In 1866 a ship departed from New York Harbor with an unusual group—nearly every passenger onboard was a young, unmarried women from Lowell, Massachusetts, leaving behind a life on the East Coast for the very different world of Washington Territory. In the press, these women came to be known as the “Mercer Girls,” named for Asa Mercer—the president of Washington’s first university—who had recruited these intrepid young women to even out the population of Washington Territory. At the time, for every nine men in Washington Territory, there was only one woman. For many of the grieving “Mercer Girls,” who had lost their husbands in the Civil War, there was a sense of promise and opportunity in this developing territory that the East Coast no longer held for them.
This month’s read for our Reading Into History Family Book Club explores their story. The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming brings us to the center of this hopeful moment as we travel with our determined young protagonist Jane on a remarkable journey across the country with her widowed stepmother. In traveling from coast to coast, we explore the excited expectations these women had for new opportunities—and how their plans went awry when they arrived in the small town of Seattle.
Want to know what became of these women once they arrived in Washington? Find out at our book club meeting on Sunday, October 7, when we will be discussing the book! After our discussion, we’ll head up to the Library to look at special objects and historical writings related to the story.
In the meantime, check out our interview with J. Anderson Coats on her research and writing. Coats will join us via Skype for the October 7th meeting, ready to answer any questions you have about the book!
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: In The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming we travel with a group of women known as the “Mercer Girls” from the East Coast to Washington Territory after the Civil War. What inspired you to write about Washington Territory from Jane’s perspective?
J. Anderson Coats: I was drawn to the idea of contrast—it was not uncommon for promoters to describe Washington Territory as some kind of paradise with a “Mediterranean climate” to tempt potential immigrants to move there. I was interested in the idea that a kid would take this literally and have high expectations, then have to work through a certain amount of disappointment when what she encountered was not what she expected but appealing in a completely different way. It’s a relatable experience for many of us, especially young folk.
DCHM: The title of the book is drawn from a pamphlet that Jane reads about the advantages of moving to Washington Territory. Was this document inspired by a real historical object that you came across? What type of research did you do to write The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming?
Coats: During the 19th century, hundreds of local promoters were hired or took it upon themselves to encourage white settlement in the west, and they produced thousands of articles, books, and pamphlets describing aspects of life there in the most glowing terms possible. Asa Mercer did in fact write a pamphlet of this nature for distribution, although very few copies survive. I’m fortunate to live in the same region where the book is set, and I had access to the special collections of a number of libraries. I was also in contact with the chair of the Duwamish tribe for insights into the portrayal of characters of that heritage.
DCHM: Jane’s pamphlet says that Washington Territory is “suited to men of broad mind and sturdy constitution who seek to make a home through industry and wit.” She figures that “the same must be true for girls of broad mind and sturdy constitution.” From your research on the “Mercer Girls,” what were these women like?Read
Coats: Much of what was written about these women by others presented them as brave and courageous and special somehow, but in their own words, they feel wonderfully ordinary. Several women kept diaries while on board the ship, and one published a series of articles about the journey following her arrival in Seattle. These voices feel familiar; there’s boredom, anxiety, excitement, curiosity, compassion, self-importance. Basically they’re a lot like us—just people trying to find their place in the world, and they were willing to take a chance on Washington Territory.
DCHM: Throughout the book Jane is determined to get an education and values school above almost all else. For students reading your book today, what do you think they’ll find most surprising about education in the 19th century?
Coats: Kids are always surprised at how much memorization and recitation there was, even for math. Also that school in many places is something you have to pay for, and it’s not a given that there are schools even where there are lots of young folk.
DCHM: What three words would you use to describe The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming?
Coats: Examine your expectations.
Written by Caitlin O’Keefe
Family Programs Educator, DiMenna Children’s History Museum