Guide to the Mary Ellen Pleasant Financial Correspondence and Notes MS.R.102

Finding aid prepared by Olivier Muth, 2004; revised by Krystal Tribbett and Jolene Beiser, 2021.
Special Collections and Archives, University of California, Irvine Libraries
(cc) 2023
The UCI Libraries
P.O. Box 19557
University of California, Irvine
Irvine 92623-9557

Contributing Institution: Special Collections and Archives, University of California, Irvine Libraries
Title: Mary Ellen Pleasant financial correspondence and notes
Creator: Pleasant, Mary Ellen
Identifier/Call Number: MS.R.102
Physical Description: 0.1 Linear Feet (1 oversize folder)
Date (inclusive): 1892-1897
Abstract: This collection consists of materials documenting the financial affairs of Mary Ellen Pleasant, an African American woman and entrepreneur known as the Mother of Civil Rights in California. Items include a small autograph note; a signed promissory note; three handwritten letters from A. P. Overton, president of the Savings Bank of Santa Rosa (California), to Pleasant; and three handwritten copy letters from Pleasant to Overton. All items concern a promissory note for $3,000 and a mortgage to a Mrs. Guimaraes.
Language of Material: English .


Collection open for research.

Publication Rights

Property rights reside with the University of California. These materials are in the public domain. For permissions to reproduce or to publish, please contact the Head of Special Collections and University Archives.

Preferred Citation

Mary Ellen Pleasant Financial Correspondence and Notes. MS-R102. Special Collections and Archives, The UC Irvine Libraries, Irvine, California. Date accessed.
For the benefit of current and future researchers, please cite any additional information about sources consulted in this collection, including permanent URLs, item or folder descriptions, and box/folder locations.

Acquisition Information

Acquired, 2002.

Processing Information

Processed by Olivier Muth, 2003. Finding aid biographical note rewritten by curator Krystal Tribbett and archivist Jolene Beiser in 2021 to include more accurate accounts of Pleasant's life.


