Phillis Wheatley and Adoption

Frontispiece to Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects...


Wheatley was kidnapped in West Africa (the Senegal-Gambia region) and brought to America as a slave when she was about seven. She was bought by John Wheatley, a prosperous tailor, as a servant for his wife, but she soon became almost like another child to them.

Recognizing her remarkable intelligence from an early age, he had her taught to read and write, although she never attended formal school, and within two years she was reading the Bible in English, Latin and Greek; and the family also encouraged her poetry from the age of about 13.

Her first poem was published in 1767, and her elegy on the death of George Whitefield made her famous in the northern colonies.

In 1773 she published her first book (the Wheatleys had to go to England to find her a publisher) and was given her freedom. This book was the first ever published by an African-American and only the second by an American woman. She was soon famous and was introduced to President Washington. Her patrons, the Wheatleys, all died by 1779, except for their son, who lived in England.

She married and had two children who died as babies. Her husband was unable to provide for her while he was in debtors' prison and she died in abject poverty giving birth to their third child, who also died.


Dever, Maria, and Dever, Aileen. Relative Origins: Famous Foster and Adopted People. (Portland: National Book Company, 1992) Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia, 1993-97 Dictionary of American Biography "Phillis Wheatley: A Poet for Her Times," in: Great Women in the Struggle, edited by Toyomi Igus. (Orange: Just Us Books, 1991) (Book of Black Heroes; vol. 2) Richmond, M.A. Phillis Wheatley. (Chelsea House, 1992) (American Women of Achievement) Greene, Carol. Phillis Wheatley: First African-American Poet. (Chicago: Children's Press, 1995) (A Rookie Biography) Wheatley, Phillis, and Peters, Phillis. Life and Works of Phillis Wheatley, Containing Her Complete Poetical Works, Numerous Letters and a Complete Biography of This Famous Poet .... (Miami: Mnemosyne Pub. Co., 1969) Weidt, Maryann N. Revolutionary Poet: A Story About Phillis Wheatley. (Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 1997) (A Carolrhoda Creative Minds Biography) Oxford Companion to African American Literature, edited by William L. Andrews, Frances Smith and Trudier Harris. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) Media House International. "Phillis Wheatley: Precursor of American Abolitionism." Available at: