Friday, October 17, 2014

Go West, Young . . . Woman? Part II

We left young Asa Mercer prepared to travel back East to bring home more brides for frontier Seattle.  But he had a few wrinkles to iron out first.  Traveling took money, and the young professor had little.  But dozens of bachelors in Seattle were willing to invest in his scheme so long as he brought them each back a bride of good repute.  Some stories have it that Mercer accepted as much as $300 per bride, a goodly price in those days.  Whatever the amount, he left Seattle with money in his pocket and the cheers of his comrades ringing in his ears.  But his good fortune quickly evaporated.

As a child, Mercer had supposedly met Abraham Lincoln, and he was counting on his connection with the president to win him a decommissioned troop carrier left over from the Civil War as an inexpensive way to transport his bevvy of belles.  He arrived in the capital to find it wreathed in black:  Lincoln had been assassinated.  The story goes that after being shunted from one government official to another, he ended up meeting with Ulysses S. Grant, who agreed that Mercer might have a ship, if he could purchase it.

The price requested was pennies on the dollar for the worth of the ship, but still far beyond Mercer’s means.  Enter transportation magnate Ben Holladay, whose stage coaches had helped fuel the California Gold Rush.  He offered to start a shipping company, buy the ship for Mercer and carry the party of 700 women back to Seattle for a pittance.  Overjoyed, Mercer signed the offered contract and went back to recruiting among the towns between Boston and New York, which had lost not only men but manufacturing jobs because of the war.

He must have sung a good song, for ladies lined up to join his expedition.  That is, until several prominent newspapers began questioning not only Mercer’s motives, but the motives of the women interested in going with him.  Mercer, they insisted, was only gathering bits of muslin that would end up in dens of ill repute or married to brutish husbands who would all but enslave them if they weren’t scalped first.  They called the women Sewing Machines, Petticoat Brigade, and a Cargo of Heifers. One editor firmly stated that any woman willing to go all the way across the country to find a husband didn’t deserve one.  The flood of recruits dwindled to a trickle.

Days turned into weeks and then months, and still the S.S. Continental wasn’t ready to sail. Then Holladay asked Mercer for more money.  It seemed the contract he’d signed stated that if the full complement of ladies was not ready to sail on time, the price for passage went up.  Desperate, Mercer turned to families and then bachelors to try to fill out his order of passengers.  While some women, it appears, had been promised free passage (paid for by Seattle’s bachelors), he demanded that others pay full fare and more. The money he’d been given in Seattle was spent to pay for hotel fees as everyone waited for the ship to set sail.

Only when she did sail did Mercer, and the ladies, begin to realize what lay ahead.

Next week, a gentleman finds the need for a long sea voyage.

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