Mary Ellen Pleasant
Born into slavery, she became a Gold Rush-era millionaire and a powerful abolitionist


When the 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry ended with the hanging of the abolitionist John Brown, a note found in his pocket read, “The ax is laid at the foot of the tree. When the first blow is struck, there will be more money to help.”

While the conventional wisdom at the time was that a wealthy Northerner provided the means to incite a slave uprising, the truth is that the note, and the funding, came from a wealthy black woman, Mary Ellen Pleasant.

Born into slavery, Pleasant became a Gold Rush-era millionaire and a powerful abolitionist. She is one of the little-known but powerful influences on American history and culture we’re celebrating during Black History Month.

In the 1800s, Pleasant became one of the first Black, female, self-made millionaires in our country. Despite facing significant obstacles, her portfolio grew to some $30 million; in today’s dollars she would approach billionaire status.

After earning her way out of bonded servitude on the east coast, Mary Ellen came to San Francisco in the late 1840s. Able to pass as White, she worked in a number of jobs that brought her close to the movers and shakers of the Gold Rush. She parlayed the bits of news and financial gossip she heard into a multimillion-dollar portfolio.

Her fortune was largely spent in assisting the cause of abolition across the country, and she helped many slaves achieve freedom through the Underground Railroad. In addition, she was adept at placing newly-freed persons into jobs, many of whom became black leaders in their own right. She was often referred to as “the Harriet Tubman of San Francisco.”

From 1857-59, Pleasant traveled east to become more active in the abolitionist cause. A simple misreading of her signature on the note in John Brown’s pocket kept her involvement a secret until she was close to death and granted an interview with a journalist. That interview said in part:

“Before I pass away, I wish to clear the identity of the party who furnished John Brown with most of his money to start the fight at Harpers Ferry and who signed the letter found on him when he was arrested.” The sum she donated—$30,000— is almost $900,000 in today’s dollars. Her seed money, coupled with Brown’s deeds, would lead directly to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.