New Marker at Mount Pleasant Mansion Honors the Enslaved

August 8, 2023 | by Keshler Thibert

Mount Pleasant Mansion at 3800 Mount Pleasant Drive in Fairmount Park. | Photo: Michael Bixler

On the morning of June 19, the names of Nell, Bernard, Castillis, and Cato—four Africans enslaved by Captain John Macpherson, the original owner of Mount Pleasant Mansion in Fairmount Park—were invoked and honored on a Pennsylvania state historical marker. The Juneteenth ceremony was officiated by Dianne Thomas and Connie Ragsdale, the docents who filed the paperwork for the marker, and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC). Now these names are a permanent part of the Mount Pleasant narrative.

Onlookers, docents, officials, tour guides, and children attended the ceremony to celebrate the lives of four individuals whose memories were previously limited to slave advertisements, tax assessments, and mentions in Macpherson’s personal letters.

It is always important to consider the unfortunate truth that we may never know the full stories of these enslaved persons. Where did they come from? Where did they end up? These are questions that may never be answered. Their possible roles in the household—Nell as a milkmaid and child care provider, Bernard as a coach driver, and Castillis and Cato as labors—were only discovered in brief mentions and some speculation. What we can surmise about their lives comes mainly from the Macpherson family.

Life of a Privateer

A portrait of Captain John Macpherson from 1775 by painter John Trumbull. | Image courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum

As a privateer, which is an official pirate by the decree of the King of England, Captain John Macpherson found wealth and prestige that would have otherwise eluded him. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1726, he began his career sailing between Holland, Norway, and Scotland before joining the British.

Macpherson sailed between Barbados and Philadelphia after becoming captain of the Addison. During this time he also married his first wife, Margaret Rodgers, with whom he had four children–John Jr., William, Margaret, and Mary.

When the French/Indian War broke out in 1754, Macpherson commanded the privateer ship Britannia as part of a British blockade of French ships. He eventually lost his right arm due to cannon fire during a naval battle, but still amassed considerable wealth. Taking prizes from French sloops of war, Macpherson accumulated wealth by raiding vessels for anything of value, including plates and cash.

Using his newly found status, Macpherson used it to leverage himself into Philadelphia’s high society. He originally purchased over 31 plots of land from Benjamin Mifflin along the Schuylkill River. He later added up to 50 acres, which are now part of Fairmount Park. The land at his plantation totaled slightly over 160 acres.

Macpherson commissioned carpenter Thomas Nevell of Carpenter’s Hall, whose repair works include the Pennsylvania Hospital, Alms Houses, and Independence Hall, to construct his Georgian-style summer home known as Mount Pleasant. The mansion was built between 1762-65.

During this time Macpherson resumed privateering, while his plantation staff was cultivating fruits, vegetables, and hay and engaging in animal husbandry.

Point of Origin

A print from 1761 of Mount Pleasant Mansion by George B. Tatum. | Image courtesy of PhillyHistory.org

The origins of Nell, Bernard, Castillis, and Cato are unknown. A guess at their possible origin points toward the Caribbean where Macpherson operated in the West Indies between Martinique, St. Eustache, and Aruba. The latter island was the site where, in 1761, he captured a French vessel carrying 50 enslaved people worth 4,000 pounds.

By 1767, advertisements listing Mount Pleasant for sale or rent appeared, while the home was partially used by the Macpherson family and intermittently by temporary tenants and the land was still used as a plantation.

The only mention of all four enslaved peoples being in the same proximity occurred in 1769. As detailed in Macpherson’s autobiography, the three men came into his garden, put him into a strait jacket, had him declared insane by a doctor, and he was ultimately placed in the Shepherd’s cottage. Assuming that these activities were the machinations of Margaret Macpherson, he escaped and used the servants’ entrance to enter the basement before going to his wife’s room. He asked Nell to fetch him a pistol and a key, but she returned with the incorrect key and without a weapon. She said that the guns were gone, “taken by men.” Shortly thereafter, he was confronted by Bernard, Castillis, and Cato who restrain him and placed him in a strait jacket, chains, and shackles. He was confined for 102 days. Upon his release, he attempted to convince people that he was not insane.

