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?
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: http://www.lib.washington.edu/