Mary Ellen Pleasant was called many things in her lifetime: Slave, Abolitionist, Cook, Madame, Entrepreneur, Real Estate Mogul, White woman and “Mammy.” She described herself in the 1890 census as “a capitalist by profession.” By her autobiography of 1902, she claimed her mother was a Louisiana Negress and her father a native Hawaiian. In some accounts, she said her mother was a Voodoo princess and her white father was John Pleasants, the son of the VA governor. The date of her birth ranges from August 19, 1812-17 with most writers settling on 1814. She died on January 4, 1904, poor and befriended by the Sherwood family in whose Napa plot she was buried.
Sometime between age 6 and 13, Mary Ellen was sent to Nantucket, RI as an indentured servant to “Grandma” Hussey. She worked off her time, growing very close to Mrs. Hussey, a Quaker shop owner, learning of and participating in the Underground Railroad and the cause of Abolition. An avid reader, she educated herself in many disciplines and became adept at figures.
Mary Ellen met and married wealthy John James Smith, a plantation owner who had freed his slaves and passed as white. They worked together on the Underground Railroad in different states and Canada until his death four years later. He left her money and instructions to continue their work.
Around 1848, Mary Ellen formed a partnership with John James (JJ) Pleasants and may have married but no record exists. They had a child: Lizzie J. Smith who was left with friends or family at some point. Lizzie came west, married and died in her twenties. Her relationship with MEP is unknown.
The Pleasants continued with Smith’s work in the NE, attracting too much attention from slavers. They fled to New Orleans where JJ was a relative of Voodoo Queen Marie LaVeau’s husband. The two women drew close in the four years MEP was there. By 1852, JJ preceded his wife to San Francisco; she soon traveled by boat, passing as white. JJ Pleasant was a well-paid ship’s cook and Mary Ellen was a live-in domestic at first. They shared joint residency from time to time and continued their abolitionist work.
As Mary Ellen Smith, she soon had a catering business that thrived by serving rich white men. She absorbed investment information and the tricks of wheeling and dealing in the riches of the gold mining era. All it took was listening and evaluating the discussions of her customers! She helped place blacks in employment in her own ventures (laundries, boardinghouses, catering) as well as the Palace Hotel and other white controlled businesses.
She began her affiliation with Thomas Bell, a Scottish clerk in the Bank of California. Together they eventually had a $30 million fortune. She lived with the Bell family at the House of Mystery in SF for many years.
Years later, Mary Ellen left San Francisco, 1857-1859, to aid John Brown with work and money. One story has it that when he was arrested after the Harper's Ferry, VA fiasco he had a letter in his pocket, signed only with her initials. She asked that a sign be placed on her grave. In 1965, the San Francisco Negro Historical and Cultural Society placed the marker: "She was a friend of John Brown."
The crux of Mary Ellen’s life is her fight for human rights, beginning in Nantucket and spreading all the way to San Francisco. From “slave stealing” for the Underground Railroad to court cases, she led the way.
MEP first entered the legal system soon after arriving in San Francisco when she supported the case of George Mitchell, brought to CA by his owner in 1849; the owner wanted to return East, taking Mr. Mitchell also. The judge determined that the act to remove had ended and the case continued with evasive delays until 1855 when the CA Fugitive Slave Act expired and the case resolved. In 1852, MEP was a founding member of the Franchise League which sought to allow blacks to testify in court. A busy first year in the City!
The years before, during and after the Civil War were very busy for the Pleasants as their influence and riches increased. The 1860’s saw her in court fighting for people of color to be free to travel by public transportation. She won in several instances. Other cases hinged on women's rights..
Two linked, notorious cases in the 1880’s had to do with Senator William Sharon (rep for NV but living in CA) and Sarah Althea Hill, a young Irish woman; the press, the populace and politicos across the country were captivated by tales of Voodoo spells, prostitution, STDs, a secret marriage, unrequited love and the influence and support of Sarah by MEP. Sharon was a multi-millionaire: owner of the Comstock Lode, The Territorial Enterprise, the Palace Hotel and partner with the owners of the Bank of California. In the end, male sexual misconduct was judged to be expected and condoned. Both women suffered financially and their reputations were shredded.
Mary Ellen invested in many properties over the years; she was alleged to own eight or more houses in San Francisco and a ranch near San Mateo. In 1890, she bought an established a ranch in the Valley of the Moon (Sonoma County,) designed the ranch house with its New Orleans influence, She spent many weekends there in her last years. She named it “Beltane Ranch" for Thomas Bell his Celtic heritage...Beltane is a fertility festival held in early May.
It is impossible to do a complete review of this woman’s amazing life and accomplishments here. Books, fiction and non-fiction, movies and news articles have attempted to portray Mary Ellen’s life. Many are in error or complicated due to lack of reliable information and the very complexity of her life.
1. Beltaneranch.com, website for the historic ranch
2. Fowler, Karen Joy, Sister Noon, a novel, George Putnam’s Sons, 2002
3. Hudson, Lynn M., The Making of “Mammy Pleasant,” University of Illinois Press, 2003
4. Wikipedia, Mary Ellen Pleasant