It is impossible to imagine the mix of emotions of those four enslaved individuals after being put in such a situation. Consequently, it was not long after the incident that they were put up for sale.

A drawing of Mount Pleasant from 1922 by Frank H. Taylor. | Image courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia

Brief mentions of each individual appear in Macpherson’s letters and a slave advertisement printed in the June 29, 1769 edition of The Pennsylvania Gazette. It read, “Also for sale, with or without the plantation, 100 sheep, 12 cows, 3 steers, 1 bull, 3 horses, and several stout healthy negroes, one is a coachman, carter, and ploughman; one a gardener; and one a cook and diary maid. [These] 3 may be let with the place.” 

On December 12, 1769, Macpherson wrote to his “dear deluded son,” “I shall take Cato and Castillis with me, which I define you may fend in, when Nell goes out as your mother chooses to have a man servant, therefore, I give you this early notice you may provide one.”

Another letter dated March 9, 1770, has the last mention of Bernard along with an itemized list of items for sale. “1 Negro man, named Bernard, for 80 pounds, 1 Chariot, for 80 pounds, 1 Barrel organ (which must be repaired) for 45 pounds.”

There are no more mentions of Nell, Bernard, Castillis, and Cato. Whether the Macphersons procured more slaves later in life is unknown.

Juneteenth Unveiling

A new Pennsylvania state historical marker at Mount Pleasant was unveiled on June 19. It includes the names of four people who were enslaved by Captain John Macpherson, the mansion’s original owner. | Photo: Michael Bixler 

In December 2022, the letter of approval arrived from the PHMC. This was a few months later than expected, but it was still a moment of elation for Ragsdale and Thomas.

For Thomas, her years of research began with sitting in prolonged traffic while looking over at Fairmount Park and pondering retired life as a docent. She showed me the letter, carefully withdrawing it from the original envelope. The excitement was still present in her voice as if it was her first time receiving it. Thomas later revealed that it was not the fact that the PHMC approved the marker, it was the acknowledgement of Nell, Bernard, Castillis, and Cato as the enslaved people who lived and worked there.

She revealed that the decision to choose Juneteenth for the ceremony was actually happenstance. Thomas chose the date after waking in the middle of the night and scribbling it on a piece of paper on her nightstand and then not remembering what had happened until the next morning. Looking back, she realized it was divine intervention. “When I woke up that morning. I said ‘Juneteenth’? Then it dawned on me. The building of Mount Pleasant was completed in 1765. One hundred years later on June 19, 1865 all enslaved people of African descent were freed. 100 years later in 1965 my son was born. 1765, 1865, 1965.” Sending the request unaware that the museum was also planning an event was a pleasant surprise to receive approval.

The historical marker ceremony’s officiators Connie Ragsdale and Dianne Thomas. | Photo: Keshler Thibert

During the ceremony on June 19th, PHMC chairperson Nancy Moses remarked that people re-write history all the time. “Every new generation of historians and history lovers brings their own questions to the facts. The parts of the facts that they shine a light on connects the dots between them and that evolves in every generation.” Moses continued, “From now on, Mount Pleasant will be more than an opulent Georgian house. More than its builder, a profiteer. A story that has always been sitting in plain sight is now revealed. Now Mount Pleasant will finally tell a story that is richer and more accurate, and more authentic than any that has gone before.”

As the drapery over the marker was pulled back, and the applause died down, giving way for handshakes and thank yous, I asked Thomas and Ragsdale how they felt. “God has sense of humor. God enabled the nomination to be approved. And whether you are driving past this house or riding a bike, you will see this sign. The sign has the names of Nell, Bernard, Castillis, and Cato, the enslaved people who lived and worked here,” said Thomas. Overwhelmed by the event, Ragsdale shared an old African Proverb, “We all die two deaths. The first death is when we breath our last breath. The second is when the last person speaks our name. Now, Nell, Bernard, Cato, and Castillis will never be forgotten” Ragsdale said.


About the Author

Keshler Thibert is a voracious reader, book collector, tour guide, and current member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides. He was born and raised in Philadelphia, but has also lived in Atlanta, GA, Santiago de Chile, Madrid, Patras, Greece, and Adelaide, South Australia. Thibert has an interest in social sciences, language, and local history. Read more of his work on Substack.

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