Mary Ellen Pleasant was an ardent Abolitionist, and she determined to assist John Brown.
She married John Pleasant (or Pleasants), who had been an overseer on the Smith plantation. She reportedly was involved in the Underground Railroad, and was so successful in assisting escaping slaves that she had “a price on her head in the South.”
Pleasant moved to San Francisco and put her business acumen and entrepreneurial skills, not to mention her reputation as a noteworthy cook, to work. There was much wealth circulating in the heady days of the gold rush, but few luxuries in the area to spend it on.
Miners and merchants were clamoring for services, and Pleasant, according to San Francisco newspapers, rejected many offers of employment as a cook from people with means. Instead, with her name now well known, she opened a boarding house that provided lodging and food, both of which were scarce.
She expanded her business dealings by lending money to businessmen and miners at an interest rate of 10%, while also investing wisely on the advice of her influential boarders and other associates. During this time, she gained a reputation as “The Fabulous Negro Madam,” acting as a procurer for her male associates. (Encyclopedia)
She invested her money wisely: Her businesses in San Francisco included laundries, dairies and exclusive restaurants — all of which were quite lucrative in a city filled with miners and single businessmen.
Concerned about racial equality, she became increasingly involved in helping others and in civil-rights activities during the 1850s and 1860s. Mary Ellen Pleasant, used her Gold Rush wealth to provide financial assistance for these causes; she also sought out and rescued slaves being held illegally in the California countryside.
Pleasant also found jobs in wealthy households for runaway slaves and developed an information network. One of the most widely circulated, albeit unsubstantiated, reports on Pleasant concerns her role in abolitionist John Brown’s raid on the US arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, in 1859.
She reportedly sailed to the East in 1858 and in Canada gave Brown $30,000 to finance his battle against slavery. When John Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859, for murder and treason, a note found in his pocket read,
“The ax is laid at the foot of the tree. When the first blow is struck, there will be more money to help.” Officials most likely believed it was written by a wealthy Northerner who had helped fund Brown’s attempt to incite, and arm, an enormous slave uprising by taking over an arsenal at Harpers Ferry in Virginia. No one suspected that the note was written by a black woman named Mary Ellen Pleasant. (NY Times)
Some called her ‘Mammy’, but she asserted, “I am Mammy to no one.”
According to Pleasant, she was born free on August 19, 1814 in Philadelphia. She claimed her father was Louis Alexander Williams, a native Hawaiian (‘a Kanaka from the Pacific Islands’) and her mother, Mary (her namesake) was a “full blooded Negress from Louisiana.” (Ball etal)
Pleasant noted, “My father was a native Kanaka [Hawaiian] and my mother a full-blooded Louisiana negress.”
“Both were of large frame, but I think I must have got my physical strength from my father, who was, like most of his race, a giant in frame. His name was Louis Alexander Williams.”
“He was a man of great intelligence and had a fair education, judging from his letters. He was a commercial man and imported silks from India. He imported other things, but his main business was silk.”
“My mother’s name was Mary, and I was named after her, but I recall very little about her. I don’t think she was as well educated as my father, for I don’t remember that she ever wrote me any letters.”
“When I was about six years of age, I was sent to Nantucket, Mass., to live with a Quaker woman named Hussey. I never knew why I was sent there, and about all I know is that my first recollections of life dated from Nantucket.”
“When my father sent me to live with the Husseys, he also gave them, as I learned afterwards, plenty of money to have me educated, but they did not use it for that purpose, and that’s how I came to have no education.” (Mary Ellen Pleasant, autobiography)
“It is quite possible that a Pacific Islander named Louis Alexander Williams and a free black woman from Louisiana became the parents of a baby girl in Philadelphia in 1814, as Pleasant claimed.”
“According to the US Census there was an Alexander Williams living in Philadelphia in 1810 and 1820. He is listed as a white male, which is how Pacific Islanders were recorded in the census at the time”. (Hudson)
Pleasant had another Hawai‘i connection; images of Queen Emma are sometimes mistaken/mislabeled as Mary Ellen Pleasant.
“In 1880 Mammy was invited to the Palace Hotel to meet King Kalakaua of Hawaii. It was the custom in San Francisco to always send an invitation to any major affair. She invariably ‘regrets’ but on this occasion she wanted to attend because she wished to ask the king if it was true that she closely resembled the Dowager Queen Emma of Hawaii.”
“He obviously thought she did because when he left for Hawaii he carried with him a negative plate of Mammy’s full length portrait.” (Holdredge to Smyser; Hudson)