March 25, 2017

Sarah Coates Harris

This post is the first of several that will reveal the lives of people whose names appear on the Esther Coates Wileman Quilt introduced to you last time.  (The long absences between these posts is indicative of the research we are conducting to fully understand the quilt and the community it represents.  Please bear with us!)

Sarah Coates Harris was Esther's youngest sister, born in Caln Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, on March 7, 1824.  Her birth was duly recorded by the Bradford Monthly Meeting and she was the last of eight children born to Quakers Samuel and Margaret Cherrington Coates between the years of 1809 and 1824.

Sarah Coates Harris (1824-1886).  Photograph courtesy of Judy
Kerr, a direct descendant of the family.
Sarah grew up in a large family home near Caln Station on the Pennsylvania Railroad, surrounded by rolling farm land and forests.  Her fondness of her home is reflected in a watercolor of the house and land she painted in 1841 when she was seventeen years old.
Coates house and land painted by Sarah Coates at age seventeen.  Source of image:
A Genealogy of Moses and Susanna Coates who Settled in Pennsylvania in 1717 by
Truman Coates, 1906.
Three years later, in November 1844, Sarah's sister Esther married Quaker Abram G. Wileman and moved to Marlboro Township, Stark County, Ohio.  During the time leading up to this marriage, Sarah and Coates family members and friends made the quilt that Esther took with her to Ohio.  Sarah Coates was one of the many family members named on the quilt.
Badly faded inscription with the name Sarah Coates on the Esther Coates Wileman Quilt
Photograph by Lynda Salter Chenoweth.
Sarah, herself, moved to Ohio either with Esther or about the same time that Esther's marriage took her there.  According to an article about Sarah in the Miners' Journal published by the Galena/Jo Daviess County Historical Society in Illinois, she spent her early twenties in Ohio where she cultivated her interest in physiology, by enrolling in a lecture series on the topic at the Marlboro Ladies Academy during 1849-1850, natural history, through extensive reading, and the women's movement and its belief in the equality of women.
Sarah appeared with in-law Elizabeth Wileman and other representatives from Marlboro at the Salem, Ohio 1850 Women's Rights Convention after calls to attend were published over their names in the Anti-Slavery Bugle and the Salem Homestead Journal during March and April, 1850.  The call read, in part: "The undersigned earnestly call on the Women of Ohio to meet them in Convention on Friday, the 19th day of April next, at 10 o'clock, A.M., in the town of Salem, to concert measures to secure to all persons the recognition of Equal Rights, and the extension of the privileges of Government without distinction of sex or color."  (Later in life, Sarah presided over a Woman's  Suffrage Convention in her home in Galena, Illinois, that featured Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.)
Mississippi River steamboats.  Source of image: Wikimedia Commons.
Sarah began giving public lectures about physiology, anatomy, and hygiene as part of her interests in these subjects.  It was on a river steamboat traveling between St. Louis and St. Paul on one of her lecture tours that she met the wealthy widower Captain Daniel Smith Harris.  (Much more will be written about Daniel Smith Harris next time.)  They married in 1851 and she moved to Galena, Illinois, to become the mother of his five young children by his prior wife.  There, they built, in 1855, an elegant home they named The Steamboat House and produced seven children of their own, two of whom died in infancy.
The Steamboat House in Galena, Illinois.  Former residence of Daniel and Sarah Coates
Harris, currently an historic B&B.  Source of image:  Galena Jo Daviess County web site.
Sarah and Daniel raised their ten surviving children in The Steamboat House which has three floors, 7,000 square feet, nine bedrooms, seven bathrooms, and seven fireplaces. Sarah's interest in botany produced fifty varieties of roses nurtured in the conservatory of the house, and beneath it runs a tunnel used to hide fugitives on the Underground Railroad until they could be moved north to Canada.  Their home also served as a place for entertaining and receptions were given there for General Ulysses S. Grant, Susan B. Anthony, and British physician Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to be given a medical degree in the United States.
Elizabeth Blackwell (181-1910).  Source of image:  Wikimedia Commons.
According to a guest who visited the Harris home, Sarah was "[...] a noble woman, tall, fine-looking who moves about among her household gods like a queen.  Although she has a large family of black-eyed rosy-cheeked children, pictures, statuary, a cabinet of rare minerals, a conservatory of beautiful plants, and a husband who thinks her little lower than the angels, she still demands the right to vote, and occasionally indulges in the luxury of public speaking.  She is the moving spirit in every step of progress in Galena."  (Oestreich, Winter 1999, 6.)
Hahnemann Medical  College, Chicago.  Source of image:  Wikimedia Commons.
Sarah had attended many medical lectures and had practiced homeopathic medicine for five years before entering Hahnemann Medical College in Chicago in 1878, graduating with a M.D. the following year.  Her past training and experience were accepted as the equivalent of a year of lectures at the medical school, enabling her to graduate in just one year.  She set up a medical office contingent with her home only to find that the State Board of Health would not give her a certificate to practice medicine in Illinois without passing a Board of Health examination.  Such an examination was required of any medical school graduates who had not attended two full years of lectures at their medical school.
Newspapers and citizens reacted in Sarah's favor and she, too, wrote in the public media about the circumstances and unfairness she was being subjected to. An article in The Daily newspaper on July 23, 1879 had this to say about Sarah's public rebuttal to the State Board of Health:  "Mrs. Sarah Coates Harris, of Galena, Ill., who has been debarred from medical practices under her Hahnemann College diploma by the State Board of Health, defends herself in a very lively article, which, whatever her medical attainments may be, show that she is amply qualified to hold her own in a wordy argument.  In Fact, from the way she quotes law and hurls English, the Inter Ocean [a Chicago newspaper being quoted] fancies  that she has mistaken her calling, and that her place is at the bar or on the lecture forum."  It turns out that Sarah was never disbarred, as stated above, but instead subjected herself to the State Board of Health examination and passed it with the highest grade ever granted by that organization.  She opened her medical office and practiced medicine in Galena for the rest of her life.
Sarah passed away on February 22, 1886 at The Steamboat House.  She was sixty-one years, eleven months, and ten days old at the time. Her cause of death was cancer.  Sarah's obituary reported that she had left behind her husband, Daniel, four married daughters, and a seventeen-year-old son.  She was buried at Greenwood  Cemetery, Galena, Illinois.
The tombstone of Sarah Coates and Daniel Harris, Greenwood Cemetery, Galena,
Illinois.  Source of image:
Our heart-felt thanks to Judy Kerr for providing archival sources for much of this post. Quaker Meeting Records.
Audretsch, Robert W. (ed.).  The Salem, Ohio 1850 Women's Rights Convention Proceedings.  Salem, OH: Salem Area Bicentennial Committee & Salem Public Library, 1965.
Coates, Truman.  A Genealogy of Moses and Susanna Coates who Settled in Pennsylvania in 1717. Compiled by Truman Coates, M.D., 1906.
Nineteenth-century newspaper articles provided by Judy Kerr from her family archives.
Oestreich, Kathyrn.  "Sarah Coates Harris: A Woman of History" in Miners' Journal published by the Galena/Jo Daviess County Historical Society, Winter and Spring, 1999.
The Steamboat House Bed and Breakfast, Galena, IL" at
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2017.


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