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TMM Bio: Kersey Coates

Posted by The Muse (themuse) on Oct 03 2018
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Kersey CoatesBorn in Pennsylvania, Kersey Coates was a lawyer who went west on the recommendation of his friend and mentor, Congressan Thadeus Stevens, and served as an adviser and agent for the New England Emigrant Aid Socity. Coates served as the colonel of the Kansas City Home Guards during the Battle of Westport. Coates was assigned the responsibility of constructing the field works that would be used to defend the city of Kansas City, Missouri.

Kersey Coates, conspicuous among the few whose foresight and energy made Kansas City the metropolis of the Missouri Valley, was born September 15,1823,in Salisbury, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and died in Kansas City April 24, 1887. His parents were Lindley and Deborah (Simmons) Coates, both members of the Society of Friends. The father, who was a farmer, afforded liberal educational advantages to his son, Kersey, who acquired a thorough knowledge of the English branches and some of the modern languages at Whitestown (New York) Seminary, and at Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts. For some years afterward he taught English literature in the high school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. When twenty-five years of age he began the study of law in the office of the distinguished statesman and lawyer, Thaddeus Stevens, and in 1853 was admitted to the bar. Before he could fairly enter upon practice, an unforeseen circumstance gave a different direction to his life, leading him into a field of peculiar usefulness, and eventually rewarding him with fortune and distinction. The struggle for possession of the Territory of Kansas between the Free-Soil and pro-slavery parties was just beginning. In empathy with the former element were a number of Pennsylvanians, members of an Emigration Aid Society, whose purpose it was to save the Territory to freedom, and who were also desirous of purchasing public lands, solicited Thaddeus Stevens to name a man of capability and integrity to go thither as their adviser and agent. Upon his warm recommendation Colonel Coates was engaged, and in 1854 he departed upon his mission, which was destined to engage him for two years, during which time he witnessed many scenes of violence and bloodshed, while his own life was frequently imperiled. He was more than the mere agent for men of means seeking prospectively remunerative investments. His natural instincts led him to abhor slavery, and his convictions had been deepened through the influence of his father, an active aider in the management of the “Underground Railway,” and of his personal friend and patron, Thaddeus Stevens, an implacable enemy of a system of human bondage. Colonel Coates aided the Free-Soilers persistently and fearlessly, and soon came to be regarded as one of their most resourceful leaders. In two instances his experiences were among the most intensely interesting and dramatic of those troublous times. In the one, he was of counsel for the defense of Governor Charles Robinson, put on trial for treason. In the other, he afforded concealment to Governor Andrew H. Reeder, whose life was in jeopardy, and aided his escape to Illinois. Years afterward Governor Reeder sent to Mrs. Coates an oil painting representing himself in the disguise of a woodchopper, as he appeared at that critical time. When the immediate emergency had passed, Colonel Coates located in Kansas City, where he passed the remainder of his life, continually exerting his effort for its development and improvement. From the beginning he was the acknowledged leader in all important enterprises. There were a splendid few, such men as R. T. Van Horn, E. M. McGee, M. J. Payne and others, who were as sanguine of the future of their city, and as energetic in their effort, but Colonel Coates stood alone in his remarkable prescience of conditions and possibilities, and in a reserve resourcefulness which achieved success in face of apparent failure. At the close of the Civil War the population of Kansas City was less than 5,000, and the nearest railway was thirty miles distant. Leavenworth, Kansas, claiming a population of 15,000, was generally regarded as the coming Western metropolis. It was under these conditions that Colonel Coates and his colleagues made their greatest effort and achieved their greatest successes. The building of the Cameron branch of the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railway was begun; a charter for a bridge over the Missouri River at Kansas City was procured; the Missouri River, Fort Scott & Gulf Railway was incorporated and endowed with State lands in Kansas; and railway right of way was secured by treaty through the Indian Territory. In all these great enterprises Colonel Coates was one of the ablest leaders; in awakening the interest of Eastern capitalists, and in securing means for railway and bridge-building, his efforts were the most incessant, and his influence was the most commanding. He was a familiar figure in the moneyed circles of Philadelphia, New York and Boston, in legislative assemblages at Jefferson City and Topeka, and in Washington City during congressional sessions. His purpose was ever the same, the advancement of the interests of Kansas City, and he never failed to command attention, and ultimately to effect his purpose. Meantime, he busied himself as earnestly in instituting and advancing purely local enterprises as though he bore no weightier burden. He aided in the establishment of newspapers, banking houses, and innumerable commercial and industrial concerns. From the first his faith in the city had been implicit. At the close of the war period the Philadelphia investors whom he represented were discouraged, regarding as a poor investment a tract of no acres of land bounded by the Missouri River, Main Street, Broadway and Santa Fe Street, which he had purchased for them at an outlay of $6,600. At their solicitation, he purchased it from them, and this tract ultimately became the foundation of his fortune. The payment of a security debt at one time forced him into a mercantile business, from which he soon