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Anna Taylor Sweringen/Michal Scott: Mary Ellen Pleasant — The Little Woman Who Really Started the Civil War (Contest + Excerpt)
Thursday, March 16th, 2023

UPDATE: The winner is…Colleen C!

When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he is quoted as saying, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” While Uncle Tom’s Cabin stirred the hearts and minds of many against slavery, Mary Ellen Pleasant struck an actual blow against it.

Born free in 1814, Pleasant was brought to Nantucket to work as an indentured servant for the Husseys, an abolitionist Quaker family in whose store she developed a knack for business. While with the Husseys, Mary encountered the blacks of Newtown who grew into a prosperous middle-class thanks to the whaling industry. She married James Smith, an abolitionist who identified as Hispanic. They hobnobbed with the abolitionists of Boston and helped runaways get to Canada. Upon Smith’s death, Mary inherited a sizable fortune and continued her work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. In 1848, she married John Pleasants, a former slave and abolitionist who worked with her for twenty years against slavery.

She moved to San Francisco during the gold rush of 1849 and created wealth as a commodity trader, a money lender, and owner of businesses like laundries and lodgings and the Bank of California. She continued her abolitionist activities by using her money to help slaves escape from their masters who brought them there. Her ultimate contribution to the cause of ending slavery came in 1858 when she went to Canada and gave John Brown $45,000, $1.3 million in today’s dollars, for the raid on Harper’s Ferry. She laid claim to being the author of the note found on him when he was executed. She dictated an account of this in 1904’s How A Colored Woman Aided John Brown.

Her fight for civil rights in San Francisco continued when she brought two racial discrimination suits against streetcar companies in San Francisco, both ultimately settled in her favor. She established black schools and fought for the repeal of Jim Crow laws, earning her the nickname, “The Mother of Human Rights in California.” In his book Black Fortunes, Shomari Wills shares how she amassed a fortune of $30 million dollars, making her one of America’s first black millionaires.

It never ceases to amaze me how women like Mary Ellen Pleasant used the skills they had, in her case, the talents of a cook and domestic with a keen eye for business, to make life better not only for themselves but for others as well. Being a philanthropist was just a way of life.

In Black Fortunes, I learned her last days weren’t free from the drama racism wreaks upon the lives of pioneers like her, but thanks to this video done on her by a local San Francisco TV station during Black History month she at least has been given her due for posterity…

For a chance at a $10 Amazon gift card, leave a comment on what you think about Mary Ellen’s life.

Better to Marry than to Burn

Wife Wanted: Marital relations as necessary. Love not required nor sought…

A bridal lottery seems the height of foolishness to ex-slave Caesar King, but his refusal to participate in the town council’s scheme places him in a bind. He has to get married to avoid paying a high residence fine or leave the Texas territory. After losing his wife in childbirth, Caesar isn’t ready for romance. A woman looking for a fresh start without any emotional strings is what he needs.

Queen Esther Payne, a freeborn black from Philadelphia, has been threatened by her family for her forward-thinking, independent ways. Her family insists she marry. Her escape comes in the form of an ad. If she must marry, it will be on her terms. But her first meeting with the sinfully hot farmer proves an exciting tussle of wills that stirs her physically, intellectually, and emotionally.

In the battle of sexual one-upmanship that ensues, both Caesar and Queen discover surrender can be as fulfilling as triumph.


Why would a woman of obvious education and means be willing to brave the hardships of life out West as an ex-slave’s mail order bride? With grave ceremony, he withdrew, unfolded, and then read the letter.

Dear Mr. King,

My name is Queen Esther Payne. I read your ad and found your inquiry both refreshing and intriguing. I stand five feet six and weigh one hundred forty pounds. All of my six brothers will attest that I am no wallflower and do not fear hard work. Also as I come from one of the most respectable families on Lombard Street, my Philadelphian stock guarantees I have the ability and the requisite knowledge to help you establish a legacy in Douglass. I can commit to the two years you require, provided the marital relations are limited to the “as necessary” stated in your ad. I am willing to negotiate if more than two years are required.

I have only had relations with women, so you need not fear I will fall in love with you. Thus your “love neither required nor sought” dictum proves no obstacle. However, my woman-loving-woman proclivities may disqualify me in your eyes. If so, I await your refusal. If not, I anticipate your proposal.

