried her tears on the sleeve of her dingy gray dress and forced a smile. “I’ll be brave and do whatever thou ask of me, Mother,” she said weakly.
The edges of Mary Bradford’s lips curled with approval while her breathing continued to be shallow and labored. Her voice became even fainter and Rebekah leaned closer in order to hear her. “Friend Reynolds will take good care of thee.”
Noting Rebekah’s agreement, John Reynolds took a piece of paper from his pocket and reached into his knapsack for a quill pen and ink. He handed the paper to her. The paper shook as Rebekah read the document.
“I want everyone to understand my terms. I am agreeing to arrange a home and care for Mary Bradford with Friend Smith's family and a home for her two sons with Friend Miller's family in exchange for the household services of Rebekah Bradford. I will provide her fare to American plus room and board in my home in Philadelphia. Rebekah Bradford promises her services to the Reynolds family for five years.”
I’ll not be free until I am over nineteen, she considered. That’s a lifetime away. She hesitantly handed the paper to her mother.
“Rebekah, I’m proud thou art able to read the agreement,” Mary Bradford whispered. Rebekah looked down, tears gathered in the corner of her eyes. How will I survive without my family? Learning to read had been easy for me. But what will it be like for my brothers without me being there to help?
John Reynolds carefully dipped the quill in ink and handed it to the ailing woman.
Mary Bradford took a deep breath and made her shaky mark at the bottom of the paper. She held out the pen to her daughter. “To help thee remember the importance of this commitment, Rebekah, write thy name beside mine. We will be bound together forever.” Rebekah obeyed and carefully wrote her name beside her mother’s shaky mark. She handed the agreement back to Friend Reynolds without a word.
“Thou wilt not regret this decision, Rebekah. Thou must be strong in the time of great weakness. In America thou wilt always have enough food to eat and clean water to drink in a city of peace and love. I want thou to have the same advantages my own children have had.” Rebekah’s eyes brightened. “Is America as beautiful as they say?”
A distant, longing gaze appeared in John Reynolds’s eyes. “It is hard to explain the beauty and peace of Philadelphia. William Penn established a haven for Quakers from all over the world. There is no persecution and we are left alone to practice our beliefs in faith. We all work together in harmony.”
Rebekah watched him return the inkpot and quill to his bag. He straightened his back and tucked the bag under his arm.
“Since all is agreed, I will return for thee a week from Second Day when we board the ship Good Hope,” he promised. “Good day. May God bless this family.” With those words, he slipped through the roughly carved plank door and disappeared into the growing dusk. Rebekah stood motionless and finally slumped into the high-back chair beside the bed. She gazed at her mother whose eyes had closed in a well-deserved rest. The silence in the simple room enveloped her while the shadows lengthened. She, too, closed her eyes. What will happen to me? Will I ever see my mother and brothers again?
Suddenly a child’s high-pitched voice brought her back to reality. “Rebekah! Rebekah! Come quickly. Thy brother is hurt.”
Rebekah ran out the front door of their tiny dwelling into the litter-strewn street and blinked against the setting sun. The neighbors were already gathering around a small brown lump on the side of the muddy street. Samuel, her five-year-old brother, was sitting on the ground patting the lump and crying.
Realizing the lump was her seven-year-old brother, Rebekah screamed, “Joseph!” and raced toward his limp body. “Samuel, what happened to Joseph?”
“A horse and carriage ran over him,” Samuel sobbed. “Is … is he going to die? I don’t want him to die like father.”
Rebekah knelt beside her injured brother and took his hand. To her relief she could see a slight rising and falling of his chest under his muddy shirt. “Joseph, can thou hear me?” A painful silence followed. Rebekah held her breath while she watched the blood oozing through his right shirtsleeve and his tattered breeches. The grey coloring of her brother’s face reminded her of the look on her father’s face after he had been shot. Please God, save my brother. He’s so young and innocent. He doesn’t deserve this.
Joseph's eyes fluttered and slowly opened. “Rebekah, my leg hurts,” he moaned. “I want to go home, but I can’t move.”
Fear seized Rebekah’s heart. What do I do? He’s bleeding too much. I cannot carry him. She looked around her for help and was relieved to see the face of a neighbor woman who had frequently brought food to their home. Martha Miller knelt beside Joseph. Rebekah watched as Martha gingerly ran her fingers over the boy’s right arm and leg. Joseph moaned loudly when her fingers touched his lower right leg.
“Joseph, please remain still. Thy right leg could be broken,” Martha Miller said and turned to her son standing wide-eyed above them. “Richard, run to the shed and get the garden cart and three short slats of wood we use to start the fire in the fireplace. Then go to the kitchen and get at least two towels. Hurry.”
“Yes, Mother. I’ll be right back.”
Rebekah watched Richard turn and race across the street to the small shed behind their house. Within seconds, he reappeared in the doorway pushing a crudely hewn cart with a rusty wheel.
