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The Original Mercer Girls

Published by Steve Campion. Category: People

Seattle had potential in its early days.  What it didn’t have was an abundance of women.  The pioneer city in 1864 — barely a decade old — could boast newspapers, a logging industry, an active seaport, and even a new university. But it also had a noticeable imbalance in the sexes.  Civic boosters knew that Seattle needed women if the city was to prosper.

Asa Mercer (1839-1917), the president of the newly created Territorial University (now the University of Washington), proposed a venture to travel east and persuade as many young women to follow him back to the Northwest.  There, his speeches promised, were ample opportunities for good-paying teaching jobs. He may have been assisted in his quest by the Civil War.  With many young men at war (or causalities of it) and with the textile industry suffering in New England mill towns due to the shortage of cotton from the South, the shattered economy offered little hope for single women.  Still, women in Massachusetts weren’t exactly racing to board Mercer’s Seattle-bound ship.

His greatest success was in Lowell, Massachusetts, where he convinced eight women to re-settle in the Northwest.  Two additional women joined his congregation from Pepperell, Massachusetts, and one from Boston.  Mercer and the eleven women — and two fathers — took a train to New York harbor where a ship (the S.S. Illinois) departed on a 10-day voyage to Panama on March 14. They would cross the isthmus, board another ship (the S.S. America) April 3, land at San Francisco April 19, board a lumber ship (the Torrant) for Port Gamble nine days later, and finally transfer to a sloop (the Kidder) for the final day and a half journey to Seattle.

They arrived in Seattle very late — close to midnight — on May 16, 1864. They secured rooms at a local hotel and got some rest.  The next day, however, they were feted and welcomed at a celebration at Mercer’s university.  Eleven additional women did not make a significant demographic difference in the city, nor did Mercer’s second trip east for more women two years later.  (That venture returned 34 unmarried women to Seattle.) But the event propelled Mercer’s election to the legislature, became local lore, and was the basis of the fictional 1960s TV series “Here Come the Brides.”

We list the original “Mercer Girls” below.  Most of the women took teaching jobs and married.  Mercer himself, married Annie Stephens, a Mercer Girl from his second expedition in 1866.

THE MERCER GIRLS, 1864

  • Annie May Adams, age 16, from Boston. Annie planned to sail as far as San Francisco, but changed her mind, and continued on to Seattle. She married and lived in Olympia.
  • Antoinette Josephine Baker, 25, from Lowell. She taught school in Pierce County and married a man from Monticello — an area occupied by modern Longview.
  • Sarah Cheney, 22, from Lowell. Sarah taught school in Port Townsend, and later married.
  • Aurelia Coffin, 20, from Lowell. She married in lived in Port Ludlow.
  • Sara Jane Gallagher, 19, from Lowell. Sara married a year after arriving in Seattle, and taught music at the university.
  • Ann Murphy, 24 (age unconfirmed), from Lowell.  Ann was the only woman among the first eleven Mercer Girls to leave the Washington Territory.
  • Elizabeth (Lizzie) Ordway, 35, from Lowell.  Lizzie was the oldest of the original Mercer Girls. She taught school on Whidbey Island, Port Madison, Seattle, and Port Blakely. She was later elected superintendent of Kitsap County schools.
  • Georgianna (Georgia) Pearson, 15, from Lowell. Georgia was the youngest Mercer Girl.  She and her sister Josie brought their father Daniel Pearson on the trip.  He had been ill and it was believed that a change of climate might to him some good.  They left their mother Susan, brother Daniel, and sister Flora in Lowell, but they too traveled to Seattle with Asa Mercer in 1866. Georgia later married and lived on Whidbey Island.
  • Josephine (Josie) Pearson, 19, from Lowell. Josie died during her first summer in Seattle.
  • Katherine (Kate) Stevens, 21, from Pepperell.  Katherine was accompanied by Rodolphus Stevens, her father. Katherine married and lived in Port Townsend.
  • Catherine Adams (Kate) Stickney, 28, from Pepperell.  She and Kate Stevens were cousins.  Kate Stickney was the first Mercer Girl to marry (two months after arriving in Seattle).  She died five years later.

SOURCES: There is quite a lot written about the fabled “Mercer Girls.”  Online you will find a substantial article at HistoryLink.com.  Short accounts of the story can also be had in Murray Morgan’s book Skid Road and William Spiedel’s Sons of the Profits. Nard Jones devoted a chapter to the Mercer Girls episode in Seattle. Don’t rely on the “Here Come the Brides” television series, though.  Aside from the general storyline — i.e., a Seattle man goes to Massachusetts and returns with several unmarried women — the series is pure fiction.

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