Sunday, June 7, 2015

Lowell’s Irish Mercer Girls

Harper's Weekly, Jan. 6, 1866

Asa Shinn Mercer had a goal.  He was given the task of bringing young New England women to the quickly growing Washington Territory.  Men far outnumbered women in the lumber-rich West, and if it was to be settled marriageable women, teachers, and seamstresses were needed.  Where would he find women of fine moral character who could provide the services he needed to bring back to Seattle?  Why Lowell, of course! 

Mr. Mercer visited Lowell in 1864 in the midst of the Civil War and spoke to an interested audience at Rev. Mr. Hinckley’s Unitarian Church.  He told of the wonders of the West, the travel opportunities, the men who looked forward to the women’s arrival, and the guaranteed jobs that awaited them.  In February of 1864 he took out an ad in the Lowell Daily Citizen.  Only those of high moral character should apply. He was looking for teachers and seamstresses that would be paid five dollars a week.  He kept rooms at the Washington House for interviews.  Each would have to pay her own way ($250).  Eight Lowell girls signed on.  The Daily Citizen of March 12, 1864 in an article called For the West, lists the names of the “young ladies” They would leave from New York by steamer, sail to Panama, cross the isthmus (where the girls would see their first palm trees according to a letter sent home by one of the girls), then sail onto San Francisco.  When they reached there, many men showed up to beg the women to stay in the city by the bay, but they sailed onto Washington Territory.  There they were given a grand reception.  Many of the girls became teachers and most quickly married. 

The city of Lowell was enthralled, and the papers kept all informed of their progress.  Mr. Mercer wrote back to the daily Citizen, The young ladies who came from Yankee land with me seem to be well pleased, and all are doing well. He announced he would visit the area again and this time bringing 100 families back with him.  He added, be it distinctly understood that no man of Jeff Davis' proclivities is admitted to our party.  Mercer’s later attempts were not as successful, but he did help open new lands.

Two names stand out in Mercer’s list of Lowell young ladies, Ann Murphy and Sarah Jane Gallagher.  

The Lowell City Directory of 1860 lists Ann Murphy as a teacher at Primary School #11 on Cross Street in the “Acre.”    A notice appeared in the papers before Mercer’s appearance that Murphy was not rehired as a teacher since the school had closed.  This may have been the catalyst in making this life changing decision.  She did not stay long in Washington and may have returned to San Francisco.

Sarah J Gallagher
The daughter of Irish immigrants, Sarah Jane Gallagher was born in Lowell in 1845 making her 19 at the time of her arrival at Washington Territory.  Her parents were James, listed as an innkeeper, and Ellen.  She was well educated and became a music teacher in Washington.  Within a year of her arrival she married widower, Thomas Russell who already had a child.  She later had a son.   Sarah Jane was one of the few Catholics in Seattle at the time, numbering about 10.  She became the church organist once a church was built and taught at Washington Territorial University. (Photo fr Univ of Washington Libraries, Special Collections)

As usual these stories just show up on my doorstep when I’m researching something else.  Some of this info came from two very interesting sources.  Mercer Girls Chapter, NSDAR:  and Peri Lane Muhic’s website:

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