An advertisement in 1865 in the Seattle Puget Sound Herald brought a wistful flutter to many a rough, tough heart. In those times, Seattle was a pioneer town on the uncivilized Pacific coast, and almost all its inhabitants were bachelors.
The advertisement proposed a meeting to come up with ways of persuading young ladies to move out West.
Asa Shinn Mercer, a resident of Seattle, decided to “import” women to the Pacific Northwest to make them work as teachers or in other respectable occupations, and by doing so, balance the gender ratio.
These events formed the basis of the television series Here Comes the Brides.
Frontier Seattle attracted numerous men to work in fishing and timber industries, but very few women were willing to relocate by themselves to the remote Pacific Northwest. Only one out of ten adults was a woman, and most girls over 15 were already engaged. White men and women of the ethnically and linguistically related indigenous Salish tribes did not always feel mutually attracted. Prostitutes were also scarce, until the arrival of John Pennell’s brothel from San Francisco.
In 1864, Asa Mercer decided to go east to recruit women willing to relocate to Puget Sound. There were moral concerns over the propriety of importing single women to the frontier. In order to suppress these concerns, Mercer enlisted prominent local married couples to serve as hosts for the women once they arrived. He also had the support from the Governor of Washington Territory, but the government could not offer any money.
Mercer proceeded to visit Boston, and later to the textile town of Lowell and chose eight young women from Lowell and two from the nearby community of Townsend, willing to move to the other side of the country. They traveled back through the Isthmus of Panama, although in San Francisco, locals tried to convince the recruited girls to stay there instead. They arrived in Seattle on May 16, 1864, where a grand reception was staged on the grounds of the Territorial University.
All but two of the women were married in short order: Susan Josephine (Josie) Pearson who died unexpectedly a short time after her arrival, and Mary Elizabeth (Lizzie) Ordway, who at 35 years of age was the oldest of the ladies.
Images’ source: Seattle Mercer Girls
Mercer was subsequently elected to the Territorial Legislature.
Mercer decided to try again on a larger scale in 1865. A few days after that first advertisement from the Seattle Puget Sound Herald, another advertisement appeared that read as follows:
“I, Asa Mercer, of Seattle, Washington Territory, hereby agree to bring a suitable wife of good character and reputation from the East to Seattle on or before September, 1865, for each of the parties whose signatures are hereunto attached; they first paying me the sum of $300, with which to pay the passage of said ladies from the East and to compensate me for my trouble.”
However, in the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, his next trip east went wrong. Furthermore, the New York Herald found out about the project and wrote that all the women are destined to be waterfront dives or to be old men’s wives. Authorities were not so sympathetic in Massachusetts either. As the weeks went by, the customers were becoming restive. Mercer was meeting with sever resistance from the respectable New Englanders, who knew little of the West, except that it was populated by roughnecks.
Due to this bad publicity, Mercer had fewer than 100 recruits, when he had promised five times that many. Nevertheless, he was a persuasive man, and the girls had come one after another to volunteer. Of course, they did not admit to seeking husbands, but claimed that they just wanted to visit the West out of feminine curiosity.
His ship, the former Civil War transport S.S. Continental, sailed for the West Coast around Cape Horn. Three months later, the captain refused to go any further when the ship stopped in San Francisco. Mercer failed to convince him otherwise, and when he telegraphed to Washington Governor Willilam Pickering to ask for more money, the governor could not afford it. Mercer finally managed to convince crewmen on lumber schooners to transport them for free. Among the financers of the trip was Hiram Burnett, a lumber mill manager for Pope & Talbot, who was bringing out his sister and wanted wives for his employees. In San Francisco, the crew had to fight a pitched battle to stop the boatload of girls from being hauled off by the local males, and to continue their journey to Seattle. A few of the recruited women decided to stay in California instead.
When Mercer returned to Seattle, he had to answer a number of questions about his performance. At a meeting on May 23, public dismay softened, probably because the women were with him. The town had spruced itself up as never before. The men were shaved, the taverns closed, the buildings newly whitewashed.
The first wedding took place within a week, and soon every mail-order bride was married-including one lady, Annie Stephens who ended up becoming Mrs Asa Mercer.
The descendants of the Mercer Girls still represent a significant portion of Seattle’s citizenry.
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