In the Northwest of the early to mid-19th century, there were very few white women and many more men: settlers and sailors, trappers and traders, loggers and miners. Seattle was an early magnet for these guys, and Indigenous women were used to bait them to come to town. A steam sawmill might have been Seattle’s first industry, but the budding town became famous for its brothels staffed by Native women.
A famous spot was a brothel known as the Illahee, and there was a 19th century folk song Perry Como never sang that boasted of the town’s supply of venison, clams —and all-night sex with a “klootchman,” the Chinook jargon for Native women. The word could also mean wife, mistress or sex partner.
There was another frontier phenomenon: intermarriages between settlers and Indigenous women. “Country marriages,” they were called. Some pioneers were unmarried, others had simply left their wives behind in Missouri or Illinois. The practice of these marriages was encouraged by some. Couples made homes together, bonds formed between settlers and tribes, trade relationships could be enhanced, and the women provided free labor. The Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Vancouver encouraged country marriages as being good for business and morale.
But as more whites came and as white Americans took over the old Oregon country, such racial mixing was increasingly frowned upon. Some missionaries declared the marriages invalid. In the 1850s, Washington Territory banned interracial marriages between whites and Native people. Some claimed that inter-breeding with Indigenous peoples would ruin both races.
In 1859, Charles Prosch of the Puget Sound Herald wrote:
“The intermarriage of whites and Indians is fraught with many and serious evils…. The effect of this species amalgamation … has been an almost instantaneous degeneration of the white, with no visible improvement of the Indian.” Laws should be passed, Prosch wrote, to “prohibit these unnatural alliances.”
Another problem was white settlers marrying children. Girls as young as 13 were sometimes illegally wed. In Seattle, a notorious case was enabled by Seattle founder David “Doc” Maynard. It’s recounted in Murry Morgan’s book, Skid Road. Maynard had an eloping 14-year-old girl stand on the number 18 so he could swear as a witness to the minister that she was “over 18” and be married in a 6 a.m. ceremony to an older man. Seattle founder Henry Yesler fathered a daughter with a Native girl, aged 15.
Horace Greeley said, “Go west, young man,” but the clamor increased to bring adult white women west to help "civilize" the frontier and, left largely unstated, possibly provide more white sex workers for the brothels and stop child marriages.
So, it’s in this context that a 20-something young man who had helped construct Washington’s territorial university and was appointed its first president got the idea to bring “marriageable” white women to Seattle from back East. He was Asa Mercer, the youngest brother of a prominent local judge, Thomas Mercer. He wanted the territorial government to pay for bringing “acceptable young ladies” to Seattle.
If the lack of such women in Seattle was acute, the Civil War had produced a tempting surplus of war widows and other women who might be eager to come to Puget Sound. Asa Mercer hatched a plot to lure some of them to Seattle to teach, sew, wed and, hopefully, help the ambitious young settlement grow. The Union’s losses could be Seattle’s gain.
Men were enthusiastic about Asa Mercer’s scheme. Some paid him $300 to bring them a bride from back East. He promised a ship full of respectable potential brides. And, in fact, he made two journeys to acquire them. The first was a flop. Only 11 eligible women came out. This seemed hardly enough to change the future of the city. He targeted places in New England where there were war widows and orphans, unemployed cotton mill workers and other “spinsters” willing to go West and take a chance.
On a second trip, in 1865, he advertised in Eastern papers that he intended to bring back 700 “war orphans” to be brides, transporting them via a steamship named the Continental, which would ’round Cape Horn. He did bring back some 80 people, but only 34 fit the category marriageable white females. The party included adults, couples, children and even a correspondent for the New York Times.
But Mercer also brought some infamy. When members of the press learned of his efforts, they had a field day. They said he was recruiting a “Cargo of Heifers,” a “Petticoat Brigade,” that he was engaged in being a “Moses of this Exodus of Women.” One paper called it a “Mercer-nary” effort. Mercer’s mission was mocked, and it was the subject of false rumors (one paper claimed Mercer was recruiting free Blacks to come and take mill worker jobs in Washington). Worse, some suspected it was a ruse to traffic women to establishments like the infamous Illahee — and that no proper woman would ever make such a voyage.
Mercer, a bachelor himself, took money to ship women to a rough frontier village full of eager men. But he did not undertake his mission to make money, nor did he. He did benefit, though. He tried wooing one of the women on board the ship but was turned down flat — and he reportedly pouted for days. However, he married another of the Mercer women, Ann Stephens, not long after arriving in Seattle.
His honesty and financial mismanagement came under question. Bringing the women out was expensive. He had been entrusted with money from friends to take East for other purposes, but he instead spent it on his emigration project as costs increased and the numbers of women paying for passage did not come close to meeting projections. Many were scared off by the bad publicity about heifers and prostitution.
Men who thought they paid for wives did not necessarily get them. Men who entrusted Mercer with their savings did not get their money back. Some of the single women had left the ship when it docked in San Francisco. It looked golden compared with prospects in rough-hewn Seattle.
Many of the women who made it to Seattle did get married to men around Puget Sound, though not to loggers so much as men of more means, such as sea captains, tradesmen, lighthouse keepers, a judge. Many took jobs as schoolteachers. Being a pioneer wife was more than a full-time job, especially when expected to produce a new generation of locals.
One of the most impressive of the Mercer women was someone who steadfastly refused to marry or be a frontier “helpmeet” for a pioneer husband. Elizabeth “Lizzie” Ordway came with Mercer from Lowell, Massachusetts, in the first wave of recruits. At 35. she was the oldest in her group. She became Seattle’s first public common schoolteacher in 1870. The bell she rang to call students is in the collection of Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry. She later became superintendent of Kitsap schools.
When Ordway first arrived in Seattle, she lived with the Henry and Sarah Yesler. Henry was the most successful businessman in Seattle — famous for his sawmill — and Sarah had a tremendous social influence. Ordway joined with Sarah to found the Female Suffrage Society. She lobbied in Olympia for women’s rights and when Susan B. Anthony came to the territory to speak, Ordway traveled with her as Anthony’s personal secretary.
Most of the Mercer women did marry and have families, but the sex trade in Seattle grew to an almost industrial scale into the 20th century, despite Mercer’s efforts. One brothel on Beacon Hill had 500 rooms. When women got the vote here in 1911, reforms began to kick in.
The so-called “Mercer Girls” story, however, has been sugar-coated. Still, it’s good to know at least one of the “girls” used Mercer’s strange and exploitive enterprise to help launch a local fight for women’s rights. That is a bit of blue sky in the whole affair.
Correction: The story has been updated to correct the relationship between Asa Mercer and Thomas Mercer, a prominent local judge. Asa Mercer was Thomas Mercer's youngest brother.