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Mercer Girls Project History Essay Example

It is a well-known fact that there has always existed a wide difference between the East and West parts of the United States. People who have experience of living in the two distinctive environments understand and support the assertion about such differences. The differences are based on what residents or visitors encounter because of the uniqueness of the environmental characteristics, such as the weather, culture, and lifestyle. Such differences always present challenges to pioneers who settle in such localities. The scenario is complicated by the fact that, during the 1800s, the West was still wild and undeveloped. Moreover, the region was characterized by poor infrastructure since its transportation and communication systems were poorly developed. Such harsh conditions meant that the newcomers had to be strong enough to overcome the challenges. In regards to communication, for example, it could take letters between four and six weeks before reaching their destinations.

Under these circumstances, life was harsh. In order to get a clear picture of events, studying the story of the Mercer Girls project is helpful. In the ‘Mercer Girls’ project, a total of forty-nine women aged between 15 to 25 years, moved from Lowell, Massachusetts to Seattle, Washington during the period between 1864 and 1866. After studying the history of the Mercer Girls and New England in general, it emerges that life was complicated because of the Civil War that affected the region. It is arguable that, back in Massachusetts, life perspective was clouded. Hence, a move to Washington offered a glimmer of hope. For that reason, the Mercer Girls left everything behind, and traveled to the West in the hope of finding new opportunities.
Initially, there were eleven Mercer Girls, whom Asa Mercer brought to the Washington area, in May 1864 (Muhich 1). The young women came from Massachusetts. The second wave of the Mercer Girls, famously known as the Mercer’s Belles arrived in May of 1866. The women were brought to work as teachers. With their coming to Washington, the percentage of women eligible for marriage increased. Mercer’s idea appeared to be a blessing since the territory had a big population of bachelors. One hundred years later, the story of the Mercer Girls proved worthwhile as it inspired the TV show Here Come the Brides (Muhich 1).

At the time, the population of Seattle had doubled since the arrival of the first families who came from the Alki Point in 1851 (Engle 23-43). In 1861, the university opened its doors. Hence, Mercer reasoned that, with the growing community, there was a possibility of having more school aged children, but few teachers. Although Mercer’s intention was to employ the girls as teachers, it was also noted that the town had many men who searched for wives. Many women from Massachusetts welcomed the idea since the American Civil War had deprived many people in New England of jobs. The war had also deprived the Massachusetts town of young men. It is worth noting that Lowell, a textile industry center had to close a lot of facilities as supplies had dried up. Under such circumstances, the chances of securing a marriage partner for the young ladies were minimal. Hence, the offer by Mercer was accepted gladly.

The trip from Massachusetts to Washington cost two hundred and fifty dollars (Warren 23). The journey would entail travelling by train and ship. According to Mercer, the Washington community was waiting to welcome the young women in the readiness for mutual cooperation. Among the first group of ladies, there was Mr. Daniel Pearson, who was seriously ill. Daniel, mother of two daughters, thought that a change of climate would help her recover. Therefore, Daniel left some members of her family back at Lowell while travelling with the others. The rest of the remaining family followed her later in the second Mercer’s expedition.

In the section, the paper focuses on how the Mercer Girls project began and proceeded. The story began in the town of Seattle, a logging center, in 1850. There were approximately 300 settlers who lived there.

Before the Expedition

In order to understand the Mercer Girls story, studying the life of Asa Shinn Mercer is crucial. Born in Princeton, Illinois in June 6th of 1839, Mercer graduated the Franklin College of Ohio with the Bachelor’s degree in the summer of 1861. Upon graduation, Mercer travelled to the West to visit his older brothers Thomas and Aaron Mercer, who resided in Seattle, Washington. With his credentials, coupled with a young promising age, Asa Mercer had a good chance of succeeding in the West. Upon his arrival to the West, he planned to found a Territorial University in Seattle. Daniel Bagley, who was a commissioner of the Territorial University, was interested in Mercer and offered him a position of the temporary president and tutor. Mercer was to serve the Territorial University for a term of five months at a salary of two hundred dollars.

