The New John James and Mary Ellen Pleasant Blog


John James Pleasant was Mary Ellen’s second husband, married to her for approximately thirty years.

“The Father of Civil Rights in California!”

When I research MEP, I find she signed court documents  with her husband John James (known as JJ) Pleasant. He cosigned law suits and property deeds showing he was with her in Canada on her John Brown adventure. Their John Brown adventure. They were married after all. And, if you pay any attention to the first 37 pages of HH’s epic yellow rag, you will see that he was in the employ of her first husband, James Smith, with whom he did various UGRR activities before MEP joined them. My guess is that JJ drove while they concealed people in the body of the carriage and other such useful things.

Where HH got the description of him she uses in her book, I have not been able to ascertain, but I found no other source, so I will use HH’s description, though heaven only knows how accurate it is. She describes JJ as having auburn hair and blue eyes. He was quite attractive. He did not look black, but proudly claimed he was the former slave son of slave owner, who was in turn, the son of a Virginia Governor named Pleasant. The father probably freed him and somehow he had found James Smith (Mary’s first husband) and worked the UGRR with him He was passionate about abolition as were Mary and her first husband. This was a lifelong passion for all of them, but Mr. Smith was a couple of decades older than Mary. He died after some years with Mary, and left her cash with instructions to continue the fight for abolition.

She and JJ did just that until word of the gold rush arrived. It seems that JJ may have gone out there right away followed by Mary, but this point in Mary’s life has been obscured by HH’s “scholarship”, which dictated that MEP arrived in Yerba Buena in 1852 or 53-  IF she took the same boat as Thomas Bell and IF she used the name “Madame Christophe”. I would argue that any or all of that idea was unlikely. First MEP herself always claimed she was out there in 1849. Second, there is no reliable testimony she was ever in New Orleans or used the name Madame Christophe. Third, her brother in law John Gardner had a whaling boat. He and his wife Phebe (Mary’s “sister” by upbringing) did participate in UGRR activities, especially taking people up and down the East Coast and bringing people out to the west coast. Fourth, it has been put out there, though no paper exists to prove it, that JJ and Mary were married on his ship, by Gardner. Fifth, Cap’n Gardner was the guardian of Mary’s money from Smith. In order to give some to John Brown, she had to get it from the Captain. All that is in HH’s book, though glossed over. Mary was not the freewheeling independent scoundrel that HH portrays. She had a family that acted like a family and the head of that family was Captain Garner after Granma Mary Hussey died. The Captain was in charge of Mary’s money, and well-being, while Mary had to answer to him for her activities and expenses when it was as big a thing as moving to the West Coast or giving John Brown the remainder of the inheritance.

Let’s take a little detour. I doubt Thomas Bell met MEP on the boat to SF when he got on it in Lima or thereabouts. According to HH, in the book, “M…. Pleasants Partner”, in the early months after that boat arrived in SF, Tom Bell did take up with La Negrissa, a traveling performer. That is why, speculated HH that he and MEP didn’t meet again for a couple of years after that boat arrived. Tom was in love with La Negrissa. La Negrissa, in my opinion, is much more likely to have been the “Madame Christophe” and she and Tom probably met on that boat, then hung out until she had to move on. It is much more likely that Captain Gardner brought JJ and Mary out on his boat as he had already made that Pacific journey a number of times, while whaling. He was Mary’s Guardian and he also traveled full time with his wife, Phebe. Now Mary she was going to a wild woolly place where there was barely any civilization. I am pretty sure he oversaw that move to the West Coast. And since JJ and Mary did everything together, they probably took the same boat. And, it would not have been a  passenger vessel, it would have been with someone from Nantucket, a family member with a whaling ship. MEP and the Gardners stayed in close contact until the Gardners were lost at sea together in the 1870-80s ( remind me to check the exact date).

