The steamship Continental pitched and rolled as it traveled over the rough waters of the Pacific Ocean en route to the northwest section of the United States. The two dozen women on board were violently ill with sea sickness and desperate for the waves to subside. They were either lying on their bunks in their berths or hanging over the railing of the vehicle heaving into the sea. The tormented females were part of a unique group headed west in search of a spouse.
In 1860, Asa Mercer a twenty-one-year-old educator and entrepreneur, conceived of the idea of bringing eligible females to the Washington Territory in hopes of settling the area and making it fit for societal advancements. The Pacific Northwest was known as a man’s paradise. Everything a young man ever dreamed of or wanted was there, except young women.
Life without the presence of a woman to share a home and life with grew monotonous. So much so, in fact, that a big percentage vowed they would pull up stakes and seek a new place to settle unless someone did something in a hurry. Enter Asa Mercer.
Mercer organized an expedition of prospective brides to go west in 1864. He recruited dozens of young ladies (mostly teachers) to journey to a place where their talent and gender were in high demand. The Mercer Belles, as they primarily became known, welcomed the chance for Massachusetts born females to accompany the businessman on his second voyage to the growing coastal town of Seattle. In addition to the chance to meet and marry ambitious, hardworking bachelors, Mercer promised the eager, single passengers honorable employment in schools and good wages.
When the S.S. Continental left the New York harbor on January 16, 1866, there were thirty-four women on board. Each had been asked to pay a $225 fee for the opportunity. Each possessed high hopes and a sense of purpose. After traveling one hundred miles in rough, heavy surf, the physically unwell Belles were pleading with Mercer to take them back home. Eventually the waters calmed, and all seasickness disappeared. The women then slowly begun the process of acclimating themselves to the ship and making themselves at home.
Among the energized female passengers was twenty-six-year-old Annie Elizabeth Stephens, an Irish-Catholic lady from Baltimore. Annie, and her sister Marnie, nine years her junior, had been persuaded to join the expedition after hearing Mercer’s compelling speech about the wonderful opportunities in the northwest. He told of the “wonderful financial advantages that would occur to any and all young ladies of good character.” According to the bachelor teacher, “dressmaking offered a great chance to make a lot of money.” Annie believed her fortune was far away from the congested eastern city of Lowellton, Massachusetts where she was raised and was more than willing to sign up for the journey Mercer so enthusiastically promoted.
The female passengers, who agreed to take the boat trip from New York through the Strait of Magellan to Seattle, were informed of the difficulties they would face along the way. They were told about the rough waters, unsettled weather, unpredictable temperatures, and cramped living quarters, but it did not change their minds about making the three-month long voyage. The chance to marry and the idea of continual employment where $4 a week payable in gold was assured by Mercer was worth any risk.
The curious sailors and crew aboard the bride ship were intrigued by the women who participated in Mercer’s unique expedition. They were not immune to the desire for female companionship and for many keeping their focus on their job was difficult at times. Some of the men were cynical about the idea of female emigration and considered any woman who sailed with them less than honorable. Newspapers such as the January 28, 1866, edition of the Alta California reported “it may be well doubted whether any girl who goes to seek a husband in this manner is worthy to be a decent man’s wife or is ever likely to be.”
Annie Stephens was convinced the venture would be beneficial for both herself and her sister. Born in Philadelphia on January 4, 1840, to the owner of a hat factory and his wife, Annie was an independent thinker. She believed women should pursue a higher education and assert themselves politically when necessary. Annie was considered by some members of the S.S. Continental crew to be arrogant. She was outspoken and brash and had set her sights on Mercer shortly after the ship had set sail.
Asa Shinn Mercer was born on June 6, 1839, in Princeton, Illinois. He was the youngest of thirteen children. He claimed to have spent a great deal of time with Abraham Lincoln when he was a boy and that Lincoln had been a major influence in his life. He credited Lincoln with encouraging him to travel. Mercer made his first trip west in 1852 and eventually helped settle the Seattle area with his brother, Thomas. He returned to the Midwest shortly thereafter to attend school at Franklin College in New Athens, Ohio, in 1860. Once Mercer graduated, he went back to Seattle and helped establish the territorial University of Washington. He was then hired on as the school’s president.
