I’m about to take a major departure, crossing continents and time periods. Instead of my beloved Regency England, the setting for my November book, The Bride Ship, will ultimately be frontier Seattle, just after the Civil War. I guess you could say I heeded the call to “Go West, young woman.”
Newspaper editor Horace Greeley has been credited with at least popularizing the phrase, “Go West, young man,” a mantra that led a generation of gentlemen to cross the mountains to the other side of the country. But it was an enterprising young man from Seattle who first conceived of the idea of bringing young women west in large numbers to marry bachelors and help settle the frontier.
Asa Shinn Mercer was a young college graduate Illinois. He had traveled west to join his brother, Thomas, in the fledgling Seattle. He helped build the territorial university (now the University of Washington), then stayed on at its first president and only instructor. It would have been a fine, respectable position for a young man, but for two things: he had only one student old enough to actually graduate any time soon, and too few prospects for more.
You see, following the Civil War, men outnumbered women in Washington Territory by nearly nine to one. There are stories about men paying young fathers for the rights to marry a baby daughter, once she reached marriageable age. And the concept of marriageable age was questionable in some people’s minds. One story goes that a young couple appeared before the Reverend Daniel Bagley, one of Seattle’s first ministers, begging to be wed. Suspecting the young lady to be too young, he demanded to know her age.
“I’m over 18,” she proudly proclaimed.
Unwilling to call her a liar, he married them. A short while later, her parents came pounding at his door, looking for their runaway daughter. It seems the couple had stopped first at the home of the irrepressible Doc Maynard, one of Seattle’s most colorful founding fathers. Maynard had advised the girl to write the number 18 on two pieces of paper, then stick them inside her shoes. The thirteen-year-old was indeed standing “over 18” when she was married.
With women at such a premium, Mercer could see his vision of a prosperous future dimming. So, he conceived of another vision. The Civil War had left widows and orphans back East, young ladies with good educations, superior morals, and plenty of backbone. All they needed was the knowledge of the need to come West. He could provide that knowledge. He could serve as Seattle’s Emigration Agent and bring home the brides.
Now, I will tell you, there are two schools of thought on Asa Mercer. There is no doubt the citizens of Seattle applauded his initiative. And after his first foray netted him about a dozen women, he was voted into the Washington State senate. But other contemporary sources are less kind, particularly when Mercer decided to take his adventure to a grand scale. He vowed to return to the East Coast and request a troop carrier from none other than President Lincoln, planning to bringing as many as 700 women to Seattle’s shores. And what happened then, is beyond legend.
Next week: Everything that can go wrong, does go wrong.