Women’s History Month: Mary Ellen Pleasant

Mary Ellen Pleasant is a slippery woman to get a read on, partly by her own design. She was a woman who took what was given to her and spun it into gold–almost literally.

What we know: Mary Ellen was born sometime between 1814 and 1817. She was an entrepreneur, an ardent abolitionist, and a Gold Rush millionaire.

Oh, and Mary Ellen Pleasant? She was a Black woman. Pleasant’s early history is a bit murky, again, with some of that by Pleasant’s own design. In Nantucket she worked (or was bonded into servitude), with some accounts indicating she was sent there by her father to get an education. That never happened. But Mary DID glean what she could from her environment. Later she would wonder what she could have accomplished had she had the opportunity for a formal education. But in her own words, she was a “girl full of smartness” who “let books alone and studied men and women a good deal…”

What Mary Ellen Pleasant possessed was a helluva lot of common sense, chutzpah, street smarts, and if you are a believer in the whole bootstraps analogy, she made her own and pulled those suckers up so far they must have been up over her head.

Mary Ellen married a man named Smith, an abolitionist like herself, and together they worked as conductors on the Underground Railroad to shepherd enslaved Blacks to safety and freedom, sometimes as far north as Canada. When her first husband died, he willed Mary Ellen a sizable inheritance and a promise to continue their work toward freedom. She married again, a man by the name of Pleasant.

Tales of El Dorado and gold paved avenues began to swirl around the country. Go West, young man was the advice. West, where even a Black man could make his fortune. Or in this case, a Black woman. In 1852, Mary Ellen and her husband headed out to San Francisco.

90% of those new California dreamin’ settlers? Men. That’s a lot of miners forty-niners. And apparently, many of them were more than happy to pay the big bucks for housewifely chores like cooking or running a household. Into this gap in the market stepped Mary Ellen. She got a job as a cook (or a caterer) making 10x the amount she would have made for the same work back home. Mary Ellen’s relative invisibility as a “domestic” and as a woman served her well. During her work she picked up business tips, and with those tips, her inheritance, and her wages, “she invested in the surging Gold Rush economy, in everything from Wells Fargo to laundries”. She took on a business partner, a clerk in the Bank of CA, and together, the two of them amassed a fortune of about 30 million dollars…in 19th century buckaroos.

She built a 30 room mansion for herself and her partner and his family. Most people apparently assumed it was his…and that Pleasant was simply there to do the cleaning.

Aside: In 1890 Mary Ellen listed her occupation on the US census as “capitalist by profession”. For some reason, that tickled me.

Later, after her business partner’s death, Pleasant was sued by his widow. It seems that most of Mary Ellen’s property and wealth had been in his name. Knowing what we know about women in business, let alone Black women in business, one can reasonably assume that this was to smooth the way. But the court of public opinion had already started to turn against Mary Ellen. And the regular old courts did too. They turned everything over to her partner’s widow.


Pleasant’s business savvy was notable, but she was more than just a shrewd business woman. After the Civil War Mary Ellen “began a series of court battles to fight laws prohibiting blacks from riding trolleys and other such abuses.” Blacks who made their way to California could count on her for employment. There were references to her kitchen being called “Black City Hall”. And there is her support of the John Brown.

When Brown was arrested after the failed Harper’s Ferry Uprising, he had a note in his pocket:

“The ax is laid at the foot of the tree. When the first blow is struck, there will be more money to help.”

Historical money is now on Mary Ellen having authored the note.

In her later years, Mary Ellen was subject of numerous lawsuits and rumors. People claimed she was a madam, or a prostitute, or a voodoo priestess. How original, right? More abhorrent however, she was referred to by many whites, including in the press, as Mammy Pleasant, an epithet she loathed. The racial slur was just another nasty way of telling a successful Black woman where they thought she belonged.

Mary Ellen Pleasant certainly lived a life less ordinary, but that also means she’s a bit of a historical enigma.

Was she a shrewd businesswoman or did she take her partner Bell for a ride, keeping him prisoner like some rumors said? Was she born enslaved? Did she actually practice voodoo, or was she just happy to let others think she did when it suited her. Did she fund John Brown’s uprising? Was the note found in Brown’s pocket really from Mary Ellen Pleasant?

In 1901, Mary Ellen dictated her memoirs: “Before I pass away, I wish to clear the identity of the party who furnished John Brown with most of his money to start the fight at Harpers Ferry and who signed the letter found on him when he was arrested.”

The money? It was about 30,000 USD. In today’s $$ that would be almost a million dollars.

She died in 1904 in San Fransisco.

Sixty years after her death, her gravestone was amended with a line that she had asked for on her deathbed: “A Friend of John Brown.” As Pleasant herself once put it, “I’d rather be a corpse than a coward.”

Happy Women’s History Month!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Natalie Wilhelm says:

    I adore these stories. Please keep writing them. Love to you all. Hope you’re well!

    Natalie

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

  2. Fascinating story and so fitting for celebrating women at this time.

    Like

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