Emma Swan is arguably the most important character in the Once Upon A Time universe. The whole show formed around the concept that on Emma's twenty-eighth birthday, her son Henry would find her and push her towards breaking the first Dark Curse. As the Savior and a child born of Snow White and Prince Charming's true love, she was the only one who could achieve such a monumental task.
What made Emma such a unique character -- and this premise largely so compelling -- was that despite her legendary parents and heroic destiny, Emma knew nothing of the fairy tale world where she was born. She'd grown up in the regular world -- the Land Without Magic, as it's called in the series. This made it quite the challenge for her to believe that fairy tale characters and their worlds were real, a belief she needed to achieve in order to break the Dark Curse.
Just because Emma didn't grow up in a world of magic, knights, and dragons doesn't mean she had a boring backstory, though. She had to learn to adapt and survive in the Land Without Magic, all the while not knowing of her extraordinary origins. This unique struggle made her backstory and character development refreshingly different from the show's other characters.
Since her backstory necessitated that she couldn't learn of her true identity or the existence of magic, there were certain limitations upon things that could've happened to her before season 1. This meant that she generally received far less flashbacks than characters like Regina, Snow White, Prince Charming, and Rumplestiltskin. However, the scarcity of Emma-centric flashbacks made them all the more special. This article will explore things Emma did before Henry found her in the pilot episode of Once Upon A Time, beginning when she was a baby and moving closer to the time when Henry first found her.
Settle down for a meal at Granny's as we look at the 25 Wild Things Emma Swan Did Before Once Upon A Time.
25 She Traveled Through A Magic Wardrobe As A Baby
As Regina prepared to cast the first Dark Curse, the denizens of the Enchanted Forest didn't quite know what to expect. They prepared for the worst by building a magic wardrobe. This would allow the Savior -- Emma Swan -- to travel to the Land Without Magic and be free of the Dark Curse's effects and one day be able to break it. Only one could travel through the magic wardrobe.
A pregnant Snow White was supposed to be the one to go through, but Emma was born shortly before Regina cast the Dark Curse, which meant Emma had to travel through it alone as a newborn baby.
She nearly didn't reach the wardrobe in time, but thankfully Prince Charming was father of the year and fought off Regina's soldiers with one hand while carrying Emma in the other to ensure that she'd make it to the wardrobe.
24 She Burned Fairy Tale Books To Stay Warm
Emma dealt with real hardship as a child, part of which was living on the streets at one point. At night, she’d tear out pages from fairy tale books and burn them in a trash can in an attempt to stay warm.
One night when she was about to tear out a page from The Ugly Duckling, a boy convinced Emma not to burn it. That boy was Pinocchio/August, who made her see how The Ugly Duckling was a tale of transformation and that much like the duckling that turned into a swan, Emma could change her fate and turn it into something beautiful. Inspired by this, Emma later gave herself the surname “Swan.”
23 She Met Merlin At A Movie Theater
Once Upon A Time often did an excellent job combining the extraordinary with the mundane. A great example was when Emma met the powerful wizard Merlin at a movie theater. There seeing The Sword in the Stone with her group home, Emma stole an Apollo candy bar, a treat that originated in the show Lost and often appeared as an Easter Egg in Once Upon A Time.
An usher -- who at the time Emma didn’t know was Merlin -- told Emma to not do “it.” She thought he was referring to stealing the Apollo bar, but it was actually a warning for the future not to pull the sword Excalibur from the stone.
22 She Became Friends With Maleficent's Daughter
On her own and fending for herself, Emma was nearly busted for shoplifting food. Fortunately, Emma was saved by Lily, who pretended to be her sister.
The two teens quickly became best friends, neither one knowing that Emma was the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, or that Lily was the daughter of Maleficent.
At a difficult time in both of their lives, they bonded and became family for one another. Having mostly grown up without families -- or at least families that they really connected with -- the fact that Emma and Lily forged this relationship was incredibly important for both of them.
