An illustration of what Mary Ellen Pleasant may have looked like, a black woman wearing a sort of stern expression in a dark blue ruffled gown, hands folded in her lap. In the background behind the illustration is another faded illustration of Nantucket harbor in the late 1700s - early 1800s

“Mary Ellen Pleasant is an enigma. She has puzzled California historians for generations. Not all the pieces of her life fit neatly together; not everything can be explained. . . She became a ‘figment of imagination as much as a figure of history.’”

– Paul Gutierrez, “Mary Ellen Pleasant’s Quest for Equality for All” The Argonaut, Winter 2021 


Mary Ellen Pleasant’s early life is a mystery. Contemporary records are hard to find and everyone has their own theories. Pleasant herself told different versions to different people, and those accounts conflict with her autobiography. There were very good reasons for Black people in the 19th century to obscure origins of slavery:  stigma, fear of being caught and trafficked. There was a lot to lose.

Some sources say she was born into slavery in Georgia or Virginia, to an enslaved woman and a white planter. Pleasant’s own biography reports that she was born to free Black parents in Philadelphia in 1814. Her racial makeup is also hard to pin down:  Pleasant claims a native Hawaiian father and Black mother, other biographies think she was half White, half Black, and reports of her appearance are all over the place. Some stories describe her as passing for white, others say she was dark skinned, some say she had one blue eye and one brown eye.

We know she went to Nantucket as a girl, but the reason for that move is also a mystery. By some accounts her planter-father sponsored the move to get her out of the South, by others she went to the Ursuline convent in New Orleans for an education, then smuggled North. Pleasant’s account is that her parents sent her to Nantucket to live among Quakers and learn a trade. There, she apprenticed under a store keeper named Hussey, learning how to keep accounts, make sales, and run a business. Everyone agrees she was damn good at this – one of the running threads of truth in all of the Pleasant stories is that she was a born capitalist.

Map of Nantucket, 1782 by Crèvecœur

Map of Nantucket, 1782 by Crèvecœur

Nantucket in the 1820s was full of abolitionist vigor, but still probably racist as hell. The town was segregated, but there were plenty of Black whalers, shopkeepers, clergy, and sailors for her to have a full life among other Black folks. She attended church and wanted to learn but didn’t get a formal education – probably because she had to work. According to Pleasant, the Husseys denied her an education, even though her parents sent money for it. Sounds about white.

Pleasant moved to Boston and became a successful salesperson. There, she met her first husband – James Smith (sometimes called Alexander Smith). Smith’s origins are also cloaked in mystery! Some say he was Cuban, some say Afro-Cuban. He’s reported to have been a businessman, a planter, a carpenter. All accounts agree, however, that he was dedicated to the abolition of slavery. Mary Ellen Pleasant got her start as an abolitionist activist from Smith. He died shortly after they were married and left Pleasant a large sum of money. She used this money to emigrate to San Francisco and become a successful entrepreneur.