Mary J. "Polly" Johnson

1784 – 1871 | Pokanoket
Silhouette of Mary J. "Polly" Johnson

Mary Mingo, was born in 1784 to Anna (Hannah, Nanny) Sunks and Isaac (Isaiah) Mingo in Fall River, Massachusetts. Although only her brother Samuel appears listed on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1861 Earle report, a census of Indigenous peoples in Massachusetts, both he and her brother, William, had married into prominent Wampanoag families there. Both of her parents were possibly of mixed-heritage, and her mother was part of the Wampanoag community at Fall River.(1)

In 1819, Mingo married her second husband, Nathan Johnson, a Black man who was said to have bought his freedom in Virginia or Pennsylvania. (2) The Johnsons' New Bedford household included Rhoda Durfee, Mary’s daughter from her first marriage.

The Johnsons were very politically active, regularly attending anti-slavery meetings and conventions, signing petitions, and opening their home as part of the underground railroad. In 1847, Nathan served as president of the National Convention of Colored People. (3) In 1838, for almost a year, their home became the first residence of newly-free Frederick and Anna Murray Douglass and their children. Nathan famously suggested the surname Douglas, which Frederick and Anna adopted with the added -s. (4)(5)

In 1849, Nathan left for the California Gold Rush, leaving all of their properties in his wife’s name. Mrs. Johnson continued their successful catering and confectionery business alone, with New Bedford’s wealthy families regularly purchasing her cakes, ice cream, and candy for special occasions. Her storefront offered all manner of “free labor candy,” made with sugar grown on plantations employing free workers, including ginger snaps, candy sticks and John Brown’s bullets. (6)

Although her husband did not return from California until after her death in 1871, Mrs. Johnson continued to open her home as a safe haven for people seeking freedom. Today, the Nathan and Polly Johnson house is a recognized National Historical Landmark and part of the Underground Railroad Tour hosted by the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park. (7)


1. Gifford, Richard (Ed.). 1861 Earle Report Appendix: Native Americans of Fall River (Troy) Indians” 2021.

2. Grover, Kathryn. “Fugitive's Gibraltar: Escaping Slaves and Abolitionism in New Bedford, Massachusetts.” 2009

3. Bell, Howard H., ed. (1969) Proceedings of the National Convention of Colored People and Their Friends; held in Troy, NY; on the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th of October, 1847

4. Grover, Kathryn; Crimson, Richard.
National Historic Landmark Survey: Nathan and Mary (Polly) Johnson Properties. USDI, National Park Service. 1999

5. Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress: 1836-1846
Library of Congress,

6. Begley,Tom; O’Leary, Ann. “Provider of Sweet Freedom,” Rhode Tour, accessed March 22, 2023,

7. O’Leary, Ann. “Confectioner and abolitionist Polly Johnson worked hard to help former slaves find 'sweet freedom' in New Bedford.” The Standard-Times. March 10, 2020,


A Haven for Frederick Douglass

1838 - 1839 | New Bedford