Surprisingly, as a president, Mercer was interested in observing and obtaining good working conditions in Washington. He was surprised by the low number of women in Seattle. Clarence Bagley, a friend of Asa Mercer, as an early pioneer of Seattle, in his book History of Seattle, pointed out, “Washington had gained a little in population since its separation from Oregon…the proportion of males to females was about nine to one.” Mercer studied the problem with two ideas in mind. He considered the strengths the community would get with more Caucasian women. He also saw an opportunity to bring in new labor, which was required to exploit its own natural resources.

Charles Porsh, the editor of the Puget Sound Herald, had written an editorial titled Scarcity of Women, in 1858, in the Puget Sound County. Porsh lamented the lack of enough women in the city. In 1860, the same newspaper brought the matter to the public attention by announcing a meeting for all bachelors. In the proposed meeting, top of the agenda considered the potential gains from the “importation” of the white women to the Pacific Northwest. The meeting also warned about the possible problems that the travelers to the territory would encounter since the community’s intentions were highly publicized nationwide. Mercer took a leading role in highlighting all possible complexities. He went to see Governor Pickering of Washington in Olympia to secure his support before bringing women to the Washington area. However, the government declined his appeals. Having failed to secure the support of Washington government, Mercer decided to raise funds on his own. It is alleged that he received funding from his brother, Thomas, friends and neighbors from Illinois, including Daniel Bagley and Dexter Horton. Mercer proceeded to the East to spread his idea.

First Expedition

The first expedition of Mercer’s mission began at the end of the spring of1864. At the time, Mercer arrived at Lowell, Massachusetts, a town significantly affected by the Civil War. Before the war, Lowell had been flourishing and had many textile industry facilities. The town was regarded as the hub for a cotton industry. However, after the outbreak of the Civil War, things had changed for worse as the supply of cotton from Southern states decreased. The turn of events forced the textile industry in Lowell to close down. As in any other place, when industries close, the worst occurs. In Lowell, people lost their jobs since most of them relied on the textile industry. However, few jobs remaining were taken by those men who had not gone to war.
In the wars, the territories involved experience various negative effects. In the case of Lowell, a significant percentage of those who went to fight lost their lives. The loss of the able-bodied men during the war meant that women had to assume new roles, previously occupied by men. For instance, women had to find jobs to provide for their families. As already pointed, things were made worse owing to the collapse of the main industry of textile. Based on the prevailing circumstances, , the proposal by Mercer to take some women to Seattle, Washington turned to be a golden opportunity. In her publication Mercer Expeditions in the Washington Historical Quarterly, Flora Pearson Engle, the daughter of one of the Mercer Girls, emphasizes, “He speak not to immigrants at the Catholic Church but instead at the vestry of the Unitarian Church to meet those interested in his object and procuring female teachers to go to Washington Territory”.
In his speech, Mercer observed, “Women from the east coast should go west to seek their fortunes.” Mercer considered that people needed to go to the West with him after the war in order to secure jobs and better tomorrow. Mercer knew that the population of the West comprised mostly of young ladies of the marrying age, yet men were absent. Hence, the possibility of finding a husband in Lowell looked quite attractive.

Mercer saw many opportunities in Seattle, especially in teaching. Asa Mercer emphasized that teachers were on high demand in Seattle, and would receive a good pay (seventy-five dollars a month). In her letter, recalling her experience as a young woman coming to Seattle and working at a variety of ladylike jobs, Mrs. Amos Brown noted, “Salaries were higher than they currently received.” Mercer also clarified that Washington was a fast growing and developing area even though Seattle was not yet at the top. In particular, Mercer observed that Seattle was rough and crude. Hence, it needed the gentle influence of respectable and well-educated women.

The Northwest was a land of opportunity. Apart from highlighting that his aim was to help the widows and orphans, and take them to a new settlement by describing the natural resources and environment of the towns in general, Mercer also created an impression that the initiative would serve the interests of the women from Lowell. However, Mr. Mercer’s primary role was to protect twelve marriageable women and bring them to the Washington area. Several women were excited about the unique opportunity to migrate to the West and start a new life. Quite a number of young women who had been orphaned or widowed by the Civil War showed a willingness to leave. Nonetheless, when the offer became a reality, only eleven women had found the courage to leave their friends, and travel seven thousand miles by water into uncertainty. The women who stepped forward came from the greatest and oldest family in Lowell. The family believed the other part of the country would provide a positive environment for their children. The cost of the trip was two hundred and fifty dollars. Few women had to rely on the money offered by Mr. Mercer, but most of them paid their travel expenses on their own. There were also two male members who accompanied the group: Daniel Pearson and Mr. Stevens, who were fathers of two Mercer Girls.
After the breath-taking speech by Mercer, about 15-25 women and 2 men travelled to New York. Although the departure was emotional, those leaving were excited about the prospects that awaited them in the new city. Upon arrival, Mercer was unable to keep his promise of honorable work and wages at schools. Despite this fact, the Seattle families compensated for that by offering the girls housing.

