We left the lucky ladies of the Mercer expedition ready to set sail into what were soon to be troubled waters. The good ship Continental left New York on January 16, 1866, with a complement of 100 passengers. Approximately 50 were ladies under the escort of Asa Mercer, Seattle’s Emigration Agent Extraordinaire. Most of the others were married couples, children of the couples or widowed mothers, or single men who had paid Mercer for the privilege of sailing to Seattle. One was none other than a reporter associated with the New York Times.
Roger Conant had come from a well-to-do family. He’d studied law and fought for the Union before becoming a reporter for the Times. But the reports he sent back from the Continent are not the unbiased, analytical commentary one might expect. Conant delighted in looking for the salacious, the remarkable. He didn't have much use for Mercer and tended to poke fun of the ladies, calling them Fair Virgins and teasing them about their love life. Thanks to Conant's journal, published as Mercer’s Belles, and the journals of several of the ladies (such as Flora Pearson Engle), we know quite a bit about what befell Mercer’s maidens on that fateful journey.
And what an amazing journey it must have been! Remember that these were women who had rarely set foot outside their little villages. Now they were making call at exotic ports like festive Rio de Janeiro, the forlorn Straits of Magellan, and the wild Galapagos Islands. To make matters even more exciting,
everywhere they went, men begged them to stay! The ship’s officers set up a round of flirtations, so determined to win the hands of their fair passengers that Mercer had to set up rules against dallying aboard ship. No one paid him the least mind. The military officers of Chile tried to appropriate them to teach there instead. And the good citizens of San Francisco offered them lucrative jobs and marriages to remain behind in the City by the Bay.
Mercer’s hands were full trying to keep his charges contained. Unfortunately, he had other problems, as his financial troubles hadn't ended in New York. Some would-be passengers were left behind, and they claimed he had bilked them out of their savings to finance his bride ship. One woman even sued him for selling her furniture to pay his bills. At one point, he asked several of the women to sign promissory notes, according to Conant, saying that their husbands would pay the price for them once they reached Seattle. And just when he must have thought he was nearly home free, Holladay pulled a fast one when they reached San Francisco, refusing to allow the Continental to continue on to Seattle.
Faced with the need to ferry his dwindling set of ladies north, Mercer wired to the Governor of Washington for funds. What came back was a telegram congratulating him on his accomplishments, but lamenting that the state coffers were empty. Mercer had to pay his last pennies just to read the refusal. The story goes that he sold some of the women’s goods to pay for their hotel bills before finding some lumber schooners whose captains were willing to carry the ladies to Seattle for the pleasure of their company.
Only when they reached Seattle did some of the women learn that Mercer had bartered for their lives. Conant claims that such stellar characters as men named Humbolt Jack, Lame Duck Bill, Whiskey Jim, White Pine Joe, Bob Tailed, and Yeke showed up demanding someone’s hand in marriage. When the ladies refused to so much as speak to them, they vowed vengeance on Mercer. Other fellows were more practical about the matter. Conant tells of a stranger who arrived in town, claiming to have a farm far outside the city. He asked Mercer to provide him with two or three women to take back with him, so he could see which would be more suitable for his wife. None of the women agreed to accompany him. Imagine that!
Mercer went so far as to hire the cookhouse at Henry Yesler’s Sawmill to address the citizens of Seattle. The Reverend Daniel Bagley officiated. While many a cry was raised against the young man, a sufficient number of the ladies under his escort attested to his character. In fact, one of those ladies went and married him.
Whether Mercer was a courageous fellow out to civilize the wilderness or a cunning charlatan out to gather his fortune, the legend of the Mercer belles has fascinated the people of the Northwest for generations. Some of you may remember a television program back in the late 60s--Here Come the Brides. That was loosely based on Mercer’s expeditions, although, as you can see, Asa Mercer was no Bolt brother. I fell in love with the story as a child, and I’ve been waiting all my life to tell it. Look for the first book in my Frontier Bachelor series, The Bride Ship, to be out in November. We’ll be sure to whoop it up here on Nineteenteen when it’s out.
Because there really is nothing better than going West, young woman.