On Jan. 26, 1864, a young man from the Pacific Northwest gave a talk to unmarried girls in Lowell, Mass., about a land of opportunity. Seattle, said Asa Mercer, desperately needed teachers, and he urged the young women to return with him to the Pacific Northwest. A dozen took him up on his offer and became known as Mercer Girls, remembered less for teaching the untutored than for marrying the unwed.
Mercer’s cargo of wives-to-be succeeded so well he decided to bring back a second, much larger tranche of marriageable women. That venture didn’t work out so well. Still, the two shiploads of New England maidens became a civilizing influence on the rough logging town so recently carved from the wilderness. Mercer himself got a wife out of it.
The story of the Mercer Girls eventually made it on to the small screen in 1968 as Here Come the Brides. The TV comedy starred Joan Blondell and launched Bobby Sherman and David Soul to pop stardom. The original story of the Mercer girls had its own share of comic elements.
The Mercer Girls
Asa Mercer’s older brother Thomas had left Illinois in a wagon train with his family, arriving in Puget Sound in 1853. He prospered and gained local prominence as a judge. The community began to thrive and attract other young men to work in the burgeoning fishing and lumber industries.
But the supply of marriageable young women did not keep up. By the late 1850s, Seattle had about 200 mostly male residents — nine males, in fact, for every female. It also had no school of any kind.
Charles Prosch, publisher of the Puget Sound Herald, ran an editorial on Aug. 26, 1859 appealing to women. “Here is the market to bring your charms to, girls,” he wrote. “Don’t be backward, but come right along — all who want good husbands and comfortable homes in the most beautiful country and the finest climate in the world.”
In 1861, Judge Mercer’s brother Asa arrived, a newly minted graduate of Franklin College in Indiana. He was also the only college graduate in the vicinity. So he was named president of the Territorial University—once he’d cleared the stumps from the land set aside for the school.
Asa quickly joined the campaign to attract the fairer sex, which aligned with his own interests as a bachelor. Washington’s territorial governor, William Pickering, then appointed young Mercer “commissioner of immigration.” And so the young man headed east.
Asa Mercer knew that New England educated its young people. In January 1864, he stopped in Lowell, Mass., where he’d heard of a large surplus of marriageable, unemployed females. Lowell had 40,000 people dependent on the cotton mills, but the Civil War had starved them of cotton. The war had also taken many eligible young men – at least the ones who hadn’t gone west in search of gold, timber or fish.
In Lowell, Mercer spoke at the Unitarian Church. Flora A. P. Engle, who later became a Mercer Girl, remembered his pitch. He painted visions of a land of plenty on the shores of an American Mediterranean. Puget Sound offered magnificent scenery and delightful charm, he said. It had a salubrious climate and an atmosphere so charged with pure ozone that disease was rare and death was kept away.’ (Two Mercer Girls died within five years of their arrival.)
Flora’s two older sisters, Josie and Georgia, decided to go. So did their father, Daniel Pearson, who suffered ill health and believed Mercer about the salubrious climate. Flora would join them later.
Along with the Pearson girls and their father, six other Lowell women boarded a train for New York. There, three young women from Pepperell, Mass., joined them, along with a fourth from Boston.
The women had to pay for the trip themselves, somewhere around $200. But Mercer had described lucrative job opportunities for anyone who could teach school. He didn’t mention the marital possibilities. He didn’t need to.
They sailed from New York Harbor in March of 1864, crossed the Isthmus of Panama and then took a bark to Port Gamble. From there they boarded the sloop Kidder, arriving in Seattle on May 16, 1864 at 11 pm. The few households that had women welcomed the newcomers. Within weeks they had teaching jobs. Within months all but one, Lizzie Ordway, had husbands.
The Second Trip
Asa Mercer viewed the experiment as such a success that he tried again, only instead of a dozen women he pledged to bring 700.
The Civil War was winding down, and he figured he could get help from the federal government. He knew political leaders wanted to settle the West, and they had concerns about the economically depressed East. He also thought the government had idle ships and seamen on its hands.
So Asa Mercer left for Washington, D.C., with his big plans. His first stop would be the White House, where he expected to see Abraham Lincoln, an old family friend. But when Mercer arrived in Washington on April 15, 1865, he got his first hint that his plans might go awry. The city was draped in crepe. Lincoln had just died.
So he went to Massachusetts to gain support from Gov. John Andrew, who introduced him to the Rev. Edward Everett Hale. Hale, alarmed by the surplus of women driving down the wages of men, advocated on his behalf.
Back to Washington he went, where Gen. Ulysses S. Grant liked what he heard and ordered a steamship, coaled and manned, to take 500 people from New York to Seattle. Mercer then traveled to New Hampshire, Connecticut, Maine and Massachusetts, rounding up hundreds of war widows and educated single ladies.
The press caught on, and began to raise questions—and eyebrows. Then the federal government withdrew its support, and women began to back out.
“A natural distrust of the man’s intentions seemed to prevail,” wrote Roger Conant, a New York Times reporter.
