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.