The first "Mercer Girls" were 11 young women brought from Lowell, Massachusetts, to the Washington Territory on May 16, 1864, by Asa Shinn Mercer (1839-1917). Mercer brought a second group of Mercer Girls, or "Mercer's Belles," on May 28, 1866. The women were to work as teachers and serve to increase the number of single women in a Territory populated chiefly by young bachelors.
The story of the Mercer Girls' arrival in Seattle began in March 1864. Asa Mercer, age 25, the newly elected president of the University of Washington in Seattle, stood at a podium in the Unitarian church in Lowell, Massachusetts, and told those in attendance how Seattle, in Washington Territory, was a fast-growing town and was in need of educated women, of good moral standing, to work as teachers. To those willing to go West with him, Mercer promised honorable work in schools and good wages.
Children Need Teachers, Men Need Wives
Seattle's population had more than doubled in the years since the first families landed across the bay at Alki in 1851, and the University had just opened its doors in 1861. Mercer explained that as the community grew there were more children of school age but few to teach them.
Asa Mercer invited the women to go West with him to a place where both jobs and men were abundant. Many of the women welcomed this idea. The Civil War then in progress had stripped New England of both men and jobs. Lowell was a center of the textile industry, but with no cotton coming from the southern states, most of the textile mills had shut their doors. And for women of marrying age, the prospect of finding a husband in Lowell looked dim.
Go West, Young Woman
The cost of the trip, Mercer explained, would be $250. They would travel by train to New York City where a ship would be waiting to take them west to Aspinwall, Panama (then part of Colombia). From there they would journey across the Isthmus by train to Panama City and then again by ship to San Francisco and Seattle. The citizens of Seattle were eager to welcome them into their homes and the community while finding them jobs in the various schools.
Only a small number managed to come up with the funds needed to pay the $250 passage.
On a cold, blustery March afternoon in 1864, a small group, eight women and one man, under the charge of Asa. S. Mercer, stepped aboard a train in Lowell that would take them to a New York harbor and the steamship Illinois. They were:
- Antoinett Josephine Baker, age 25
- Sarah Cheney, age 22
- Aurelia Coffin, age 20
- Sara Jane Gallager, age 19
- Ann Murphy, age unknown
- Elizabeth (Lizzie) Ordway, the oldest at age 35
- Georgianna (Georgia) Pearson, age 15
- Josephine (Josie) Pearson, age 19
- Daniel Pearson, age 46
Daniel Pearson, who had been ill and felt that the change of climate might be good for his health, decided to accompany his daughters, Josie and Georgia. Pearson left behind in Lowell his wife Susan, son Daniel and youngest daughter Flora. They would join him two years later when Mercer made his second expedition (January-April 1866).
Upon the arrival of Mercer and his group in New York, three people from Pepperell, Massachusetts, joined them:
- Katherine Stickney, age 28
- Catherine Stevens, age 21
- Rodolphus Stevens, age 45
Annie May Adams, age 16, also boarded the Illinois that day, intending to make San Francisco her home. Later she decided to continue on to Seattle with Asa Mercer and his group.
The S. S. Illinois sailed out of the New York harbor on March 14, 1864, with 798 passengers. It arrived at its destination, Aspinwall, Panama (now known as Colon, Panama) on March 24, 1864, at 5:30 a.m.
Panama to Port Gamble
While inquiring about travel arrangements for the train, which was to take the group the 25 miles across the Isthmus to Panama City, Mercer was informed that the ship they were to board there (the S. S. America) had been delayed due to bad coal and a leaky boiler, among other problems. The ship would not arrive in Panama City for another week. Until then the passengers would have to find accommodations at a local hotel. Mercer and his group finally left Panama City at midnight on April 3, 1864.
The S. S. America arrived in San Francisco on April 19, 1864, after a voyage of 15 days and 14 hours. Mercer had intended for his group to travel on the monthly steamer for Washington Territory, but the delay in Panama City caused them to miss the sailing. Instead of waiting for the next steamer, Mercer obtained passage for the group aboard the Torrant, a lumber bark (a type of sailing vessel), that was on its way to Puget Sound. They sailed from San Francisco on April 28, 1864.
The Torrant arrived in Teekalet (now Port Gamble) on Sunday afternoon, May 15, 1864. Many mill hands and loggers were on the wharf to greet the bark when it pulled in. It was quite an event as there were few women in the region at the time. The next day, around noon, they boarded the sloop Kidder and continued on to Seattle.
A Vote of Thanks
Mercer and his weary group of travelers arrived in Seattle at 11 p.m. on May 16, 1864. Due to the late hour there weren't many citizens on the docks to meet them. The passengers were escorted by lamplight to the only hotel in Seattle.
The next afternoon (Tuesday, May 17, 1864) the people of Seattle held a reception for Mercer and his company. At the University Hall the newcomers were welcomed to "our youthful country." A vote of thanks was tendered to the young ladies for the "self-sacrificing spirit they had manifested in leaving the loved firesides of happy homes to plod life's weary way on this North Western coast." After expressing thanks to Mr. Mercer for his efforts on behalf of the Washington Territory, the reception was adjourned to the grounds of the University where everyone beheld a beautiful western sunset.
The Second Expedition
Mercer organized a second expedition of Mercer Girls, which left New York on January 16, 1866, and arrived in Seattle with 34 unmarried women on May 28, 1866. He had intended to bring 700 women on this trip, but numerous problems, financial and otherwise, resulted in many fewer passengers. On this second journey a reporter for The New York Times, Roger Conant (1833-1915), accompanied the party, which traveled to Seattle on the S. S. Continental. Conant left a remarkable journal of the daily sights, pleasures, squabbles, and adventures of the party, published as Mercer's Belles: The Journal of a Reporter.
Conant recounts that on board the Continental, Asa Mercer himself, a self-described "incorrigible old bachelor" became 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, 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" (Conant).
Conant did not record the name of this particular fair maiden. However it must be noted that Asa Shinn Mercer did marry one of the Mercer Girls, Annie E. Stephens, on July 15, 1866.
The second expedition was widely commented upon in the press, with derision -- How did bachelors produce children for these young ladies to teach? etc. -- from some quarters, and support from others. The S. S. Continental stopped in San Francisco on April 25, 1866, with 100 passengers, left 36 behind including 13 eligible "maidens," and continued to Seattle. Traveling in this group were the mother, brother, and younger sister of Josie and Georgia Pearson, who had come on the first trip.
The young women were welcomed in Seattle. They became teachers, as well as wives, mothers, and grandmothers, the co-founders of many of today's Puget Sound families.