21 She Broke Into An Empty House And Lived There With Lily
After becoming friends with Lily, she showed Emma houses that were unoccupied during the fall season, suggesting that the two of them live there until the owners returned. Emma agreed and she and Lily broke into a home, making it their own for a while. They basked in the house's many luxuries, playing video games for many hours at a time and filming themselves with a camera they found in the house.
Lily also drew a star on Emma's wrist, making it look like the star imprint on Lily's wrist. This was a way for the two young ladies to show that they were both special and would be connected forever. Unfortunately for them, the fun ended when Lily's foster father located his "missing" daughter.
20 She Was Raised In Foster Care By The Snow Queen
After a number of tragic events, the Snow Queen -- Ingrid -- made it her mission to replace the sisters she’d lost. She believed Elsa was meant to be her second sister. When she demanded the identity of a third sister from the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, he revealed it to be Emma Swan.
This led Ingrid to the Land Without Magic where she made it her mission to find Emma, connect with her, and help her magic manifest. Ingrid entered Emma’s life by raising her in foster care at one point. She actually learned how to blend in quite well in the Land Without Magic, making herself a convincing foster parent, and arguably the most loving parental figure Emma had growing up.
19 She Showed Her First Signs Of Magic At A Carnival
Ingrid knew Emma's magic was real when she won a prize during a claw crane game, since the games are designed to make people lose. Emma actually showed her first signs of magic when playing the game at a carnival. Without realizing it, she made sparks come out of the claw, and then she pulled off the most impressive feat of all by actually winning one of the toys in the game.
These signs further convinced Ingrid that Emma was a special girl and the worthy sister she'd searched for all of those years.
To make them even closer, Ingrid had already put the paperwork through to officially adopt Emma.
18 She Pulled A Prank On Another Foster Child
Emma Swan could never stand other people messing with her. Fellow foster child Kevin made the mistake of crossing her when he stole Emma's camera, one of her only possessions. Ingrid made Kevin give the camera back to Emma, but then he took it back, saying that he'd make Emma's life miserable if she didn't give it to him. Emma tried to run away after this, but Ingrid convinced her to stay.
Ingrid told Emma that Kevin was afraid of spiders and Ingrid just happened to have some rubber spiders in her desk. Seeing the interest Ingrid was taking in her, Emma decided to stay. She used Ingrid's rubber spiders to get back at Kevin, making sure that he'd never mess with her again.
17 She Ran Away From The Snow Queen
Emma thought things were finally working out for her when she found out that Ingrid was going to adopt her. The problem was that while Ingrid did love Emma in her own way, she was too fixated on the manifestation of Emma's magic. As it took a stressful, dangerous moment for Ingrid's power to first manifest, she believed the same needed to happen for Emma. In order to prove to Emma that she had magic, Ingrid pushed her in front of a moving car, telling her she'd need to use her magic to stop it.
Still unaware of the reality of magic, Emma naturally thought Ingrid was insane. She retreated to the sidewalk and ran away, believing the woman she'd grown close to was actually a lunatic.
16 She Abandoned A Loving Foster Family After They Accused Her
Emma found a loving foster family and life was going great with them until Lily showed up. It turned out Lily committed a robbery and was on the run from the law, but she refused to leave until she had retrieved a crescent moon-shaped necklace that she left in an abandoned house. The necklace was Lily's only tie to her biological parents, and she wanted Emma to get it. Emma begrudgingly agreed to obtain the necklace and did.
However, things fell apart when Lily stole money from Emma's foster family and disappeared.
Emma's foster father accused her of endangering his children by bringing Lily into their home. The accusation itself and the clear message that he didn't see Emma as one of his actual children made Emma decide that it was time to leave the foster family for good.
15 She Stole The Yellow Bug
No longer part of the foster care system and trying to make a way for herself, Emma stole a yellow bug off the streets. It wasn’t until after she started driving the car away that she realized there was another person in the car -- Neal Cassidy/Baelfire. Despite what she thought at first, Neal was also trying to steal the vehicle.
