Mary Ellen Pleasant

San Francisco caterer & Rumored abolitionist


Mary Ellen Pleasant was born August 19 – the year varies but is usually 1812 or 1814. She is a black entrepreneur widely known as Mistress Pleasant. People call her “Mammy Pleasant” but she does not approve of the nickname.


Pleasant rarely speaks about her past – and all the stories are contradictory. The most scandalous is that she was born a slave to a Voodoo priestess and the youngest son of a Governor of Virginia, James Pleasants. In any case, she showed up in Nantucket, Massachusetts circa 1827 as a 10- to 13-year-old bonded servant to a storekeeper, “Grandma” Hussey. She worked out her bondage, then became a family member and lifelong friend to Grandma’s granddaughter Phoebe Hussey Gardner.

She began a partnership with John James (“J.J.”) Pleasants circa 1848. Although no official records exist of their marriage, it was probably conducted by their friend Captain Gardner, Phoebe’s husband, aboard his boat.

J.J. Pleasants appears to have been a close relative of Marie Laveau’s husband, and there is some indication that Pleasant and Laveau met and consulted many times before Pleasant left New Orleans by boat for San Francisco in April 1852.


When Mary Ellen arrived in San Francisco, she passed as white, using her first husband’s name among the whites, and took jobs running exclusive men’s eating establishments, starting with the Case and Heiser. She met most of the founders of the city as she catered lavish meals


Persistent rumors follow her that her that her former “owners” were actually secret abolitionists supporting the Underground Railroad – and that she has made numerous trips from southern states like Ohio and even as far as Canada.

Some whispered rumors will even say that the whole reason she came to California was to build a “western railroad” to support runaways from the Mexican Territory and southern California.

Mary Ellen Pleasant

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