Asa Shinn Mercer

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Asa Shinn Mercer

Asa Shinn Mercer (June 6, 1839 – August 10, 1917) was the first president of the Territorial University of Washington and a member of the Washington State Senate.

He is remembered primarily for his role in three milestones of the old American West: the founding of the University of Washington, the Mercer Girls, and the Johnson County War. Mercer Island in Lake Washington and Mercer Street in Seattle are named not for Asa, but rather his brother Thomas.[1]

The University of Washington[edit]

In 1861, as a member of one of the founding families of Seattle, Washington, a young Asa Mercer assisted his brothers in clearing stumps to make way for the new territorial university. Once the building had been completed, Mercer, the only college graduate in town, was hired as the university's sole instructor and president.

The Mercer Girls[edit]

Main article: Mercer Girls

The young town of Seattle was attracting hordes of men to work in the timber and fishing industries, but few marriageable women were willing to make the trip to the remote Northwest corner of the United States. In 1864, with public support and private funding, Mercer traveled to the Eastern United States in search of single women to work in Seattle as teachers and in other respectable occupations. This trip, and a subsequent trip in 1866, introduced dozens of women to the Pacific Northwest, most of whom eventually married local men. The descendants of the Mercer Girls still represent a significant portion of Seattle's citizenry. The Mercer Girls story formed the basis of the television show Here Come the Brides.

The Johnson County War[edit]

Main article: Johnson County War

Mercer became well known throughout the West as a publisher, and eventually found his way to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where he published the Northwestern Livestock Journal, a public relations vehicle for the moneyed cattle interests. As Mercer came to see the clearly underhanded treatment of individual ranchers by the cartels, he began to write more scathing accounts of the events that were unfolding on the open range. His account is told in his book The Banditti of the Plains (1894), which was suppressed in its day, and is still difficult to find in public libraries in some parts of the Western U.S.

Following the events of the Johnson County War, which included destruction of his newspaper office by arson, Mercer settled into the quiet life of a successful rancher in Hyattville, Wyoming, where he died in 1917.

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