May 24, 2017

Esther Coates Wileman: An Unscripted Life

Esther Coates Wileman's quilt has been the topic of our last three posts and will be covered again, this time, by telling the story of the woman for whom it was made.  But first, we have good news about the disposition of the quilt and the archival material related to it.

Judy Kerr, the descendant who inherited Esther's quilt, has generously donated the quilt and related family material to The Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College.  She could not have made a better choice for the quilt's now permanent home.  The quilt will be carefully preserved there and many historical records concerning the Coates family reside at the Friends Library.  Now the quilt and its archival documents have joined other Coates family records, making them available to the public for research purposes.

Detail.  Esther Coates Wileman Quilt.  A holding of The Friends Historical Library of
Swarthmore College.  Photograph by Lynda Salter Chenoweth.
Esther Coates was the fourth child of Quakers Samuel (1786-1825) and Margaret Cherrington (1790-1852) Coates of Chester County, Pennsylvania.  Born on October 19, 1815, her birth was noted in the records of the Bradford Monthly Meeting in West Bradford Township.
Bradford Monthly Meeting House, New Bradford Township, Chester County,
Pennsylvania.  Source of image:  Wikimedia Commons.
Esther grew up in Caln Township in the family home that originally belonged to her great-grandparents, Thomas and Sarah Coates.  The property was left to their son, Samuel, who deeded half of the farm and the house to his son, Samuel, Esther's father.
The Thomas and Sarah Coates house.  Their son Samuel lived here his entire life. 
He left half of the farm land and the left half of the house to Esther's father when he
passed away.  Image from A Genealogy of Moses and Susanna Coates.
The Coates household must have been a lively one.  Esther had three older sisters, and by 1824, one surviving younger brother and two younger sisters to play with and occupy her time as an active nine-year-old.  We have no details about her education, but the Quakers routinely educated both their girls and their boys.  The girls, and sometimes the boys, also received instruction in needlework.  A sampler made by Esther in 1827, when she was twelve years old, demonstrates perhaps her first attempt at this type of needlework.
Sampler made by Esther Coates in 1827.  Image courtesy of Judy Kerr.
We know little about Esther's  life as a young woman although one of the blocks in her quilt is inscribed:  "Thy pupil M.A. Brinton."  This may indicate that Esther taught school while still in Chester County but, except for the quilt block, we have found no evidence for this.
We do know that by the time she was in her late twenties, she had made the acquaintance of Abraham G. Wileman (also known as Abram) of Stark County, Ohio.  Family tradition relates that they met through a group of Quakers around Massillon, Ohio, at the Marlboro Monthly Meeting.  We do not know why Esther went to Ohio or when, but Abram Wileman was soon to be her husband.
Abraham G. Wileman (1821-1863) in uniform after enlisting in the
Union Army in 1861.  Photograph courtesy of Judy Kerr.
On August 10, 1844, Esther wrote to the Fallowfield Monthly Meeting where she had been attending and requested to be released from her membership in this meeting.  She and Abram, six years younger than she, were married the following November.  
Esther Coates Wileman.  Photograph courtesy of Judy Kerr.
Esther's mother Margaret Cherrington Coates, had a dozen serving spoons of coin silver engraved with her initials.  As a wedding gift, she gave six of these spoons to Esther with Esther's new initials added to the engraving.
Handles of three of the spoons given to Esther by her mother showing her mother's
 initials at top and the added "to ECW" below.  Photograph courtesy of Judy Kerr.
Esther also received the quilt made by family and friends bearing forty-five inscriptions and fifty-six legible names.  The spoons and the quilt accompanied her to her new home in Ohio.
Up until this time, Esther's life had followed an expected nineteenth-century script of events and relationships.  Then, in 1850, almost six years into their marriage, Esther and Abram had a daughter they named Floretta.  In 1853, Floretta  died of scarlet fever and her death changed everything.
Painting of Floretta Wileman at about two years of age.  A quilt made by
Esther, possibly for Floretta, was donated by a member of the Kerr family to the
National American History Museum at the Smithsonian Institution.  A link to a
photograph and description of this quilt is provided under "Sources" at the end of this
post.  Photograph of painting courtesy of Judy Kerr.
In an undated letter to his sister-in-law, Mary Coates Cutler, Abram described the details of Floretta's passing.  She complained on a Saturday to Abram:  "Pa, baby's head's tired."  Abram and Esther attended to her all that day and, when evening came, she seemed to be stable and alert, so they left her with a sitter and attended a lecture in town by Joel Tiffany, a famous local lawyer and orator.  When they returned, Floretta again complained about her head being tired.  Her temperature increased during the night and Esther and Abram applied ice to her head and body in an attempt to bring the fever down.  "At four o'clock in the morning she scrambled up over me reached  her little hands to her mother saying 'Oh Ma, Oh Ma' in the most tender and endearing accents of which she was capable.  She then laid down immediately and never spoke intelligently again."