Since HH was speculating and manipulating evidence to suit her purposes most of the time. There is no reason to assume she was correct about when MEP arrived in SF. She was invested in the New Orleans version and bent all evidence to give Mary the “Voodoo” background, not knowing a thing about Vodoun, the diasporal religion of Haiti.

So, in the preceding paragraph, I put together what I knew to be facts about Mary’s family and came to an Occam’s razor solution of how she and JJ arrived in SF. I can’t think of a single reason that this is not the best explanation.  Since MEP and JJP did everything else together, why not this, the biggest move of their lives? They set up a terminus of the UGRR together and together homed and helped start businesses for former slaves -and former freedmen. Mary had an inheritance that was dedicated to abolitionist activities, but they both worked well-paid jobs for their day to day living expenses.

So, the fact that JJ and MEP did everything together is the reason I am completely revamping the POV of this Blog. From now on, I include them both.

JJ signed every lawsuit paper for the trolley car discrimination cases, though Mary’s inheritance may have paid the fees. They won the right for blacks to ride, together. Whoever later started calling MEP the “Mother” of Civil Rights in CA should have said the John James and Mary Ellen Pleasant are the Parents of Civil Rights in CA, and it is a crying shame that JJ is denied his part in the history.

In my next post, I will revamp the timeline of MEP’s life to exclude all undocumented claims. Doing that gives her  a much simpler, quite straightforward life history with lots of documentation.





A Review of the Helen Holdredge Collection of the SF Public Library


The Helen Holdredge Collection

San Francisco Historical Collection

San Francisco Public Library

Oct 21, 2016

This collection is a compilation of several other major 19th Century SF figures that used to be in separate collections. Box 4 of this collection contains most of the notes Helen Holdredge (HH) made to write “The word that must not be said, Pleasant”, her book published in about 1952.

My overall word for the quality of HH’s notes is “Pathetic”. She is not a historian and did not use any standard history-hunting tools- like birth and death certificates, properties owned, legal documents, even when they were available in government records in SF. (There are two marriage certificates and one of baptism for the four Bell children. These are side notes of little value or relevance to the book)

She did not discuss her informants, and how they obtained the information they gave HH, who, as it turned out, usually gave them no credit for the particular stories they had told her. However, if you are familiar with the book, you will realize that almost all of the salacious material that did not come from 1880’s yellow journalism, came from one person, William Willmore jr., seconded only by the material she supposedly saw in a memoir transcribed by Charlotte Dennis Downs on behalf of Mary Ellen Pleasant (MEP) around 1875-1890.

There is no discussion of whom William Willmore jr (WWjr) was, although if you have read the book, he takes over Teresa Bell’s mansion on 1661 Octavia street, as the Head Steward- after MEP was kicked out of the residence she had lived in since her husband John James Pleasant had died in 1877 or so (I didn’t check this date before writing it) Mary Ellen had been in charge of the household operations of the Bells for over 15 years. Willmore jr was her sergeant. Now she wasn’t in charge; he was. He thoroughly proved his loyalty to Teresa Bell when he published a shockingly slanderous newspaper article about MEP around the turn of the 20th Century. Then he must have still been alive in the early 50’s when HH interviewed him. There is no indication of how old he was when he took over Pleasant’s job or when he supposedly talked to HH.

HH not being a scholar, not even having a BA level degree ( her bio states she attended U of O (or W), not that she graduated) did not mention when or where she interviewed him for her book. Or mention his bias, she just has several pages of notes in various places as her note taking was not organized.

There is a section of letters HH wrote and answers that people wrote back. I only see one consistency in any of the letters, and that is that they all called MEP, “Mammy”. No one who liked or loved her would ever do that. So it appears that even before the book came out, HH was collecting material only from people who called Mary Ellen “Mammy”, not (Mrs) Pleasant, which she preferred.

