Phillis Wheatley / by an unidentified artist / Engraving on paper, 1773 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Poet Phillis Wheatley was brought to Boston, Massachusetts, on a slave ship in 1761, after having been kidnapped at age seven or eight. She was purchased by John Wheatley as a personal servant to his wife Susanna. As was the custom at the time, Phillis was given the last name of her master. Her first name Phillis was derived from the ship that brought her to America, “the Phillis.” She is believed to have been born in Senegal/Gambia around 1753.
The Wheatleys educated Phillis and within sixteen months she could read the Bible and Latin and Greek classics. She also studied astronomy and geography. In 1767, Wheatley wrote her first published poem at around age 13. The work, a story about two men who nearly drown at sea, was printed in the Newport Mercury. Wheatley’s fame grew with the publication of other poems.
Her first and only volume, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral”, was published in 1773, making her the first African American and one of the first women to publish a book of poetry in the colonies. This volume was published as a result of patronage from Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, in England. The Countess was a friend of Susanna Wheatley. The volume included a preface signed by seventeen Boston men as proof of her authorship. One of those men was John Hancock. The financial support from the Countess of Huntingdon allowed her to go to London for the publication and promotion of her book and treatment for a health problem.
In the years immediately following her return from England Wheatley’s life changed drastically. She was freed from slavery but the deaths of Susanna (d. 1774) and John (d. 1778) Wheatley were devastating to her. Also in 1778 she married a free African American from Boston, John Peters.
Wheatley, strongly and publicly supported America’s fight for independence. In 1775 she sent one of several poems she had written about him to George Washington, then the Commander of the Continental Army. This prompted him to extend an invitation to Wheatley to visit him at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She accepted the invitation and visited him in March of 1776.
The marriage to Peters proved to be a constant struggle with poverty. Wheatley gave birth to three children, all of whom died in infancy. While Wheatley continued to write, she was unsuccessful in finding a publisher for her second volume of poetry. Ultimately John Peters abandoned her and, unable to support herself with her writing, she was forced to work as a maid in a boarding house in squalid conditions.
Wheatley died in her early 30s in Boston, Massachusetts, on December 5, 1784, from complications of childbirth. She died in poverty.