Mary Ellen Pleasant was an African American woman, abolitionist, and businessperson born around 1814. Many details of Pleasant's life are unclear, including the origins of her name. She likely lacked a surname at birth, or it is unknown. Accounts vary on how and why she took on the names "Ellen" and "Pleasant." 1 She personally contributed to several autobiographies and memoirs, however each offers different accounts of her birthplace, year of birth, and parentage. 2 In some accounts, Pleasant was born a slave near Augusta, Georgia between 1814 and 1817. 3,4, In another account, she was born in Philadelphia to a Louisianan mother and Hawaiian father. 5 In one memoir, Pleasant is the illegitimate child of John H. Pleasants, a Virginia governor's son and an enslaved Haitian Vodou (sometimes spelled voodoo) priestess. 6
According to some accounts, around 1827, Pleasant was indentured in Nantucket, Massachusetts for nine years to "Grandma Hussey," a Quaker merchant. In the 1840's her indentured service ended, and she became a tailor's assistant and paid church soloist in Boston. 7 It was during her time in Massachusetts that Pleasant took on the name Mary Ellen Williams, and met and married her first husband James Henry Smith. 8
Smith's background, including his ancestry, is unclear. Scholars think he was a person of mixed ancestry (white and Cuban), a contractor and merchant, plantation owner, and abolitionist. 9 According to some accounts, Smith and Pleasant worked on the Underground Railroad aiding runaway slaves to freedom. 10 In one memoir Pleasant claims to use the sizable inheritance she gained after Smith's death, circa 1844, to continue this effort. 11 This is one of the first mentions of Pleasant's activism and financial wealth.
After Smith's passing, Pleasant likely relocated to New Bedford, Massachusetts, 12 then spent a short time (possibly two years) in New Orleans before moving to San Francisco in 1852. 13 Sometime in those years, she married her second husband John James ("JJ") Pleasance 14 from whom she likely took the surname "Pleasant".
There are varying accounts of the work Pleasant took on in her early years in San Francisco, but most indicate that she worked as a steward (supervising cook and housekeeper) at one or more opulent boarding houses. 15 Because she arrived in San Francisco with some wealth inherited from her first husband, it's likely she was able to choose her employers. 16
She went from working for boarding houses to owning several high-end boarding houses of her own. 17,18, She also likely made money by holding "(lateral) support enterprises for her boarding house businesses -- tenant farms, dairy farms, a saloon, a livery stable, laundries." 19 She had a close working/business partnership with banker Thomas Bell, with whom she made a great fortune, possibly up to $30,000,000. 20 Upon his death, however, Bell's widow sued Pleasant for her part of the fortune and won, using slander in the press to tarnish Pleasant's reputation. 21,22,
According to Mary's account of her life dictated to Sam Davis (published in 1904), she supported abolitionist John Brown's 1859 raid on the Federal Arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia by providing financial support, purchasing land for freed slaves in Canada, and going back East "to alert slaves in southern Virginia of Brown's plan and to encourage them to join him." 23 Unfortunately Brown's plan was thwarted, he was captured, and he and several of his men were killed. 24 According to Davis, Pleasant wanted her tombstone to be inscribed with the words "A Friend of John Brown." 25
Pleasant died in San Francisco on January 11, 1904. She is memorialized by a medallion on the corner of Bush and Octavia streets in San Francisco, the site where her mansion once stood. 26
Historians, biographers, and journalists during Pleasant's lifetime, all tell of the ways she helped and fought for the rights of Black people in California, earning her the title "The Mother of Civil Rights in California". 27
1. Mary Ellen Pleasant is referred to by several names and titles in records, biographies, newspapers, and other accounts. At one point during her life her name was Mary Ellen Williams. In some accounts Pleasant is referred to as the "Mother of Civil Rights in California." At times, Pleasant is referred to as "Mammy" Pleasant. "Mammy" is a derogatory term and stereotype dating back to the 19th century and rooted in the history of slavery in United States. The term and stereotype references the role of a Black woman as an individual who works for a white family and nurses white children. Mary Ellen Pleasant rejected that title. Fraser, "Woman," 5 and Halley, "Don't,".
2. Susheel Bibbs, a Pleasant scholar, has suggested that the parentage, birthplace, and year of Pleasant's birth varies in each account because Pleasant sought to "counteract" accounts of her in the press. Bibbs' research on Mary Ellen Pleasant is among the most comprehensive. In her book Heritage of Power: Marie LaVeaux to Mary Ellen Pleasant (2012) she offers extensive information on primary sources and archives she used to conduct research on Pleasant. For this reason, Bibbs' work is heavily cited in this bio/hist note. See Bibbs, Heritage,10.
3. Bibbs, "Pleasant."
4. Bibbs, Heritage.
5. Chambers, "Overlooked."
6. Bibbs, Heritage.
7. Bibbs, "Pleasant."
8. Bibbs, Heritage.
9. Bibbs, Heritage.
10. Bibbs, Heritage.
11. Bibbs, Heritage.
12. Bibbs, Heritage, 15 cites the 1850 New Bedford, MA census as evidence of Pleasant's location there at that time.
13. Bibbs, 123 cites the passage of the ship Steamer Oregon as evidence that she arrived in San Francisco on April 7, 1852 under the name "'Mme. Christophe', her husband's true surname (SF Ships Passage records, vol. 3)."
14. Bibbs, 16-18 has more information about John James ("JJ") Pleasance. It is unclear where Mary Ellen and JJ met, but multiple accounts indicate they were in New Orleans together before moving to San Francisco. On page 7 there is an account by Liga Foley, a possible relative of Vodou queen Marie LaVeau (interviewed by Helen Holdredge, an author of another book about Pleasant), who saw Mary and JJ in New Orleans, spending time with Marie LaVeau somewhere around the year 1850.
15. Bibbs, 124. Bibbs' research found that "Mary waited several months before working, but finally chose as her employers the boarding club of commission merchants Case and Heiser because it housed the City's richest men."
16. Bibbs, 124.
17. Evidence of Pleasant owning her own board houses appears, for example, in Fraser's 1901 interview where Pleasant tells the story of a stranger coming up to her, "He told me how he had always admired me, knew people who knew me well -- folks that used to board at my house. He mentioned several - Colonel John Taylor (that's Zack's nephew) and Governor Booth, who was elected from my house." Also "Another time I was invited to Captain William B. Hugh's wedding at the Lick House. He married Miss Jones, who used to board with me." Fraser, "Woman," 4.
18. "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 that her places were also houses of prostitution." Lynn Downey, "Pleasant."
19. According to Bibbs, 128, "she once listed herself as 'Mary Pleasant, capitalist."
20. Bibbs, 146, "Pleasant with her partner, Thomas Bell--an officer of the Bank of California, went on to amass a $30,000,000 joint fortune...Bell's records in the Bancroft Library and Pleasant's insolvency records and accounts in the Delaca papers suggest it could be correct."
21. Bibbs, 147, "Said Pleasant in a final deposition, 'They paid the newspapers to malign and to vilify me and to blacken my character, but I did not reply to their assaults because I had staunch supports in the City and, so long as they supported me, I did not care one snap of one little finger for public opinion' (Deposition 1903)."
22. Bibbs, 147, "[Pleasant] tried three times to produce memoirs to offset these accusations only to have them ignored or suppressed by her enemies (Delaca/MEP-Sam Davis letter 1903)."117.
23. Bibbs, 135, "Pleasant asserted to [Sam] Davis that she had 1) given Brown $30-40,000 of her own money...2) purchased land in Chatham Canada West (Ontario) for a slave refuge as part of Brown's plan, and 3) returned East in 1859, once again posing as a jockey, to alert slaves in southern Virginia of Brown's plan and to encourage them to join him. Pleasant provided Davis with names, places, and a letter with directions to enable him to confirm her story (Pleasant Letter 1902, 6-pg Letter). This he did, and he published his findings in an article entitled How A Colored Woman Aided John Brown in Maine's Comfort Magazine in 1903."
24. According to Bibbs, 143, Pleasant dictated to Sam Davis, "John said too much and John wrote too much, and there's nothin that men live to regret more than as what they write and set their names to...but I never regretted what I did for John Brown or for the cause of liberty for my race."
25. Bibbs, 135.
26. According to Bibbs, 154, "in 1965, spearheaded by historians Sue B. Thurman, Ethel Nance, Helen Jones, Elena Albert, and others in The San Francisco Negro (now African-American) Historical and Cultural Society, the City of San Francisco, embedded a memorial medallion on the corner of Bush and Octavia Streets--the site of Pleasant's great mansion."
27. Sue Bailey Thurman, historian and author of "Pioneers of Negro Origins in California," is cited in Bibbs, 68 as writing that "[African Americans] who remember her...will tell you about how many times she went out into the rural part of the country to rescue slaves who were being held illegally by masters recently come to California...will mention the vigorous role she played during the Negro's fight for the Right of Testimony…[and] say they saw little of her until they saw some oppressed member of her group got into difficulties. Then she would put all her privilege and prestige at his disposal."