I saw the ‘born a slave” story as told by an informant whose name never appears anywhere else. And offers no proof of any kind. (The same story is told by Mildred Beasley in a book about black CA pioneers, published 1918, though I can’t ascertain the source of that story either) It was a variation on the version in the book, lacking any detail such as how Americus Price happened on MEP in GA before she was six years old, because she was six years old when she moved in with Grandma Hussey. (Americus was from Price’s Landing Missouri and probably was involved in MEP’s post-John Brown debacle) . I analyze that entire story for logic and probability in another post.

I copied her notes on WWjr and a couple of other things, but I totally and profoundly realize that the real Mary Ellen Pleasant will never be found in the Helen Holdredge Collection.

So, this signals something entirely new should happen with this blog. I will elaborate on that in my next post.

Can Mary Ellen Pleasant be compared to Harriet Tubman?


Well, no. What Tubman did was un-matchable and deserves all the credit and attention, possible.

However, MEP -and both her spouses- spent many months and years working on the UGRR. They did transport many ex-slave fugitives to Canada and even bought property up there for  immigrant purposes. They helped  fugitives in California too. Mary Ellen and JJ Pleasant deserve recognition for this work- as I hope other stories of the UGRR are uncovered. I hope they can both be included in future stories of the UGRR along with others yet to surface.

Was Mary Ellen Pleasant a Madame?


The answer is ,”No”. She always had a full time job, but she did help others get started in business. One fully documented example of that was the Dennis and Downs Livery stable, which she was acknowledged as financing.

She (and her husband, JJ) were known to set people up in business, and possible did finance a Madame or two in the early days, but there is no proof, only gossip, about that. All gossip after the 1880’s was tainted by the trashing MEP took in the press over supporting Allie Hill against WilliamSharon.

That was After JJ Pleasant died. Who knows how he would have reacted to the beating she took in the press? While he was alive, they did everything together. All the court cases are in BOTH their names. Good research in SF property records will reveal she (and her husband, JJ) banked a few houses, too.

She may have become an easy target after JJ died. Holdredge and therefore, history, ignores JJ completely, but it is clear and documented that they were partners until he died.

Is Mary Ellen Pleasant, “the Mother of Civil Rights in California”?


Yes, she is, but that is not the whole story and I don’t know how the other half of the story has been neglected for 130 years. The other half of the story is John James Pleasant, Mary Ellen’s Spouse of approximately 25-30 years. Her partner and companion on the UGRR.

It is true that MEP’s friend was kicked off the trolley for being black and MEP dared the conductor to kick her off, too. But, she and her husband JJ filed all the suits and followed up on them. They should share the honor as, “Parents of Civil Rights in California”

Did Mary Ellen Pleasant have any background in African Religion?


There is a story in the Mary Ellen Pleasant lexicon put out there by Helen Holdredge, that Mary Ellen Pleasant had been acquainted with Voodoo(sic) since her childhood. Apparently, according to Holdredge, MEP was born a slave in GA and at a tender age, her mother was taken away for practicing African Religion. Later that day, Holdredge (HH) reports, MEP at about the age of 6-10, held a Voodoo(sic) ceremony in the field, with adult slaves watching . The overseer who had taken her mother died that night clutching his throat, according to HH.

This story is very improbable, to say the least. Children do not perform Voodoo curses and that story is really a fantasy that gives MEP evil,  magical powers at an early age. This is fiction, or myth, maybe, but it is not the truth. It reflects a profound dishonesty in HH’s approach to MEP. But HH was not finished with that recitation; she has Americus Price of Price Landing MO, no less,  show up and buy her, and take her to New Orleans to be educated at the Ursuline academy for one year, then returns and travels with her up the Mississippi river when he dies (Mammy Pleasant, pp 8-13). Somehow she gets to the home of a man with the same name as her father in the Pandex version of her birth in Cincinnati Ohio, where she is a servant to his wife until, disturbed by her evilness, he takes her to Nantucket.

