Abolitionist and successful Gold Rush entrepreneur Mary Ellen Pleasant was a free woman of mixed-race who dedicated her life to equality for African Americans. From helping with the Underground Railroad to suing for the right to ride on segregated streetcars in San Francisco, Pleasant seldom rested.
Among her closely guarded secrets revealed near the end of her life was that she provided major funding to John Brown as he planned the Harper’s Ferry insurrection. Her request for the inscription on her gravestone? “Friend of John Brown.”
Note: Writing about Mary Ellen Pleasant is problematic as there are many variations to her story. After extensive reading, I found reference to a well-respected Nevada reporter who wrote about her. His last story came about when Mary Ellen summoned him to her home, feeling death was near. He agreed to write her story, but he made a stipulation: He would not write down anything he couldn’t verify. His story is the source I’ve chosen to follow.
Birth of Mary Ellen Pleasant
Mary Ellen Pleasant was born in Philadelphia to a father from the Sandwich Islands (later known as Hawaii) and a mother was who a free black. Her father wanted her to have an education, but there were no schools for black girls in Philadelphia. As an importer, he had a network of connections and knew there was a school in Nantucket, Massachusetts, that Mary Ellen could attend. He placed his seven-year-old daughter with the Hussey family who ran a mercantile store on Nantucket.
Mary Ellen worked alongside the family in the store, and though her father sent money to the Hussey family each year for her education, the family failed to enroll her in school. Mary Ellen may or may not have realized this, but she dedicated herself to learning business lessons from the store. In addition to selling and making deals, she “became a student of people.”
The Hussey family was fond of Mary Ellen but knew she needed to move to a world where she could meet more people. When Mary Ellen was 26 (1842), the Husseys arranged for her to apprentice with a bootmaker in Boston. Among the shop’s customers was James W. Smith, a wealthy Cuban. Smith was an ardent abolitionist who attended the church Mary Ellen attended. They eventually married and united in the cause to do away with slavery.
Among Smith’s friends were well-known abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. They frequently met at the Smith home to discuss their ongoing effort to move slaves from the South to Canada or to a safe place in the Northeast. Smith also used his wealth to purchase slaves and set them free. But Smith’s health took a bad turn. On his deathbed, he told Mary Ellen that he would leave her his estate with the request that she continue their work for abolition.
For help in settling the estate, she relied on two people for advice: One was a friend from Nantucket, Captain Edward Gardner. The other was the foreman of Smith’s property, a fellow named John J. Pleasant. Over time, he and Mary Ellen chose to marry.
Gold Rush Beckons
In 1848 when gold was found in California, everyone wanted to strike it rich. Husband JJ Pleasant found work as a shipboard cook and left for San Francisco shortly after the news broke. Mary Ellen followed in 1852, having been intrigued by stories of women successfully running restaurants and boarding houses.
When she arrived in San Francisco, she still had inheritance money to invest. Her store experience in Nantucket must have given her a good sense of the business world, and she entered into several types of business ventures. She loaned money at ten percent interest, and she traded in gold and silver. Seeing that San Francisco was a true boom town, she also invested in property–everything from a dairy to laundry businesses.
Some stories of Mary Ellen note that because she was light-skinned some of her business dealings may have been made easier by people assuming she was white. But any woman conducting business would still have encountered numerous obstacles in that day.
But her goals and aspirations remained the same. She never wavered from her effort to help former slaves. Those who made it to San Francisco could turn to her for job placement. Her kitchen became known as the “Black City Hall.”
Despite never having attended school, Mary Ellen must have taught herself to read and write. She was a subscriber to William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, and she stayed in touch with other abolitionists.
During the late 1850s, abolitionist John Brown became a national figure for his part of the anti-slavery fight in Kansas Territory. By 1858, he was planning an insurrection in Harper’s Ferry, intending to use force to liberate the slaves and create a free territory in western Virginia. When Mary Ellen heard the news through the abolitionist network, she wanted to be a part of it. She and JJ planned a trip East. She carried with her a $30,000 bank draft. When Mary Ellen and JJ docked in Boston, her old friend Captain Gardner met the couple to fill them in. He knew that Brown was in Canada (Chatham, Ontario). Gardner arranged for Mary Ellen to travel there for a meeting.