The paper further describes the work details of the expedition that came to Seattle. Pearson’s family included Miss Georgie Pearson and Josephine Pearson and their father Daniel Pearson. Miss Georgie was employed as a teacher in the Smith’s Prairie school on the Whidbey Island for one term. She then had served for three years as an assistant lighthouse keeper at Admiralty Head. Later on, she married Charles T. Terry. Miss Georgie died young leaving behind her husband and five children. Miss Josephine was employed as a school teacher of music at Coupeville, but died on her way to school not long after her arrival at Coupeville. Their father who joined the journey to the West was appointed the lighthouse keeper at the Admiralty lighthouse.

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The information about the rest of the group is less known. However, Miss Lizzie Ordway, who taught at Coupeville Seattle, remained unmarried. Miss Sarah Cheney was employed as a teacher in Port Townsend and later married Captain Charles H. Willoughby, one of the best-known captains of the early revenue service. Miss Ann Murphy returned to the East after a short stay in Sound County, but she may have remained in San Francisco en route. Miss Sarah J. Gallagher was employed as a school teacher teaching music in Seattle before marrying Thomas Russell. After Mr. Russell’s death, she became a wealthy woman before meeting her death in Seattle, in around 1900. Her son, George, was a postmaster. Miss Aurelia Coffin had taught at school for some time at Port Ludlow; she married Mr. Hinckley and later moved to California. Miss Antoinette Baker married a member of the well-known Huntington family at Monticello, Cowlitz County. Miss Kate Stevens was the cousin of Miss Kate Stickney; both came from Pepperell, Boston. Miss Kate Stevens married Captain Henry Smith, the inspector at Port Townsend, who later moved to Victoria. Miss Kate Stickney married Walter Graham, who came to Seattle in 1853 and whose first wife, Bliza Mercer, had died. He owned and lived on a fine farm on the shore of the Lake Washington. Miss Annie Adams, from Boston married Robert G Head, a prominent as a printer of Olympia (Eagle Pearson, The story of the Mercer Expeditions).


During the first expedition, the journey was full of intrigues. The train travel was to go twenty-five miles from Isthmus to the city of Panama (Paynter 12-23). After getting to Panama, the girls were to take a ship. However, the S. S. America ship suffered problems because of bad coal and leaking boiler. Despite the problems, the Mercer Girls proceeded with their journey. The ship arrived in San Francisco in April 1864 having travelled for over 15 days. The expedition eventually landed in Seattle in May 1864. Seattle held a reception pay for the Mercer Girls at the university hall. All speakers appreciated the sacrifice the girls had taken to move to Seattle. Mr. Mercer was also recognized for his efforts to bring the girls.

Second Expedition

The important benefits of the first expedition have played a key role in influencing the second expedition. In particular, the Seattle Gazette ran a column showing appreciation to Asa Mercer for his role in bringing the first group of girls. At the time, there was a popular idea that the migration was beneficial to Seattle. Despite the small number of girls who left Lowell for Seattle, expectations were not so high owing to the difficulties associated with the movement of people during the times. In 1865, Mercer arrived in New York having obtained significant recommendation from Governor William Pickering, as well as, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew. Upon his arrival, Asa Mercer received communication via a letter indicating that his brother, Thomas had arrived in Seattle despite a delay at Isthmus, Panama. Coming at a time when President Abraham Lincoln was murdered, Mercer was able to follow events home regarding the excitement surrounding the issue.