According to HH, MEP isn’t able to finish her Voodoo training until many years later when she is trained by Marie LaVeaux before she goes to SF.

There is not one iota of truth to this story. While it is possible that MEP’s second husband had a distant blood relationship with Marie La Veaux’ boyfriend, there is no indication MEP ever went to New Orleans either as a child or an adult. She certainly never mentioned it in her later life, though she was known to talk about John Brown, Nantucket, and her trips to Canada.

Except for Helen Holdredge’s story, there is not one indication that MEP ever practiced Voodoo. There is no indication there was any organized Haitian religion going on in SF, only a fortune teller or two that claimed to do “Voodoo”. There was never a big drum party in the Octavia street house.

Mary Ellen Pleasant didn’t know Voodoo; she was a member of the SF AME church and that IS thoroughly documented.

Was Mary Ellen Pleasant born a slave in Georgia? The evidence.


Actually, there is no documentation of the sort. The earliest reference to this version of MEP’s birth was in a 1919 book by Delilah Beasley. She did not reference her source directly, but it appears it was from a San Francisco newspaper interview, as many of her other sources were, so maybe it can be found.

If a newspaper article saying MEP was born in Georgia is found, that still does not qualify as documentation. If it is a from an interview she may have participated in, and it directly contradicts the story she gave the Pandex in 1904, in which she said she was born free in Philadelphia; it becomes apparent there was a reason for her to lie about her birth.

Until someone finds the origin of the Born in Georgia story, the words of her own mouth in an easily accessed interview should take precedent. Of course, there is still no documentation, but at least we know she actually gave the born in Philadelphia story out of her own mouth and we do not even have that for the born in Ga. story.

So the logical conclusion is that until MEP is caught lying, she was not born a slave in Georgia, but was born free.

In the Pandex interview, she named a street that did not exist in Philadelphia when she was born, according to Hudson’s research. (Hudson could not find evidence of her father, either) The particular street really doesn’t mean much, as it may have been a faded memory. In this version she claimed to be half black and half Hawaiian. No proof one way or the other on that, but she was mistaken for Queen Emma of Hawaii and some ‘MEP scholars’ still use Queen Emma Pix to portray MEP. Hawaiian scholars are agreed that the younger photos of MEP are actually wearing Queen Emma’s jewelry, so can’t be portraits of MEP at all. I have another article on that. Read it and judge for yourself.

In any case, even in the authentic portrait of her at 86, she doesn’t look particularly black – it is easy to see she could pass for white and apparently did . Or pass for Hawaiian or even Cuban.

The main piece of evidence for Holdredge’s claim she was born in GA came from a recreation of a lost memoir that Charlotte Dennis Downs had possession of for the last 50 years, supposedly dictated to her by MEP in the Octavia St house. Anyway, it was supposedly lost, so Holdredge with the supposed help of Downs “recreated” the memoir, complete with the born in GA version of the story in far more detail than Beasley’s version.  In any case,  Charlotte Dennis Downs was the niece of the guy who wrote the “Queen of the Voodoos” article who, in turn, was in the employ of the woman who kicked MEP out of the Bell house. This is not documentation of the Born in GA story, it is hearsay.

There is no proof that MEP was born in GA and there is good reason to doubt the story, including direct, published quotes from MEP, herself.


Odd Footnote:

There were a lot of Hawaiian Kanakas coming and going from Nantucket on whaling ships MEP’s entire childhood. Moby Dick is a story based from Nantucket and its multi-cultural sailors from all over the world. Moby Dick is a good anthropological survey of a Nantucket whaling boat. MEP probably saw Kanakas whenever a whaling ship came in. Maybe her Kanaka father was part of that scene- or had left it for a career elsewhere -then brought MEP back to Nantucket when her mother died. That is actually a better guess than born in Georgia. It is more probable anyway. Her paper trail begins in Nantucket. Why not trace it backwards from there instead of looking in Georgia because some undocumented news article said so?.