Scope and Content of Collection

This collection consists of materials documenting the financial affairs of Mary Ellen Pleasant, an African American woman and entrepreneur known as the Mother of Civil Rights in California. Items include a small autograph note; a signed promissory note; three handwritten letters from A. P. Overton, president of the Savings Bank of Santa Rosa (California), to Pleasant; and three handwritten copy letters from Pleasant to Overton. All items concern a promissory note for $3,000 and a mortgage to a Mrs. Guimaraes.


The collection is arranged by genre of material.

Finding aid revision statement

2021-11-17: Curator Krystal Tribbett and archivist Jolene Beiser rewrote Biographical note including extensive endnotes explaining the varying accounts of Pleasant's life by Pleasant, as well as by journalists and "biographers." Several vetted sources about Pleasant were added to the Bibliography note. Previous versions of Pleasant's finding aid are available to researchers upon request.
2021-02-11: Archivist Jolene Beiser removed offensive terminology "mammy" and "mulatto" from collection name and biographical note upon request forwarded from CDL. Added note that this finding aid has been flagged for review and is currently under revision.


Bibbs, Susheel. Heritage of Power: Marie LaVeaux to Mary Ellen Pleasant. Sacramento: M.E.P. Publications, 2012.
Bibbs, Susheel. "Mary Ellen Pleasant: Mother of Civil Rights in California: Meet Mary Ellen Pleasant." 1998.
Chambers, Veronica. "Overlooked: Mary Ellen Pleasant." New York Times, 2020.
Downey, Lynn. "Mary Ellen Pleasant (1812?-1904)." In African American National Biography, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higgenbotham. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Fraser, Isabel. "Mammy Pleasant the Woman," San Francisco Call, December 29, 1901.
Halley, Marian. "Don't Call her Mammy," The New Fillmore. Accessed August 26, 2021. .

Subjects and Indexing Terms

African American women -- California -- San Francisco.
African American businesspeople -- California -- San Francisco..
Letters -- California -- 19th century -- Women authors.
Pleasant, Mary Ellen -- Archives
Overton, A.P.
Pleasant, Mary Ellen -- Finance, Personal -- Archives

box FB-021, folder 13

Correspondence with A. P. Overton 1897

box FB-021, folder 13

Financial note 1894

box FB-021, folder 13

Promissory note 1892