Phillis Wheatley

Enslaved Poet of Colonial America: A Story of Her Life

Phillis Wheatley, from an illustration by Scipio Moorhead
Phillis Wheatley, from an illustration by Scipio Moorhead on the front page of her book of poems (colorized later). Culture Club/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Phillis Wheatley (sometimes misspelled as Phyllis) was born in Africa (most likely in Senegal) in 1753 or 1754. When she was about eight years old, she was kidnapped and brought to Boston. There, in 1761, John Wheatley enslaved her as a personal servant for his wife, Susanna. As was the custom of the time, she was given the Wheatley family's surname.

The Wheatley family taught Phillis English and Christianity, and, impressed by her quick learning, they also taught her some Latin, ancient history, mythology and classical literature.


Once Phillis Wheatley demonstrated her abilities, the Wheatleys, a family of culture and education, allowed Phillis time to study and write. Her situation allowed her time to learn and, as early as 1765, to write poetry. Phillis Wheatley had fewer restrictions than most enslaved women experienced—but she was still enslaved. Her situation was unusual. She was not quite part of the White Wheatley family, nor did she quite share the place and experiences of other enslaved people.

Published Poems

In 1767, the Newport Mercury published Phillis Wheatley's first poem, a tale of two men who nearly drowned at sea, and of their steady faith in God. Her elegy for the evangelist George Whitefield, brought more attention to Phillis Wheatley. This attention included visits by a number of Boston's notables, including political figures and poets. She published more poems each year from 1771 through 1773. A collection of her work, "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral," was published in London in 1773.

The introduction to this volume of poetry by Phillis Wheatley is unusual: as a preface is an "attestation" by seventeen men of Boston that she had, indeed, written the poems herself:

WE whose Names are underwritten, do assure the World, that the POEMS specified in the following Page, were (as we verily believe) written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town. She has been examined by some of the best Judges, and is thought qualified to write them.

The collection of poems by Phillis Wheatley followed a trip that she took to England. She was sent to England for her health when the Wheatley's son, Nathaniel Wheatley, was traveling to England on business. She caused quite a sensation in Europe. She had to return unexpectedly to America when they received word that Mrs. Wheatley was ill. Sources disagree on whether Phillis Wheatley was freed before, during, or just after this trip, or whether she was freed later. Susanna Wheatley died the next spring.

The American Revolution

The American Revolution intervened in Phillis Wheatley's career, and the effect was not completely positive. The people of Boston—and of America and England—bought books on other topics rather than the volume of Phillis Wheatley's poems. It also caused other disruptions in her life. First her enslaver moved the household to Providence, Rhode Island, then back to Boston. When her enslaver died in March of 1778, she was effectively, if not legally, freed. Mary Wheatley, the daughter of the family, died that same year. A month after the death of John Wheatley, Phillis Wheatley married John Peters, a free Black man of Boston.

Marriage and Children

History is not clear about John Peters' story. He was either a man who tried many professions for which he was not qualified, or a bright man who had few options to succeed given his color and lack of formal education. The Revolutionary War continued its disruption, and John and Phillis moved briefly to Wilmington, Massachusetts. Having children, trying to support the family, losing two children to death, and dealing with the war's effects and a shaky marriage, Phillis Wheatley was able to publish few poems during this period. She and a publisher solicited subscriptions for an additional volume of her poetry which would include 39 of her poems, but with her changed circumstances and the war's effect on Boston, the project failed. A few of her poems were published as pamphlets.

Communication With George Washington

In 1776, Phillis Wheatley had written a poem to George Washington, lauding his appointment as commander of the Continental Army. He responded later that year with praise for her poetry. This was during the time her enslavers were alive, and she was still quite the sensation. After her marriage she addressed several other poems to George Washington, but he never responded again.

Later Life

Eventually John deserted Phillis, and to support herself and her surviving child she had to work as a scullery maid in a boardinghouse. In poverty and among strangers, on December 5, 1784, she died, and her third child died hours after she did. Her last known poem was written for George Washington. Her second volume of poetry was lost.

Books About Phillis Wheatley and Her Writing

  • Vincent Carretta, editor. Complete Writings - Penguin Classics. Reprint 2001.
  • John C. Shields, editor. The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley. Reprint 1989.
  • Merle A. Richmond. Bid the Vassal Soar: Interpretive Essays on the Poetry of Phillis Wheatley. 1974.
  • Mary McAleer Balkun. "Phillis Wheatley's construction of otherness and the rhetoric of performed ideology." African American Review, Spring 2002 v. 36 i. 1 p. 121.
  • Kathryn Lasky. A Voice of Her Own: The Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet. January 2003.
  • Susan R. Gregson. Phillis Wheatley. January 2002.
  • Maryann N. Weidt. Revolutionary Poet: A Story about Phillis Wheatley. October 1997.
  • Ann Rinaldi. Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons: The Story of Phillis Wheatley. 1996.
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Your Citation
Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Phillis Wheatley." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). Phillis Wheatley. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Phillis Wheatley." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).