The next morning Abram contacted a doctor who visited Floretta in the afternoon, telling the Wilemans that she had congestion of the brain and could not be saved.  As a last effort to save her, he recommended that they immerse her in hot water and keep wet snow to her head.  This they did until six o'clock when they could see that she was dying.  "She stopped breathing without a single struggle or a single contortion of her face, which was attributable to her being kept in the bath."
Both Abram and Esther were devastated by Floretta's death.  Esther's response was a decision to pursue a medical degree, an ambition that Abram did not support.  The result of their disputes about Esther leaving to gain a medical education eventually resulted in her leaving him the year Floretta died and going to Philadelphia.  She refused to return to Abram, instead choosing to live at the home of her sister, Mary Coates Cutler.
Mary Coates Cutler.   Photograph courtesy of Judy Kerr.
When Esther arrived at Mary's home, she discovered that she was pregnant and, on January 3, 1854, she gave birth to a son she delivered herself when the doctor did not come when summoned.  She named her son Erasmus Darwin Wileman.
Erasmus Darwin Wileman.  Photograph courtesy of
Judy Kerr.
In the meantime, Abram had moved from Stark County, Ohio, to Pendleton County, Kentucky.  Here he filed official divorce papers in 1858 stating that he and Esther had not lived together since 1853 when she "became discontented and disposed to isolate herself from the company about the home of the plaintiff to such a degree as to render the married state to both miserable."  (Jones, 2.)  Esther did not show up for the divorce hearing and the divorce, a civil suit, was granted by the Pendleton Circuit Clerk's Office in Falmouth, Kentucky.
Esther had turned over her son to Abram's sister, Hannah Wileman Brooks, to raise while she attended the Pennsylvania Medical University of Philadelphia.  She had completed studies there in 1855 in the arts and humane letters and then continued on to earn a medical degree.  She is listed in the University year books of 1858, 1860, and 1863 as a graduate pursuing a thesis titled "A Thesis.  What is it?"  Esther was one of the earliest women to graduate from the Pennsylvania Medical University with a degree that permitted her to practice medicine.  With this in hand, she opened a medical office in Vineland, New Jersey, where Erasmus was occasionally sent to visit her.
Esther practiced medicine for the rest of her life, spending each winter in Florida and often staying with her sister at Mary's farm on the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  Esther died while visiting Florida in 1873.  Her body was returned to Pennsylvania and she was buried at the Druemoore Friends Burial Ground in Lancaster County.
As for Abram, he married a local Pendleton County woman, Parthenia A. Race, in 1858, the year he obtained his divorce from Esther.  In October, 1861, he enlisted in Company D of the 18th Kentucky Infantry, rising to the rank of Major of the Regiment by 1863. He was wounded in the arm at the battle of Chickamauga in Georgia that same year and requested a leave to recuperate in the Officer's Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee.  By October 1863, Abram had returned home to recuperate further surrounded by his family.
While visiting in his parlor with his wife and some neighbors the evening of October 5th, a group of "guerillas" (who represented themselves as belonging to Breckenridge's Command) barged into Abram's home demanding money and that he accompany them to Falmouth.  Abram refused both and was taken from his home, stripped of all clothing but his boots and shirt, and shot in the head.  The person who shot Abram was identified as Jim Keller, a well-known and murderous "Rebel" who was killed while being captured.  
Major Abram G. Wileman was considered a hero by the people of Pendleton County who openly mourned his passing.  His body was taken to Alliance in Stark County, Ohio, and buried in the Marlboro Cemetery.

1850-1860 Esther Coates Wileman's Child's Quilt, Smithsonian National Museum of American History object description accessed 5/20/2017 at census and Quaker meeting records.
Coates, Truman.  A Genealogy of Moses and Susanna Coates Who Settled in Pennsylvania in 1717.  Compiled by Truman Coates, M.D., 1906.
Index, Fallowfield Monthly Meeting records.
Jones, Marjorie Stith. "The Life and Death of Major A. G. Wileman" in the Pendleton County Historical and Genealogical Society Newsletter, Vol. 1, Issues 4 & 5,  Pendleton, Kentucky.  Accessed 5/20/2017 at  
Letter (undated) Abram Wileman to Mary Coates Cutler provided by Judy Kerr with a notation that it was written in 1853.
Letter (dated October 8, 1863) Colonel W. A. Warner to the Western Citizen newspaper titled "Particulars of the Murder of Major A. G. Wileman of the 18th Kentucky Infantry.' The letter was published by that newspaper on Friday, October 23, 1863.
Valentic, Judy Kerr.  Ancestors of Judith Kerr Valentic.  This was previously posted at but is no longer accessible.
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2017.



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