Tracing the Life of Phillis Wheatley Peters

By Jay Moschella, Curator of Rare Books at the Boston Public Library.

Phillis Wheatley Peters (1753-1784) was an early American poet and correspondent who became a transatlantic literary celebrity while enslaved in Boston. As both a Black woman enslaved in pre-Revolutionary Boston and an internationally renowned poet, Phillis Wheatley Peters navigated a world of complexity and contradiction. Even today, her biography defies conventional categories and unanswered questions about her life and work abound.

In the Rare Books Department at the Central Library, we hold a substantial collection of primary sources that researchers can use to help answer these questions. Our collections document Phillis’ life and literary work: from colonial newspapers and manuscript letters to original copies of many editions of her poems.

When she was approximately seven years old, Phillis Wheatley Peters (whose birth name we do not know) was kidnapped near the coast of West Africa and forced into captivity. After enduring the Middle Passage, she arrived in Boston Harbor in the summer of 1761. There, she was purchased by her enslavers, the prominent Bostonian couple Susanna and John Wheatley, who renamed Phillis after the ship that had brought her to the city.

Phillis Wheatley Peters composed her first poems as a young teenager. Through her position within John and Susanna Wheatley’s evangelical household, she eventually built connections with some of the leading religious and political figures of the day. In 1770, her elegy on the death of the Reverend George Whitefield brought her fame in the colonies, while her collection, Poems of Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in 1773, made her a transatlantic celebrity.

In 1773, Phillis Wheatley Peters journeyed to London in order to secure funding to publish Poems on Various Subjects. The venture was successful, and she returned again to New England. The visit presented a particularly complex story, as a recent court ruling had essentially freed all enslaved persons brought from the colonies on arriving in England. Many scholars now believe that Phillis struck a bargain with her enslavers, by which she would be freed if she returned to Boston from London.

During the 1770s, notices of Phillis Wheatley Peters and her work were regularly published in colonial New England newspapers. For modern readers, these notices provide a vivid image of the world that Phillis Wheatley Peters inhabited. News of her travels and details of her life are juxtaposed with first-hand accounts of the growing tensions between Britain and the colonies. Newspapers that carried praise for the genius of a young Black poet from Africa also publicized the sale of enslaved Africans and carried advertisements offering rewards for the capture of self-emancipated freedom seekers.

Im of On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin in the Boston Post-Boy
Phillis Wheatley Peters’ first published poem – On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin – appeared in the Newport Mercury on December 21, 1767, when she was 14 years old. The poem recounts the story of two Nantucket merchants – Hussey and Coffin – and the near wreck of their ship off Cape Cod. On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin was reprinted just three weeks later, on January 11, 1768, in the Boston Post-Boy, pictured above.
Image of the advertisement in The Censor
This is the first printed advertisement for Poems on Various Subjects, appearing here in the newspaper The Censor on February 29, 1772. The text seems carefully crafted to offer a white, colonial American readership the kind of information that Phillis Wheatley Peters and her supporters likely believed necessary to convince them to subscribe to (i.e., to pre-fund) the undertaking. It calls out the novelty of a book of poems written by an enslaved girl of African descent but also assures them that the “best judges” had verified that the author was capable of writing the poems herself.
BPL H.99a.69 1782

In 1778, Phillis Wheatley married John Peters, a free Black man who had formerly been enslaved in Middleton, Massachusetts. Until recent archival discoveries by Cornelia Dayton, the nature of their marriage, their family, and of Peters’ biography have long been topics of speculation among researchers. The Town of Boston tax records, held in our Rare Books Department, provide one of the relatively few first-hand, contemporary accounts of John Peters and his fortunes during his marriage to Phillis Wheatley Peters and after her death.

View of a Boston "Taking Book" with Peters' name

View of a Boston "Taking Books" with Peters' name
Here at the BPL, the Town of Boston tax records provide one of the relatively few first-hand, contemporary accounts of John Peters and his fortunes during his marriage to Phillis Wheatley Peters and after her death. In 1784, the tax collector described Peters (“Jno Peters, Negro”) owning one dwelling house, but “in prison for debt.” By 1791, his fortunes had changed and he is listed as “John Peters, Lawyer, Physician, Gent, &c Pintlesmith.”

Between 1776 and 1784, the year of her death, Phillis Wheatley Peters’ name appeared less frequently in newspapers and magazines. Still, she remained a celebrity throughout the rest of her life. She died at the age of 31.

While it has been 250 years since Phillis Wheatley Peters first published her book of poetry, she remains an important part of Boston's cultural history. Visitors and scholars alike can read her poems and trace her life throughout the newspapers and manuscripts in our Special Collections Reading Room. All are welcome to make an appointment to see these items in person to explore more about Phillis Wheatley Peters.