retired, but which developed into the present mammoth house of Emery, Bird, Thayer & Co. The most conspicuous buildings of his erection were the Coates House, one of the most elegant hotels in the country, and the Coates Opera House. He assisted in organizing the Kansas City Industrial Exposition & Agricultural Fair Association in 1870, and the Inter-State Fair Association in 1882; he was for many years president of the latter organization. He was also president of the Missouri River, Fort Scott & Gulf Railway Company at its organization, and for some years afterward. He was an original Republican, and in i860 was president of the only Republican Club in western Missouri, and one of less than eighty Kansas City voters who voted for Lincoln. During a part of the war period he was colonel of the Seventy-seventh Regiment Enrolled Missouri Militia, which rendered efficient service, particularly during the Price raid in 1864. In his religious views he leaned to Unitarianism. His wife, Sarah W. Chandler, was born March 10, 1829, at Kennett Square, Chester County, Pennsylvania. She was descended from the Chandlers of Wiltshire, England, a Quaker family which established its American branch in 1687, on the River Brandywine, twenty-seven miles from Philadelphia. Her parents were John and Maria Jane (Walter) Chandler. The father was a farmer, a man of great force of character, who, for three consecutive terms, occupied a seat in the Pennsylvania Legislature. The mother was also of English descent, a member of an influential family. The parents removed to a farm near Kennett Square when their daughter Sarah was an infant. There she was reared, and the influences by which she was surrounded were traceable in the years of her mature womanhood. It was the place of birth of Bayard Taylor, and the home of his first wife, Mary Agnew. Both became intimate personal friends of Sarah Chandler, who, after completing her education at the Simmons Seminary in Philadelphia, became first an assistant and then a principal in the Martin Seminary. Here, in her young womanhood, she met many of the literary celebrities of the day, from whom she derived inclination to investigate social, economic and political questions, eventually abandoning orthodox Quaker reserve and allying herself with a more progressive and active element. Here, too, she first met him who became her husband, whose admiration she won in her delivery of an address upon the “Social Advancement of Woman” before a Young Ladies’ Lyceum. From the first, she gave evidence of high talent. At the age of ten years she had mastered arithmetic, and undertaken the higher branches. She never regarded her education as completed, and through her lifelong habit of study she constantly added to her store of knowledge. She was an accomplished botanist and linguist. After her marriage to Mr. Coates, in 1855, she accompanied him to Kansas City. In their journey up the Missouri River she witnessed scenes of violence which were a severe shock to one of her delicate sensibilities. In the troublous times which followed she sympathized with her husband, and encouraged him in his every undertaking, sharing the labors in which he engaged and the dangers to which he was exposed. Previous to and during the Civil War her home was at once a refuge for the pursued and terror-stricken, and a hospital for the sick and wounded. When peace was restored she became equally interested and equally active in promoting the material progress of the community, and in the leadership of various movements having for their object the awakening of inquiry, the dissemination of knowledge, and the advancement of education, art and science. A history class, of which she was president, was a most successful organization of its kind, and left a broad and enduring influence. She was an earnest friend of the Art Association, to which she afforded great encouragement and liberal pecuniary assistance. It was in the fields of social and domestic life, however, that her efforts were mainly exerted, and her influence was most strongly felt. A woman of remarkably sympathetic disposition, she sought amelioration of the condition of the suffering and oppressed, particularly of her own sex, and her zeal at times led her to advocate measures so greatly in advance of the day, and so foreign to prevailing sentiment, that few followed her, and a lesser number aided her, until accomplished results vindicated her course. She was an indefatigable worker in the Woman’s Christian Association—of which she was one of the founders—having for its purpose the aid of the homeless and struggling, and in the Woman’s Exchange, which afforded opportunity for remunerative labor to necessitous women who were unable to engage in employment away from their homes. The Mothers’ Club claimed a large share of her attention, and in that body her counsels were regarded as of unusual worth. Her interest in the Social Science and Equal Suffrage Societies was earnest and continuous, and led her to investigation resulting in the discovery of peculiarly distressing conditions. As a result, she visited the State Board of Charities to enter a protest against neglect and ill treatment of women committed to public institutions, and it was largely through her effort that relief was afforded to insane women sent to county poorhouses on account of the overcrowding of the State Insane Asylums, and that a police matron was placed in charge of women committed to prison. Her last appearance in a public capacity was in January, 1897, in Kansas City, as honorary chairman of the reception committee, on the occasion of the annual meeting of the Missouri Federation of Women’s Clubs. She extended bountiful pecuniary aid to all societies with which she was connected, and her private charities were many and liberal. In religion she was a Unitarian. Her death occurred July 25, 1897. The record of her remarkably useful life is preserved in an interesting volume, “In Memoriam Sarah Walter Chandler Coates,” printed by her children for private distribution, and edited by her daughter, Mrs. Homer Reed.


Conard, Howard L. “Kersey Coates.” In Encyclopedia of the History of Missouri, Vol. 2, 36–38. New York: The Southern History Company, 1901.


Last changed: Oct 03 2018 at 2:06 PM