While spreading his objectives, Mercer faced many challenges. Mercer believed that Lincoln could have helped in an expedition of this nature, and was saddened by the new developments. This is because Mercer had developed a personal relationship with Lincoln as they shared about the pioneer days in Illinois. Moreover, Mercer sank into another problem when the Territorial Legislature declined to support his mission, citing the inadequacy of resources as the reason. However, the second time, Mercer had significant support from his brother Thomas, who was entrusted with some funds for the purchase of farmlands and machinery. In enlarging his support base, Mercer sought the help of Governor of Massachusetts and President Johnson after General Grant had given him the-go-ahead. It is alleged that Grant was sympathetic to Mercer’s mission, having been himself a victim of working far away from women, and losing the feminine touch. In addition, Grant provided Mercer with a marine ship to transport the Mercer Girls from New York to Seattle. This was a major victory for Mercer, having managed to bring notable figures aboard his project.
When Mercer went to retrieve the ship, Montgomery C. Meigs was in an unpleasant mood. This forced Mercer to call upon him to obey the order of Grant. However, Meigs stated that it was illegal to use a government vessel for personal gain. Instead, Meigs offered to sell a 1600-ton steamer Continental to Mercer for $80,000. Although this was a good price, Mercer did not have enough money. Mercer was forced to address Ben Holladay, a ship and railroad king. After hearing about the deal, Ben Holladay offered to buy the ship and sail the Mercer Girls to Seattle for a small fee. Since Mercer had no other choice, he took the offer and proceeded with his plan.

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The success of the second expedition was notable. For instance, Mercer recruited 46 women, of whom, ten were widows. Many of the women had backed down when the ship was about to sail because of the adverse public reaction surrounding the expedition. Some of the newspapers had proclaimed the scheme as a praiseful and momentous plan, but another part of society was not satisfied with the project. The New York Herald discouraged the idea by warning the women about the dangers that were certain to befall them. At the same time, Mercer sent a message to the Seattle Gazette by asking them to publish the story in all parts of Western Washington. Bagley published an article describing how Mercer was sailing from, “New York with upward of 300 war orphans- daughter of those brave, heroic sons of liberty” in the History of Seattle. The letter contained a message that Mercer directed to all citizens in the Western Washington area to provide housing for the arrival of these women; he also noted that they would depart on August 19, 1865.

Main Issues that Emerged

The story of the Mercer Girls is a story about the movement of young women from Lowell in Massachusetts to Seattle in Washington. Thus, the issue of the Mercer Girls explores the theme of migration, employment, war, and family. Migration is the movement of people from one area to another; this movement can be caused by many reasons. For instance, in the current case, people moved in search for education, employment opportunities, or because of the family reasons. However, the most compelling reason that emerges is the one revolving around the need for gainful employment. Based on the case, the Mercer Girls came to Seattle with the hope of securing jobs.

In terms of a family, a serious concern emerges in Seattle. Based on the observations of Mercer, Seattle had experienced lack of women. Hence, finding the marriage partners for men was an arduous task. On the contrary, in Lowell, the number of women was higher than that of men. For that reason, there were fears that women could not find the marriage partners. Hence, when Asa Mercer suggested the idea of travelling to Seattle, it was named a masterstroke for both sides. The role of women as home keepers and; the role of men as fighters also came forward.
Another issue that emerges is the war. Any war has the devastating effects whenever it occurs. In the case under review, the Civil War had occurred. The war forced men from Lowell to go to protect their interests while women were left at home. The most notable effect of the war was death as many of those who fought lost their lives. As time went on, the economic activities had slowed leading to unprecedented consequences. For instance, the cotton production decreased significantly causing a closure of many textile facilities As a result, people in Lowell could not find jobs. Hence, it was a welcome relief when Mercer offered the idea of moving to Seattle.

The story of the Mercer Girls opens with the arrival of the young women in Seattle after Asa Mercer, the newly elected University of Washington Seattle president in March 1864 (Muhich 1). While attending a church service in Lowell, Massachusetts, Asa Mercer indicated that Seattle was a fast growing town, which was in need of the well-educated females with good morals to teach students. Mercer took the opportunity to promise honorable working conditions in terms of good wages and a supportive environment.

Asa Mercer goes down into history as a major contributor to social life. The project of moving girls from one town to another attracted the excitement with some people opposing it and others supporting it. Moreover, the project faced many hurdles in terms of logistics and resources. Despite the challenges, Mercer had never looked back, as he always sought options to overcome each obstacle. In the end, Mercer was able to bring girls to Seattle where they were welcome, in addition to offering different job opportunities. The girls who came to Seattle made significant contributions to the town’s development. It is held that, but for the persistence of Asa Mercer, the migration from Lowell to Seattle could not have succeeded.

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