Mercer fell into debt, but finally found a wealthy patron, Ben Holladay, to help out. Holladay bought an old military transport ship, the S.S. Continental, and agreed to pay for 75 women to travel to the Pacific Northwest.
But instead of 700 Mercer Girls, there were 13 couples, with and without children; 10 widows; 17 children; 36 single women; 14 single men; and one woman coming to join her husband.
“No more curious or suggestive exodus ever took place,” opined Harper’s Weekly.
Flora Engle belonged to the group of 36 Mercer Girls, and she wrote an account of the voyage around Cape Horn aboard the Continental. The vessel had only been partially fumigated and the food was abysmal, she recalled. They were served fried salt beef and tea steeped in saltwater. For 17 straight days they ate parboiled beans.
“To add to our provocation, a mast, only, separated the common dining table from the captain’s, which was loaded with all sorts of delicacies for the delectability of the officers,” wrote Flora. “Mr. Mercer at first took his seat at the captain’s table, but afterwards, considering the righteous indignation of the passengers, concluded ‘discretion was the better part of valor’ and took his place with them at table.”
Flora did find a husband in Washington, marrying William Ballinger Engle in 1876.
Conant, a 32-year-old unmarried Times reporter, was assigned to cover the voyage. He thought highly of the Mercer Girls. They came, he wrote, from New England’s middle class, “respectable, well-meaning people.” Their conduct “would have called forth strong expressions of praise from their stern old Puritan ancestors.”
Asa Mercer, not so much.
Conant reported that the passengers found Mercer bossy. He tried to keep the Mercer Girls from playing cards and flirting with the ship’s officers. “He even tried to make them go to bed at ten o’clock,” wrote Conant.
In his book, Mercer’s Belles: The Journal of a Reporter, Conant reported that Mercer grew enamored of “a young maiden of good report and fair to look upon. “Without giving her “the slightest intimation of what he was about to do, not even so much as a tender look, or an evening’s courtship,” Asa invited her to his stateroom. Then he told her he loved her enough to marry her, and “opened his arms and smiled fondly upon her. The maiden laughed right in his face.”
Mercer tried again, with Anna Stephens of Baltimore. This time, the Mercer magic worked, and they married.
When the Continental arrived in San Francisco, police officers had to keep the men away from the Mercer Girls. One young man had agreed to pay Mercer $300 for a specific girl from back home, according to Dorothy Johnson in Some Went West.
“She hadn’t come, but another girl by the same name had, from another state,” wrote Johnson. “The young man introduced himself to her: ‘I’m the feller that sent three hundred dollars by Mercer to bring you out for my wife. I suppose you’re as willing to get married this afternoon as any other time, and I have to be home by sundown to milk the cows and feed the pigs’.”
She called him impertinent, said she paid her own fare and hadn’t come to get married but to work as a tailor.
Another man, a farmer, came to town to look over the newly arrived Mercer Girls. He chose a widow with three sons, proposed and married her three hours later.
Twenty of the Mercer Girls stayed in San Francisco.
Lizzie Ordway, 35 when she left Lowell, was the oldest Mercer Girl. She was a schoolteacher, not a mill girl, and she didn’t intend to marry. Lizzie came from a well-to-do family and had been educated at the Ipswich Academy. She spoke five languages and believed women should have the right to vote.
She went to the Pacific Northwest to “carry the educational standards of New England to the new community beyond the Rockies.” In that, she succeeded. With a reputation as the best teacher around, she turned around troubled schools throughout the Seattle area. She started Seattle’s first public school and won election as superintendent of the Kitsap County schools. Lizzie also founded Seattle’s Female Suffrage Society with Susan B. Anthony, who visited Seattle and shared a platform with Lizzie.
In 1891, she helped prepare the state’s educational exhibit at the Chicago World Exposition—a surprise to Eastern educators. When Lizzie died in 1897, the number of Kitsap County schools had grown from three to 20.
Mercer Girls’ Legacy
Like Lizzie, the Mercer Girls spread their civilizing influence throughout the Pacific Northwest. Unlike Lizzie, they contributed to the population growth by marrying and having families.
Fifteen years after the first Mercer Girls arrived, Seattle had evolved from a western logging town to a civilized metropolitan center, according to Paul Hagen in his paper, How the Civil War Civilized Seattle. The Mercer Girls, he wrote, “brought New England culture to Seattle, which served as a civilizing force.
As for Asa Mercer, he and Annie had three sons, two daughters and many grandchildren. They moved to Wyoming, where Asa published a newspaper called Northwestern Livestock Journal. He eventually wrote a book exposing the dirty tactics of the cattle cartels called Banditti of the Plains. The cattle barons suppressed the book, had his printing press destroyed and Mercer arrested and jailed. He died in 1917.
Images: Asa Shinn Mercer By unknown – Found at http://digitalcollections.lib.washington.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/portraits/id/102/rec/3, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=848418
With thanks to Some Went West by Dorothy M. Johnson. And How the Civil War Civilized Seattle, by Paul Hagen. The Story of the Mercer Expeditions by Flora A. P. Engle from The Washington Historical Quarterly, vol. 6, no. 4, 1915, pp. 225–237. JSTOR
This story last updated in 2022.