chapter  1
Mining a Mythic Past: The History of Mary Ellen Pleasant
ByMary Ellen Pleasant LYNN M. HUDSON
Pages 15

More than any other African-American woman who lived in the nineteenth-century West, San Francisco entrepreneur Mary Ellen Pleasant (1814-1904) left a tangled legacy. She was called a mammy, madam, voodoo queen, and sorceress during her life, and after her death was celebrated as the “mother of civil rights in California.”1 Weeding fact from fiction in the life of this remarkable California pioneer proves nearly impossible. Virtually every detail of Pleasant’s history has been contested: her birthplace, her parents, her name, her occupation, and her wealth. The latter especially has been the subject of intense speculation on the part of journalists, novelists, folklorists, and historians. Although she figures at critical junctures in United States historythe Gold Rush, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, the Civil War, and the urbanization of the West-she is largely absent from the annals of American history.