May 10, 2010

Guest Author - Emma Westport


I admit, I’ve been fascinated by the story of the ‘Mercer Girls’ ever since I first heard it. We’re talking 1864-1866. Travel was hardly a joy. Why would any young woman leave the paved streets of New England or New York for Seattle, a city that was little more than a mud hole carved into the hills of Puget Sound?

Well, maybe Seattle didn’t have much to offer but, in the years following the Civil War, it had one thing New England and New York lacked---men, single men, men with no wives to warm their beds.

Enter Asa Mercer  (pictured right). A bachelor himself, he traveled to New England hoping to convince women to ‘emigrate.’ Eleven ladies decided to go. Not a large number, true, but the arrival of any woman in Seattle was hailed as a triumph. Mercer was elected to the Territorial Legislature “…without spending a nickel, making a speech, or buying a drink of whisky or a cigar for anybody…” Buoyed by his success, he decided to try again. This time, he boasted, he’d bring 300 girls to Seattle!

Alas, it was not to be. From the beginning, his plans went awry. Mercer arrived in Washington D.C. to find the city draped in black. In the wake of Lincoln’s assassination, no one had time for his ideas on ‘female emigration.’

Undaunted, Mercer stuck to his plan. He was convinced he could get 500, no, 700 young women to Seattle. 700 women? Seattle was thrown into a panic. Where would they put them? Victoria B.C. offered to take a share but---American girls? Sent to Canada? No. Better just to keep what they needed and ship the rest to Oregon.

Mercer’s estimates, however, were beyond optimistic. The job market had improved. Salaries were up. There was no need to go 7,000 miles to make a living. Cartoons and editorials mocked the very idea. Jobs? In Seattle? Teaching was the only decent job for a lady. In a city full of bachelors, exactly who was having kids? Besides, sniffed the Springfield Republican, “It may well be doubted whether any girl who goes to seek a husband is worthy to be a decent man’s wife, or is ever likely to be.’’

(Seattle, WA, 1866)

Delays and financial problems also caused Mercer’s numbers to fall. In January 1866, when the S.S. Continental finally sailed, some of Mercer’s party were removed from the ship. Their fares had not been paid.

Only 47 marriageable ladies remained but that was more than Mercer could handle. A 10 P.M. curfew? The ladies laughed. No socializing with the officers? How absurd. And it was not just the ship’s officers Mercer had to worry about. Two young women fell for Chilean officers. Those gentlemen showed up to claim their ladies and Mercer grabbed a gun. No Chilean was getting on board unless it was over his dead body! The Chileans might have obliged but cooler heads prevailed. The Captain told the crying the girls he’d put them ashore next morning if they still wished to stay but, that night, with everyone asleep, the captain pulled anchor and quietly set sail---and so ended the argument.

In San Francisco, Mercer wasn’t so lucky. Eleven ladies refused to go on. What could he do? Nothing. Broke but determined, he sold personal property to get the remaining 36 ladies to Seattle.

Jobs and marriage proposals followed quickly. The ladies were happy. The men of Seattle were not. They’d paid Mercer. They expected wives. I still wonder what might have happened if the women who sailed with Mercer hadn’t stood up for him when half the men in town were after his hide.

Only one lady, Lizzie Ordway, stayed single. An educator and suffragette, she did so by choice. The others married, including Annie Stephens who married Mercer a week after arriving in Seattle. If history is to be believed, all the ladies led full and happy lives.

And the unmarried men of Seattle? Oh, well. That’s a story for another day.

Seattle picture from:

~Emma Westport


Anonymous said...

Great story. I loved hearing about Mercer. I lived on Mercer Island for many years and never knew his story. Maybe you can blog about Seattle's underground city next time. It is also a great story. Good luck with your blog.

Emma said...

A fellow history buff! Yes, Seattle's underground is a great story. The city has a curious and fascinating past!

Lori Lyn said...

Very interesting, Emma! I knew most of the story but certainly not all of it. Thanks for sharing and I'd love to hear more. (And what was the name of that old TV based on the original 11 brides? The theme song started "The bluest skies you'll ever see are in Seattle". . .)

And like the others said, the Underground story is quite interesting too.

Ginger Simpson said...

I love posts about history. This was very interesting and I thank you for sharing it. We frown on people finding love on the Internet because of the claim, "you know nothing about them," yet in the 1800s, women took changes and traveled hundreds of miles to wed men under the same circumstances. I can't imagine the trust or HOPE that had to exist back then. Well, today too; I guess things haven't changed as much as we think. :)

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Hi, Emma. Thanks for blogging for me today. It was a great post. I had read about the Mercer Girls before, along with other mail-order brides. As Ginger said, 'internet romance' is nothing's just a different form.

Emma said...

Lori, it was 'Here Comes the Brides.' I actually remember watching it! The information in this blog was based on Clarence Bagley's 'History of Seattle' and Roger Conant's 'Mercer's Belles' among other things. Bagley, of course, was one of the city's 'founding fathers' so his account is written from that perspective. Conant was a reporter who travelled with Mercer and the ladies in the second group. He sent stories to the New York Times but also kept a journal. The journal is the basis for 'Mercer's Belles' and is very interesting.

Emma said...

Ginger, I agree. Can you imagine? These ladies left friends and family to travel 3-5 months not knowing what was waiting at the end of the trip. They left from New England and New York to travel to a 'city' that, according to Conant, boasted two unpaved streets, "...50 houses...three hotels, 5 boarding houses and 17 grog shops." The cartoons in the newspapers and magazines were not kind. They were downright insulting. Yet they had the courage to pick up and go. Amazing.

Emma said...

Anna, again, thank you for the opportunity! This was fun!

Anonymous said...

Emma, I always loved that story of the brave women crossing a continent to start new lives in a strange new world. After reading your blog, I realize that the story is even more interesting than I ever knew. Thanks for sharing.

Emma said...

I agree! You really have to admire the courage, the hope, and, yes, the humor these ladies had. Just amazing!