Mary Ellen Pleasant Pt 2: Argonaut

May 25, 2021
Ghosts
“When Mary Pleasant left the sheltered island of Nantucket as a young woman she took with her her invaluable business skills, an informal yet substantial education, and political savvy that would last a lifetime.” 

The Making of Mammy Pleasant:  A Black Entrepreneur in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco 

A painting in the Realist style - a view of a ship dock with small human figures, and two boats coming into port on a bright blue sea
Return of the Argonauts - Konstantinos Volanakis

FIRST OF ALL - do you know what an argonaut is?? This is a word that I associate with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or steampunk fiction about Victorian explorers in Hot Air Balloons that find the original tribe of Amazons. Maybe some kind of magical moonshot rocket??? LOL no. That word means: (1) a sailor on the Argo, in the Greek legend of Jason and the Argonauts, (2) An adventurer on a quest,  (3) THE ORIGINAL GOLD RUSH PIONEERS. Anyway, that’s why so much shit in this town is named ARGONAUT and our main character Mary Ellen Pleasant was one of them in every sense.

Just like the accounts of her early life, details of her arrival in San Francisco are convoluted and hard to verify. She shows up in famous accounts of the time;  “Barbary Coast” describes her as the best cook in town during the Gold Rush. Pleasant says she arrived in 1849, other accounts have her landing here in 1851 or 1852. Either way, domestic service was in very high demand. Pleasant would have been one of only a handful of women in town, and she could charge whatever she wanted for services like cooking and housekeeping. 

Photo of San Francisco in 1867 - the foreground is a barren dirt hill top looking out and down on wooden houses receding into the distance. In the far background you can see small ships floating on San Francisco Bay.s
View East of the bay from Telegraph Hill, SF - 1867 (credit: OpenSFHistory.org)

Here’s when Mary Ellen Pleasant’s genius as an entrepreneur, investor, and marketer really begins to show itself. She used inherited money to buy laundries and property. She built and ran elegant boarding houses, where wealthy single men lived. All the while, she worked as a cook and downplayed her role in the businesses, appearing at first glance as a domestic worker. This way, she stayed under the radar and cultivated friendships with powerful men. She relied on these friends for investment advice, and she made a killing on the Comstock Lode this way. 

Remember, this was pre-Civil War California. The state was technically free, but Black emigrants were shunned, run out of town, segregated, discriminated against, and often under threat of White violence. California was populated by Southern White men and courts enforced white supremacist laws. Pleasant had to stay out of the crosshairs to remain safe, and cultivate a less threatening persona. 

At some point Mary Ellen also remarried, this time to a free person of color named John Pleasants or JJ Plaissance, depending on the source. They had a daughter, but lived together intermittently - he worked on ships, and she ran businesses in San Francisco. While this wasn’t an unusual practice at the time, the separation fueled the rumor mill. Her daughter and husband are frequently left out of the myth-making about Pleasant:  if you didn’t dig into the details, you never would have known that she had a family. 

Next: Part 3 - Freedom Fighter

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