Although the date and place of her birth are not documented, scholars believe that Phillis Wheatley was born in 1753 in West Africa, most likely in present-day Gambia. Wheatley was brought to British-ruled Boston, Massachusetts on July 11, 1761, on a slave ship called The Phillis. It was owned by Timothy Finch and captained by Peter Gwinn.
At the age of nine, she was sold to the wealthy Bostonian merchant and tailor John Wheatley, who bought the young girl as a servant for his wife Susanna. John and Susanna Wheatley named the young girl Phillis, after the ship that had brought her to America. She was given their last name of Wheatley, as was a common custom if any surname was used for slaves.
- The Wheatley’s eighteen-year-old daughter Mary first tutored Phillis in reading and writing. John Wheatley was known as a progressive throughout New England; his family gave Phillis an unprecedented education for an enslaved person, and for a female of any race. By the age of twelve, Phillis was reading Greek and Latin classics and difficult passages from the Bible. Recognizing her literary ability, the Wheatley family supported Phillis’ education and left the household labor to their other domestic slaves. The Wheatleys often showed off Phillis' abilities to friends and family. Strongly influenced by her studies of the works of Alexander Pope, John Milton, Homer, Horace and Virgil, Phillis Wheatley began to write poetry.
In 1773, the family had Wheatley accompany their son Nathaniel Wheatley to London, in part for her health. She had an audience with the Lord Mayor of London (an audience with George III was arranged, but Phillis returned home beforehand), as well as with other significant members of British society. A collection of her poetry was published in London during this visit.
After her mistress, Mrs. Wheatley, died on October 18, 1773, Phillis was relieved of any domestic chores, but was not emancipated. In 1775, Phillis Wheatley published a poem celebrating George Washington, entitled, “To His Excellency, George Washington.” In 1776, Washington invited Wheatley to his home as thanks for the poem, and Thomas Paine republished the poem in the Pennsylvania Gazette after their meeting. Wheatley supported the American Revolution, but the war years saw a decline in publishing of poetry.
In 1778, Wheatley was legally freed from the bonds of slavery by her master's will. His daughter Mary Wheatley died soon afterward. Three months later, Wheatley married John Peters, a free black grocer. They struggled with poor living conditions and the deaths of two infant children.
Wheatley wrote another volume of poetry but was unable to publish it because of her financial circumstances, the loss of patrons after her emancipation (often publication of books was based on gaining subscriptions for guaranteed sales beforehand), and the competition from the Revolutionary War. However, some of her poems that were to be published in that volume, were later published in pamphlets and newspapers.