Meeting with John Brown
Brown and one of his sons welcomed Mary Ellen Pleasant. They discussed his plans and his need to amass money and supporters. Mary Ellen Pleasant provided him with the $30,000 she brought with her, and also offered to travel to Virginia to spread the word among the slaves.
She and JJ left Canada preparing to help. Mary Ellen dressed as a jockey and JJ accompanied her as her horse trainer, as if they were simply traveling from racetrack to racetrack. However, the two stopped at each plantation along the way, explaining to the slaves the plot that was underway. But Brown did not remain with the schedule he shared with her. The Pleasants soon heard the uprising was underway. Before long, John Brown’s effort was halted, and he was captured.
Alarmed for Self
As she read details of the Harper’s Ferry incident, she was worried. A valise of papers belonging to Brown was seized, and the authorities were looking for an accomplice who wrote a note that was found in Brown’s pocket: “The axe is laid at the roof of the tree. When the first blow is struck there will be more money and help.” The note was signed WEP.
Though the news frightened her, she later said: “I had a quiet laugh when I saw that my poor handwriting had given them a false trail.” (The WEP signature was actually a quickly signed “MEP.”)
She knew if Brown’s papers were being sorted through, she needed to leave the East Coast. JJ used the first-class return ticket they purchased before the trip, but Mary Ellen scrapped her ticket and purchased one for steerage. She told other passengers she was making her first trip to California.
Upon her arrival in San Francisco, she found a letter from John Brown awaiting her. She destroyed it immediately, later saying: “Brown was an earnest, sincere man and as brave a man as ever lived, but he lacked judgment and was sometimes foolhardy and cranky. He wrote too much and talked too much.”
She told others she regretted the failure of the mission but never regretted the money she gave him. She believed that Harper’s Ferry paved the way for the war.
The expense of the trip and her donation to Brown drew heavily on her resources. To build up her bank balance, she took a job as a family manager for industrialist Selim Woodworth. Good household managers were in high demand, and the job paid well. She and Selim’s wife, Lisette, became good friends, so it was a happy situation. When Woodworth went off to be part of the Union Navy, Mary Ellen and JJ remained part of the household.
After the war, she and JJ moved out of the Woodworth home. Among her few extravagances was a big wedding for her daughter Lizzie. It was widely covered in the black newspapers.
She also went back to investing, acquiring a boarding house where she served well-to-do businessmen in San Francisco.
San Francisco had horse-pulled streetcars for white passengers only. Blacks were expected to walk. Mary Ellen hated the injustice of this, and when the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was passed, she vowed to test the system. In early 1866, Mary Ellen and two other black women boarded a streetcar and were quickly removed. Pleasant sued.
San Francisco’s Omnibus Railroad Company traversed the poorer section of town, and this was company from which Pleasant had been ejected. Before the case got to court, the company made an offer. They would permit blacks to ride the streetcars if Mara Ellen Pleasant would drop the lawsuit.
Mary Ellen agreed but there was another streetcar company in town. To challenge them, she needed a white accomplice. She and Lisette Woodworth remained friends and Lisette was well-liked and widely respected. If she were part of the plan, it would help Mary Ellen’s cause.
Another Segregation Battle
On September 27, 1866, the women enacted their plan. Lisette boarded the North Beach and Mission Railroad Company car. One stop later, Mary Ellen hailed the driver to pick her up. The driver looked at her but kept going. Lisette leaned forward in the car to point out that someone needed to be picked up. The driver continued to ignore Mary Ellen, who again sued for discrimination. Lisette was her primary witness.