Meanwhile, Samuel snuggled closer to her and buried his head on her chest. She wrapped her right arm around her sobbing youngest brother while she continued holding Joseph’s left hand. She took a deep breath and bit her lip to keep from crying.
Martha patted Rebekah on the shoulder. “Do not fret. God will heal thy brother. I will help thee care for him.”
Rebekah sighed. “I think God has forgotten my family,” she said softly. “I will not be able to care for him? Second Day next week I must leave for America and may never see them again.”
Martha shook her head. The compassion in her eyes comforted Rebekah. “I’m sorry for all the tragedies that have befallen thy family,” she said. “Rest assured there are brighter days ahead for thee.”
“I wish I could believe that,” Rebekah mumbled under her breath.
Ignoring Rebekah’s comment, Martha continued, “Thou can be thankful John Reynolds arranged for thy brothers to stay with us while Rachel Smith cares for thy mother. We’ll do our best to see that their needs are met and the boys grow into strong, well-mannered Quaker men.”
“I thank God they will be in good hands,” Rebekah said. “After my five years of work for the Reynolds is over, I’m going to come back to London. I have to help my family.” The crowd of curious neighbors and onlookers had increased when Richard returned with the requested items.
Martha Miller took the small boards from the cart and laid one on each side and one under Joseph’s right leg. She tore each towel into four strips and pulled off the tattered breeches from Joseph’s injured leg. Gently she wiped the blood from his shin and wrapped a tight bandage around his leg. “Rebekah, wouldst thou hold the splints in place while I tie them to his leg?”
Joseph let out another moan when Rebekah let go of his hand. She motioned for Samuel to take his brother's hand.
“Don’t cry, brother,” cooed Samuel. “I’ll take care of thee.”
Rebekah smiled and patted Joseph's shoulder. “These kind people will help move thee to thy mat by the fireplace in our house.”
Martha affixed the splints to the broken leg. “I have an extra bed in my house. It will be easier to care for Joseph there,” she said and turned to her son. “Richard, help me lift him into the cart. It’s critical we keep his leg straight.”
He pulled the cart closer to the injured boy. Carefully, they lifted Joseph. They positioned him at an angle, so his entire body fit into the cart. Color began to reappear in his face as the lines of pain subsided. Richard lifted the handles of the cart and pushed it down the crooked street toward the Miller’s front door while Rebekah and Samuel walked on the right side holding hands. Martha flanked the left side.
Bells tolled in the distance. The sound of horses’ hooves on cobblestones blended with far-away voices. The darkness of the London evening enveloped them, while the neighbors silently withdrew into their own homes. Rebekah gazed into the blackness and considered reality. From this day forward, my life will never be the same. I will not be here to comfort my brothers when they are hurt or to listen to their fears and joys. I will not be able to keep my promise to my father.
When Rebekah awoke the next morning, she pulled on her gray dress and tied her white bonnet under her chin. She took a small log from the wood box, placed it on the smoldering embers in the fireplace, and stoked the fire.
“Rebekah,” a feeble voice from the corner said. “How is Joseph? I wish I could get up and care for him.”
Rebekah hurried to her mother’s bedside, took her hand, and sat on the edge of the bed. “He was in a lot of pain last night, but Martha Miller made a special tea that seemed to help. He was asleep when I came home. Samuel would not leave his side, so I took his mat across the street so he could sleep beside Joseph’s bed. I am almost ready to visit him. I’ll be back in a few minutes and tell thee how he is this morning.”
Mary Bradford convulsed with a series of coughs. Her frail body shook. “Tell Joseph I love him,” she whispered. “Tell him I’ll be praying for him.”
“Mother, we all treasure thy prayers. They give us the strength to carry on,” Rebekah said as she gently moved a lock of hair away from her mother’s eyes.
Raindrops blew into the house through the slats in the wall. Rebekah looked around for something to stuff between the slats. She took the threadbare pillowcase from her own limp bag of feathers and tore it into strips. Thankful for a sturdy chair to climb on, she was able to keep the mist from showering down upon her mother.
“My precious daughter, do not fret. It will be a good environment for thy brothers with the Millers,” Mary said as she stroked Rebekah’s hand. “The Millers need help in their tailor shop and the boys can learn a trade.”
“But what about them learning to read?” Rebekah protested. “I promised father I would teach them.”
Mary shook her head. “The boys won’t be able to attend school for a while, but I’m confident God will find a way for them to receive an education.”
“But, Mother, they have to go to school. I cannot break that promise.”
A faint, reassuring smile spread across Mary Bradford’s face. “Rebekah, trust in God. The Inner Light will guide thee. In spite of all that has happened, He has always been faithful. Now stop fretting and go see how Joseph is doing this morning.”
The next day, a sharp rapping sounded on the Bradford’s door. Rebekah put down the knife she was using to slice potatoes and hurried to the door. Cautiously she opened it a crack and peered out.
“Rebekah Bradford?” a short, elderly Quaker man greeted.
