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Lynn Downey

legendary woman of influence and political power in Gold Rush and Gilded Age San Francisco, was born, according to some sources, a slave in Georgia; other sources claim that her mother was a Louisiana slave and her father was Asian or Native American. Many sources agree that she lived in Boston, as a free woman, the wife of James W. Smith, a Cuban abolitionist. When he died in 1844 he left her his estate, valued at approximately forty-five thousand dollars.

Mary Ellen next married a man whose last name was Pleasant or Pleasants and made her way to California, arriving in San Francisco in 1849 Her husband s whereabouts after this time have never been made clear She started life in San Francisco as a cook for wealthy clients then opened her own boardinghouse Her guests were said to be men of influence and it was rumored ...

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Lynn Hudson

Mary Ellen Pleasant arrived in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, probably sometime in 1852. For the next fifty years, she worked as cook, accountant, abolitionist, and entrepreneur in the bustling town on the bay. Histories of the West describe her as madam, voodoo queen, and prostitute. Pleasant herself requested that the words “she was a friend of John Brown’s” be printed on her gravestone, indicating her own desire to be remembered as an abolitionist. She was the target of what one historian has called an “avid conspiracy” that sought to silence her, and it was said that she harbored the skeletons of San Francisco’s elite in her closet.

The folklore about Pleasant reveals conflicting stories of her background (some say she was from Georgia, others Virginia), but Pleasant herself claimed she was born in Philadelphia She described her mother as a free colored woman and her ...

Article

One of San Francisco's most colorful and controversial characters in the late nineteenth century was Mary Ellen Pleasant, a former slave who moved to the city in 1849. She began managing a boarding house whose reputation for cards, liquor, and beautiful women—it is likely her services included procuring prostitutes—earned it a devoted following.

No mere businesswoman, Pleasant involved herself in both local and national politics. In 1858, she personally presented abolitionist John Brown with a $30,000 U.S. Treasury Bond, after which she traveled south to promote his upcoming revolt. When Brown was captured at Harpers Ferry, Pleasant returned to California under an assumed name, where she raised money for the Union cause in the Civil War, and continued her work for civil rights.

Throughout her life Pleasant helped escaped and former slaves find work in San Francisco mostly as domestic servants Some historians speculate that Pleasant ...