As many of you know, my most recent series, Frontier Bachelors, involves a number of heroines who were Mercer Girls, ladies who came with Asa Mercer to help settle Seattle after the Civil War. My fictional heroines are among the real-life second batch of approximately 60 ladies Mercer brought in 1866. His earlier trip in 1864 netted him a 11 women, all of whom married and helped civilize the frontier. All, that is, but one.
I first started researching the Mercer Belles when I was in high school. At the time, one of the reports I found stated something along the lines of the following: “I always wondered why Lizzie Ordway never married. Then I saw her picture.” I thought the comment unkind then. Now I know it’s untrue on every level.
Mary Elizabeth “Lizzie” Ordway, was born on July 4, 1828, in New Hampshire. Perhaps arriving into the world on such an auspicious day imbued her with a certain spirit of independence. Certainly no one would have expected a small woman with somewhat protruding gray eyes and dark hair to be quite so outspoken, but Lizzie was no shrinking violet.
The oldest of Mercer’s group at 34, she came West to be a schoolteacher. Though gentlemen came calling as she stayed with Seattle pioneer Henry Yesler and his wife, Lizzie wanted to work. As her comrades were wooed and wed, she taught at Coupeville on Whidbey Island, then returned to Seattle as the first teacher at the newly built Central School. When more than 100 children showed up the first time she rang the bell, she “sent the youngest home to ripen” and convinced the school board to hire another teacher. After serving in other schools around the area, she ran for Superintendent of Schools for Kitsap County, a remarkable feat for a woman in those days. One of the regional newspapers even ran an editorial claiming that putting a woman in such a position only served to diminish the role. Lizzie was elected nonetheless.
Her other accomplishments are no less impressive. She joined with Susan B. Anthony to found the Female Suffrage Society in Seattle and lobbied in the state capitol for women’s rights. She was part of the County Education Board, examining and certifying teachers. She helped prepare Washington State’s educational exhibit for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
Lizzie passed away at 69. She is said to have called herself “The Mercer Girl who reserved her affections for her students.” Aptly, an elementary school on Bainbridge Island across from Seattle is named for her.