The judge ultimately agreed that Mary Ellen had encountered unlawful discrimination, and he awarded her damages. This was the good news… Unfortunately, an innocent offhand remark by Lisette haunted Mary Ellen the rest of her life. Lisette testified that she and Mary Ellen knew each other well; that sometimes Lisette called Mary Ellen Mama. The press used that as a cudgel. Reporters referred to Mammy Pleasant more often than not as a way to put Mary Ellen “in her place.” Mary Ellen hated the term, and despite all the good she accomplished, that lack of respect for her truly bothered her.
When the streetcar company appealed the decision, the upper court again sided with Mary Ellen but they maintained that no damages needed to be paid.
In the mid-1870s, JJ Pleasant died of diabetes, and Mary Ellen Pleasant began investing with one of the men at her boarding house, a Thomas Bell, a banker and a director of two railroad companies. There were rumors that the relationship was more than business, but Mary Ellen either had no interest or wanted cover and introduced Thomas to a woman named Theresa whom he soon married.
Bell and his new wife lived in the boarding house and Bell and Pleasant continued to invest together. Mary Ellen clearly had a good head for business, but a partnership with Bell must have been beneficial for buying and selling property. A white woman would have struggled to be accepted in handling transactions, and after the war, Mary Ellen’s fight for civil rights clarified that she was black. This must have complicated her business dealings.
In 1892, she bought a ranch in Sonoma Valley. The property had a lovely home, vineyards, a lake, and a horse-racing track. As she and Bell and Theresa made plans, the decision was made for Theresa to move to the ranch with her son, while Thomas Bell and Mary Ellen remained at the boarding house in the city to continue to manage their mutual businesses. Unfortunately, Bell was in ill health, and shortly after Theresa moved to the ranch, Bell took a bad fall down the stairs and never recovered.
Despite her good relationship with Theresa while Bell was alive, Mary Ellen’s life became more complicated as she tried to untangle the Bell and Pleasant financial dealings. Theresa’s son was convinced that Pleasant was taking advantage of his family, and he turned his mother against her.
Mary Ellen emerged from the legal case with a settlement, but the amount was a fraction of what was likely legally hers out of the intermingled money.
Verifying Her Story
Mary Ellen Pleasant lived a long life with many different chapters. She also never felt much need to document her whereabouts or experience. When the Bell and Pleasant estate was being settled there were negative press stories, so there was a lot written about her that may or may not have been true.
In the early 1900s, Pleasant was considering her legacy. Despite the bad press after the Bell fight, she wanted to set matters straight.. She had been friendly with a Nevada reporter and editor named Sam Davis, and she summoned him to come to her home and take down her story.
Davis agreed, but he told her that if he were to write about her, he would need to have time to verify the story she told. Pleasant agreed and told him her story, particularly emphasizing what had been a long-held secret: The fact that she was the person who provided much of the funding for John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid.
This was the kind of thing that Davis knew he had to track down. He got names from Mary Ellen of those around Brown who might remember her.
Tracing Her Past
Jason Brown, the son who had been with John when he met with Mary Ellen in Canada, was about 80 and in poor health. He told Davis about meeting a black woman who came to Chatham, Ontario, to meet with his father and leave a check behind. However, he could not recall her name.
When Davis re-approached Pleasant for more information, she told him: look for deeds to the land I bought while I was there. As Davis worked through records for the Canadian municipality, he found land purchased by Mary Ellen and JJ Pleasant during the same period when John Brown was visiting Canada. The deeds were witnessed and notarized.
One of John Brown’s daughters was also able to verify Mary Ellen’s story.
Sam Davis left a record of Mary Ellen Pleasant’s story from 1904 that can now be found online. For the above reasons, I have chosen to let Davis’s account be my guide when Mary Ellen Pleasant’s story needed verification.
Mary Ellen accomplished a great deal during her life. She helped many former slaves, lent and gave money to San Francisco residents in need—both white and black, and she stood up for civil rights for all people.
Her tombstone request—“Friend of John Brown” was not fulfilled until 1965, but those who read enough about her life and her efforts for oppressed people know that Mary Ellen Pleasant had a long list of accomplishments of which she could be equally proud.
For another story about a self-made woman, read about Marjorie Stewart Joyner.