“Yes. May I help thee?”
“I am the Society Overseer of the High Street Quaker meeting. I need to talk to thee and thy mother,” the man said. “May I come in?”
Rebekah turned to her mother and watched a look of confusion spread across her face. Finally, her mother nodded her head in approval.
Rebekah hesitantly opened the door and motioned him to enter. “Do come in.” The visitor stepped confidently into the dark home and surveyed the humble furnishing. “Greetings, my name is George Fell. I am the Society Overseer of the High Street Quaker Meeting,” he said as Rebekah stepped back shyly.
“To explain the reason for my visit,” he continued, trying to make her feel more comfortable, “John Reynolds approached me about thy journey to Philadelphia. I have spoken to the women’s meeting and several of thy neighbors. Before thou leave for America, I would like to present thee with a certificate stating Rebekah Bradford in ‘walk and conversation’ has been orderly and acts in accordance with the dictates of the Truth. This document will confirm thou are in good standing with the local Quaker meeting. When thou arrive in Philadelphia, please present this to the local meetinghouse for consideration.” He reached into his pocket and handed the document to Rebekah.
Mary Bradford smiled. “I’m extremely grateful for thy forethought,” she said. “I’m certain Rebekah doesn’t fully understand the importance of such a certificate for her Quaker journey. As she grows in her understanding of the faith she’ll cherish its value.”
The Overseer handed the document to Rebekah. “Place this in a waterproof bag and keep it close to thee; it may be one of the most important papers thou wilt ever possess. Now I must take my leave. I wish thee well in thy travels.” With those words, George Fell walked solemnly from the house.
After the stranger was gone, Rebekah turned to her mother. “I don’t understand. Why is this piece of paper so important? I shouldn’t have to prove to anyone what I believe.”
Mary Bradford sighed and with slow measured breathes she said, “Just trust him, my daughter. If thou ever confront an unexpected crisis thou can always depend on a Quaker to help thee. Thou must always cherish thy Quaker heritage and faith. Helping each other during adversity is our greatest strength.”
During the next two days, anticipation and sadness co-mingled in Rebekah’s mind. She moved her brothers’ few pieces of clothing across the street to the Millers’ home. She washed all her garments, examined them for tears, and packed her meager possessions into a single bag. Will my threadbare dresses hold together until I get to America, she wondered.
Many of her friends from the meetinghouse came to say goodbye. Each of them told her how lucky she was to escape the harshness and persecution of London and immigrate to America. All of them said they wished they could find a sponsor and go with her.
Their words of encouragement and “The Inner Light will guide you” comments increased Rebekah’s pain of leaving her family. No one understands what it’s like to say goodbye forever unless one actually has to do it herself. I feel the same as when I knelt over my dying father and said goodbye to him.
On the day of her departure, Rebekah forced herself to get out of bed, dress, and prepare food for her mother and brothers for the last time. Feeding her mother, she studied every feature on her face and tried to remember the days when her cheeks were full of color and her eyes sparkled with laughter. When the time came to leave, Rebekah kissed her mother and brothers goodbye, and bravely followed the Philadelphia Quaker out the door and down the street. She was afraid to look back for fear she would not be able to move forward.
Rebekah tried to keep pace with John Reynolds as she walked the streets of London for the last time. As they approached the shoreline, dread washed over her aching heart much like the ocean sloshed against the shore. As a small child, I often sat on the rocks along the same beach watching the ships sail and wondered who the travelers were, where they were going, and what the land over the sea was like. Now I’m the one who is leaving her homeland, possibly never to return.
“Friend Reynolds, how long will it take to get to Philadelphia?” she asked.
“If the seas are calm, we could be there in ten weeks, but if the seas are rough, it could take as long as thirteen,” he replied. “I hope we get there before the weather becomes too harsh.” The ship Good Hope loomed before them in the distance. Rebekah’s uncertain future began to haunt her. What will life be like as an indentured servant in a strange land? Would they welcome her warmly? Would they treat her well or would she be treated as a slave?
As they neared the ship, Rebekah’s curiosity drew her attention to John Reynolds. “How many children dost thou have? What will I be expected to do when we arrive in Philadelphia?”
The tall Quaker looked down at the fragile young girl beside him. A note of concern appeared in his eyes. “Sarah is about thy age. Mark is twelve. Adam is nine. Mary is seven. Lillian is five and Matthew is an infant,” he said. “The work of caring for such a large family has become too great for Elizabeth. I’m certain thee will enjoy working with my wife. She is very kind and understanding.”
As they approached the wharf, and it occurred to Rebekah that the ship didn’t look nearly as large up close as it did when she was sitting on the rocks on a nearby bank. The deck was already crowded with passengers and freight. Her questions about Philadelphia seemed minor compared to the turmoil brewing inside her about life on the ship. Where will I sleep? What will I eat? Will these strange men be kind to me? How do they know how to steer the ship to get across the ocean? Will I die before I get to America?