From that point forward, the yellow bug was Emma’s car, a practical vehicle that carried many memories. Given the origins of how it became her car, it’s somewhat ironic that she continued to use it as Sheriff of Storybrooke.
14 She Fell In Love With Neal
It didn’t take long for Emma and Neal to fall in love. They connected in many ways as individuals who’d struggled most of their lives to find a home where they belonged. They found the home they were always searching for in one another. Both had endured many hardships and learned to constantly adapt in order to take care of themselves.
Their lifestyle together was far from glamorous, but it was much better scraping by and slowly building a future together than when they’d been forced to undertake these pursuits alone.
13 She Learned About Rumplestiltskin Years Before Meeting Him
One night shortly after meeting Neal, he and Emma spent time together in a closed amusement park. They went on the swings and Emma asked about Neal’s story.He revealed that as a child, he grew up in a loving home.
When his father changed for the worse, though, it became a problematic home to grow up in, which led to Neal running away.
Emma didn’t know it at the time, but she was learning her first information about Rumplestiltskin, a man who had already had and would go on to have a major impact on her life.
12 She Ran Small Cons With Neal
Emma and Neal got by through doing small scams and robberies. For example, Emma would steal items from a convenience store while Neal distracted the store owner. When a customer caught on to what was happening, Emma pretended to be enduring intense labor pains, which she was able to pull off with the fake pregnancy belly she was wearing.
They were never big-time criminals trying to perform major heists, though. Their cons were small, allowing them to get things they needed and liked. While this doesn't justify the fact that they stole things, it's understandable given where they were at that point in their lives and what they'd known growing up, where if they didn't steal, they wouldn't even get the bare minimum needed to scrape by on a daily basis.
11 She Was Arrested For Possessing Watches That Neal Had Stolen
When Neal and Emma wanted to retire from their life of small crime and settle down in Tallahassee, Neal told her about watches he had stolen. He couldn’t retire with Emma while he was still wanted for the watches. Neal put a plan in motion where Emma would retrieve the watches and meet up at a location where Neal would sell them to a buyer.
The plan blew up, though, when Pinocchio/August found Neal and convinced him to set Emma up, since she would never be able to fulfill her destiny of breaking the Dark Curse if she continued down her current path with Neal. As such, Neal never showed up at the meeting place, and Emma was arrested and sentenced to prison for possessing the watches Neal had stolen.
10 She Gave Birth In Prison
As if being in prison wasn't hard enough, Emma discovered that she was pregnant while she was there. This was even harder considering that Neal was the father, and she believed she was in prison because he had ratted her out.
The fact of her pregnancy couldn't change the nature of her eleven-month sentence in a Phoenix prison, so she had to give birth there.
Both Emma and Henry would go on to live extraordinary lives and wield unparalleled magic. The events surrounding his birth weren't so magical, though. However, this didn't stop Emma or Henry from going on to lead their heroic lives, showing how the greatest people often start with the humblest beginnings.
9 She Put Henry Up For Adoption
Before giving birth, Emma made the difficult decision to put her child up for a closed adoption. She wanted to give Henry his best chance. Still in prison, only eighteen-years-old, and dealing with many other issues, Emma didn’t believe that she was ready to be the mother that Henry deserved and needed. He would receive the life and love he deserved from loving parents who adopted him.
After actually giving birth and holding him, she struggled to stick with the closed adoption decision, but ultimately decided it was for the best. Fortunately, Henry found her ten years later, allowing a wonderful relationship to grow between him and Emma.
8 She Returned To The Restaurant Where She Was Found As A Baby
Pinocchio/August was smart enough to know that he couldn’t tell the people in the Land Without Magic that he and Emma just came out of a tree after traveling through a magic wardrobe from the Enchanted Forest. Instead, he said he’d found baby Emma on the side of the road near the first place he saw, which was Chantey’s Lobster House in Maine.
Thinking August’s story was what really happened, twenty-six-year-old Emma returned to Chantey’s Lobster House to talk to anyone who’d been there all those years ago when she showed up there as a seemingly orphaned child found by a local boy. Her plan didn’t quite work out, though, as an employee told her that they could barely keep a cook for six weeks, let alone someone who would work there for twenty-six years.