Although Annie and the other Mercer Belles were expected to arrive in the northwest unattached that did not stop the crew from flirting with the women and suggesting they marry a sailor rather than a pioneer. Most of the women were flattered by the attention and readily engaged the seamen in conversation. Except for Mercer, everyone onboard passed the time away together playing card games, singing, and dancing. As the leader of the expedition Mercer felt he should resist any involvement with the potential brides. His resolve weakened after spending time with two of the Belles, Annie was one of them.
Prior to the expedition setting off for the Northwest, Mercer insisted he was an “incorrigible bachelor, and that no fair lady among the entire party could draw from his heart those exquisite lines of Shakespeare, ‘Isn’t possible that on so little acquaintance you should like her? That but seeing you should love her? And loving woo?’ Not only did Cupid turn Mercer’s thinking around, but Annie wasn’t the first to make his heart swoon. According to the journal of Roger Conant, a crew member with the S.S. Continental, Mercer was initially charmed by an aspiring teacher making the trip “who was of good report and fair to look upon.” Try as he might to convince the young woman that he would make a fine husband, she did not agree with his assessment. “Poor deluded young man!” Conant wrote in his memoirs. “He imagined that simply because he was the agent of this expedition that all the virgins were desperately in love with him, and were only waiting for him to offer himself, to fly into his arms.”
After the woman Mercer was interested in had spurned his advancements a number of times, he had a change of heart and recommitted himself to life as a bachelor. When Annie captured his affections, he abandoned the notion again. Conant described Annie as a “willing victim, no doubt anxiously waiting for an offer of his (Mercer’s) heart and hand….”
On July 15, 1866, more than two months after the S.S. Continental had reached the Washington territory; Annie Stephens and Asa Mercer were wed. Reverend Daniel Bagley, Mercer’s childhood friend married the couple at the Methodist Protestant Church in Seattle. The Mercer’s stay in the city where they were united didn’t last long. Lured by the idea of new, more profitable business ventures, the couple moved to Oregon. Mercer took a job in Astoria with the federal government as a special deputy collector for the customs service. The position was a high paying one. In addition to his salary Mercer shared in the funds collected from goods imported without declaring and paying the property tax. In mid-1867, the lucrative job led to trouble. Looking to add still more to his pay, Mercer helped smuggle caskets filled with alcohol into the United States from Victoria, British Columbia. When officials found the cache of illegal whiskey and brandy they seized the beverages, investigated the source behind the shipment, and arrested several corrupt customs workers for their participation in the crime. Mercer was among the accused. The case against him was eventually dismissed, but his future as a customs agent was over.
By 1873, the Mercers had turned their attention to real estate. Annie purchased two pieces of property in Washington for $840 and her husband bought additional acreage for $2,000. Prior to the smuggling charges the couple had purchased three hundred lots in Astoria. Mercer wasn’t satisfied to be a landowner. He entered into numerous business ventures which failed and cost him and his wife the majority of the money they earned.
The Mercers had eight children, six boys and two girls. Three of those children died in infancy and one died as a teenager. Annie suffered from poor health before and after the birth of their children and frequently traveled to drier climates to improve her condition. Exactly what she struggled with was never revealed. Some historians speculate she suffered with tuberculosis.
Asa Mercer relocated his family to Sherman, Texas, in 1875 where he worked for a newspaper called the Sherman Courier. He was particularly interested in the newspaper industry because he believed it made settlers better informed and was the perfect platform to share his conservative views on capital punishment. After an eight year stay in Texas, Mercer moved his clan to Wyoming. He established a newspaper in Cheyenne called the Northwest Livestock Journal with salesman Samuel A. Marney. While waiting for the business to turn a profit, Annie supplemented the family income teaching piano lessons to the community. At their mother’s insistence, the Mercer children attended parochial schools in the area.
Annie was a fierce defender of her husband. Critics of the paper and an unruly business partner were no match for her. In the summer of 1884, Mercer and Marney had a heated disagreement in front of Annie. The argument became physical and Marney beat Mercer unconscious. Annie interceded at that point and hit the man on the head with a spittoon knocking him out.
In 1895, Asa and Annie left Cheyenne and moved to Paintrock Valley in northern Wyoming. Asa and his two sons developed a farm and cattle ranch in the Big Horn Basin.
Annie Mercer died on October 16, 1900, at the age of sixty-four. Asa passed away in 1917 after a prolonged bout with chronic dysentery. He was seventy-eight years old. He never remarried after losing Annie. The Mercers were married for thirty-four years.