The Souvenir of Western Women/The Mercer Girls

The Mercer Girls


ON PUGET SOUND the scarcity of women in pioneer days was a serious matter. From time to time the newspapers mentioned the continued scarcity of women, but nothing practical was done to improve conditions in this respect until early in 1861, when a young gentleman, Asa S. Mercer, arrived in Seattle fresh from college. His elder brother, Judge Mercer, was one of the oldest and most influential pioneers in the territory. Judge Mercer often made it a semi-jocose comment that there was a dearth of young women. He often suggested an effort to secure territorial aid for bringing out from New England a party of young women who were needed as school teachers and for other positions, far removed from that of household servants. This set young Mercer to thinking on the subject. He talked the matter over with the governor of the territory and with members of the legislature, and while everybody favored the proposition, the public treasury was empty, so he failed to get territorial aid. Nothing daunted, he obtained generous private contributions sufficient to enable him to go to Boston. There the proposition was placed before the public for such of the young women as chose who had been made fatherless by the civil war to accompany Mr. Mercer to Washington Territory. Quite a large number evinced a willingness to go, but eleven only found courage to leave their friends and make a journey of 7000 miles into a wilderness. Most of the eleven paid their own way. The party arrived Seattle May 16, 1864.

Encouraged by his success, Mr. Mercer again went East in 1865 on a similar errand. Upon his arrival in the East he went to work and met with encouragement wherever he went. July 20, 1865, he writes: "I sail from New York August 19 with upward of 300 war orphans, daughters of those whose lives were given on plain and field in our recent war. I appeal to every true warm-hearted family to open wide your door and share your home comforts with these whose lot is about to be cast in your midst. I can cheerfully vouch for the intelligence and moral character of all these persons accompanying me," etc.

Acting upon this information, a large meeting was held in Seattle to devise ways and means for the reception and care of the young ladies mentioned. The response of the people was so generous that had the large number thus expected really appeared they would have received a royal welcome and have been cared for most tenderly. However, Mr. Mercer was doomed to many disasters in this undertaking, among which was a scurrilous article which appeared in the New York Herald, slandering him and appealing to the girls to stay at home. Everywhere the article was copied, and before he could get his references printed and thus counteract the calumny two-thirds of the young ladies had written him, enclosing the article and declining further consideration of the matter.

After many disappointments and vexations he set sail from New York January 6, 1866, with about thirty young ladies and a number of families and a few single gentlemen.

Several engagements were made during the voyage. Even the arch- promoter of the immigration movement could not resist Cupid's entanglements, as the following notice will show:

MARRIED—On the 15th of July, 1866, at the Methodist Protestant Church, in this city, by the Rev. Daniel Bagley, Mr. Asa Shinn Mercer to Miss Annie E. Stephens, of Baltimore, Md.

The following is from a record of the trip kept by Miss Harriet F. Stevens: "The steamer, with lessened quota of passengers, left New York January 6, 1866, and ran at once into a storm, which lasted two days. As we recovered our normal condition we began to look about us. With great satisfaction we found that we had a party of intelligent, amiable, sprightly people. The unmarried ladies are mostly from New England, and can boast a fair share of beauty and culture, which characterize the best society of that region. It is impossible that the lovely girls who are with us should have left the East because their chances of matrimony were hopeless. One must look for some other motive. Their bright faces, wit and sound sense are, however, such that they cannot fail to be desirable members of society in a new country."

Be it said to the honor of Mr. Mercer that he believed his mission was one of immense benefit to the territory and of great good to those whom he might induce to come out here. His every action toward those who entrusted themselves to his guidance and care was that of a pure-minded American gentleman. The years that have elapsed have verified his predictions. The young women who came have proved a blessing to the commonwealth. In public and at the fireside their teachings and their example have conserved the well-being of the people.

The following incident is related by Mr. J. B. Wyatt, one of Oregon's pioneers: "Just on the eve of my departure for a visit to my Eastern home (October, 1857), a friend, Jas. M. Blossom, called on me and said: 'I want you to do me a favor and take this elegant apple (a Spitzenberg) with you, and, if possible, give the same to an old friend, Rev. Chas. Beecher, a brother of Henry Ward, of Brooklyn, N. Y. 'I packed the apple carefully and placed it in my trunk. Upon my arrival in Brooklyn I delivered the message and gave the apple to Henry Ward, who remarked: 'That is a fine sample of what Oregon can do in fruit. I cannot promise as to whether Charles will ever see it, as I am very fond of fruit myself.'"