7 She Made A Deal With Cleo Fox
Bail bondsperson Cleo Fox underestimated Emma early on the road to taking her back to Arizona. While Cleo took a shower in the motel, she handcuffed Emma to a table so she wouldn’t escape. Having learned how to pick locks from Neal, Emma freed herself from the handcuffs mere moments after Cleo stepped into the shower. Emma had the chance to escape, but she stayed behind when she noticed a database on Cleo’s computer.
Through this database, Emma discovered that a nearby courthouse had a file containing information about her family.
Eager to finally learn the truth about her family, Emma made a deal that she would let Cleo take her back to Arizona as long as she helped Emma access that file about her family.
6 She Broke Into A Courthouse
Convinced there was more information about her family than what was shown to her in the courthouse file, Emma broke into the courthouse at night. Emma wasn’t able to do much investigative work before the police arrived in response to the break-in.
It was only through Cleo Fox that Emma was able to escape in time. Cleo made her see that no matter who Emma’s family was, they wouldn’t want Emma to get arrested trying to find out who they were. Cleo also shattered a window in the courthouse so that she and Emma could slip out as the police entered through the front door.
5 She Left Cleo To Perish
Emma and bail bondsperson Cleo Fox were forced to flee the police after Emma broke into a courthouse. Escaping didn’t allow them to ride off into the sunset, though. Cleo was fatally wounded by the glass that went into her when she shattered a window to escape the courthouse.
Despite how their relationship began, Emma didn’t want to abandon Cleo and let her perish in the streets. Her job was to bring Emma back to Arizona against her will, but Cleo ended up giving Emma so much more, providing her with invaluable lessons and sacrifices. Naturally, Emma didn’t want to let her unexpected mentor pass away in the streets, but Cleo convinced Emma to let her go.
4 She Found Cleo's Daughter
Moments before Cleo Fox perished, she revealed that she’d put her daughter Tasha up for adoption. Just as Emma did with Henry, Cleo wanted to give her daughter her best chance, but Cleo had never even met Tasha after the adoption happened.
Emma wanted Tasha to know about the amazing woman who was her biological mother, so she found her a year after Cleo’s passing.
Emma not only told Tasha about her mother, but she also gave her pictures of Cleo. Whether she realized it or not, Emma’s actions with Tasha was a step towards one day making sure that her own child Henry would know his mother.
3 She Chose Her Armor
Ever since the pilot episode, Emma could frequently be seen wearing a red leather jacket. What many fans thought was just an awesome fashion choice actually had a lot more to do with Emma's backstory. Bail bondsperson Cleo Fox wore a similar jacket and told Emma it was her armor against the world.
At the time, Emma scoffed at this perspective. After everything that went down with her and Cleo, though, she had a different opinion. This led to Emma purchasing the iconic red leather jacket, her armor against a vicious world.
2 She Worked As A Bail Bondsperson
Inspired by Cleo Fox, Emma became a bail bondsperson. The job was a great fit for Emma's fiercely independent, inquisitive, and resourceful nature. She used her own strengths as well as the advice and lessons she took from Cleo to master the job.
When Henry found Emma in the pilot episode, she was in Boston, still working as a bail bondsperson. Fans got to see firsthand exactly how effective she was at her job. Also, having this job under her belt made her better equipped to later become the Sheriff of Storybrooke and uncover the truth behind the town's many mysteries.
1 She Developed Her Superpower
Long before Emma believed in magic, she believed that she had a superpower. Her superpower was that she could always tell when someone was lying. Working as a bail bondsperson did the most to help her form this ability, as it was her to job to find people who didn't want to be found, people who would cover their tracks and lie about their identity out of self-preservation.
Growing up in a foster system that often made empty promises also taught Emma to see through lies and find the truth, no matter how concealed the truth might be.
What's your favorite thing Emma Swan did before the pilot episode of Once Upon A Time? Let us know in the comments!