Queen Esther Payne.

Caesar read and reread the line again.

I have only had relations with women, so you need not fear I will fall in love with you.

His Emma had only known women too until she united with him. Could fate be so kind as to smile upon him twice?

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18 comments to “Anna Taylor Sweringen/Michal Scott: Mary Ellen Pleasant — The Little Woman Who Really Started the Civil War (Contest + Excerpt)”

  1. Anna Taylor Sweringen
    · March 16th, 2023 at 9:53 am · Link

    As always, thanks for hosting me, Delilah.

  2. Mary Buckham
    · March 16th, 2023 at 2:06 pm · Link

    Absolutely fascinating history, Anna, and love, love, love the excerpt from your story Better to Marry Than to Burn! Off to get myself s copy and thank you for sharing!

  3. Anna Taylor Sweringen
    · March 16th, 2023 at 2:29 pm · Link

    Thanks for stopping by, Mary.

  4. Diane Sallans
    · March 16th, 2023 at 6:22 pm · Link

    I love reading about people in history. I watched the video and then read more about her in Wikipedia. She certainly crammed a lot into her life! She accomplished so much – imagine what she could have done if she hadn’t been constrained by her race and sex.

  5. Anna Taylor Sweringen
    · March 16th, 2023 at 7:29 pm · Link

    So true, Diane. I live in hope of the day when our society stops limiting people because of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation and starts relating to people according to the content of their character.

  6. BN
    · March 16th, 2023 at 9:55 pm · Link

    intriguing background

  7. Anna Taylor Sweringen
    · March 16th, 2023 at 10:11 pm · Link

    Agreed. Thanks for commenting bn

  8. Colleen C.
    · March 17th, 2023 at 1:25 pm · Link

    Thank you for always bringing us such deep and interesting bits of history… amazing women.

  9. Anna Taylor Sweringen
    · March 17th, 2023 at 2:03 pm · Link

    You’re quite welcome, Colleen C. So glad you’re enjoying them as much as I’m enjoying sharing them

  10. Debra Guyette
    · March 17th, 2023 at 3:38 pm · Link

    She must have been a very strong, confident woman.

  11. Anna Taylor Sweringen
    · March 17th, 2023 at 6:55 pm · Link

    I agree, Debra. I marvel at the confidence she must have had given the societal obstacles for women in general and for African Americans in particular. Thanks for stopping by.

  12. flchen
    · March 18th, 2023 at 11:21 pm · Link

    I’m amazed at Mary Ellen Pleasant and women like her who truly transcended the expectations and restrictions placed on her to make an exceptional life for her and set such a timeless example for people, not “merely” women, nor women of color. Thank you for continuing to bring her and others like her to our attention, Anna!

  13. Anna Taylor Sweringen
    · March 19th, 2023 at 9:05 am · Link

    It’s my pleasure to share what I’m learning, flchen.

  14. Cindy
    · March 23rd, 2023 at 6:20 pm · Link

    It was refreshing to see Mary Ellen put aside the restrictions the times set upon her and instead did what she knew best and needed to know to help her people. I had not heard of her prior to this post. That doesn’t surprise me, though. I felt attending public school in the 60s that I had a decent education even though we were shortchanged. I feel sorry for those attending school today and even in the last 20 years that they are faced with such a selective and white-washed curriculum. They will go on in life without the knowledge that made us what we are today. Thank you for such an enlightening topic.

  15. Anna Taylor Sweringen
    · March 23rd, 2023 at 6:23 pm · Link

    You’re welcome, Cindy. It is a shame that we’re going through such a regressive period, but it’s cyclical I guess. Thanks for commenting.

    · March 24th, 2023 at 6:59 pm · Link

    Every time I learn a new story like this, I wonder why our schools don’t teach these interesting stories.

  17. Anna Taylor Sweringen
    · March 24th, 2023 at 8:42 pm · Link

    I wonder that as well, Jennifer. And as someone commented earlier it’s not getting any better.

  18. Delilah
    · March 27th, 2023 at 8:56 am · Link

    Thanks go out to Anna for another great post! I’m always amazed by how significant people in our history manage to be left out of history books.

    The winner of the GC is…Colleen C!

Comments are closed.