By Diane Euston
Kansas City in 1854 was little more than a riverfront town where business houses and a steamboat landing greeted pioneers venturing to their next destination. When the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed, many of the pioneers venturing out west weren’t the proslavery lot that had settled in the area in the 1830s.
These new emigrants, sponsored by antislavery societies in the east, were crowding the riverfront town and making arrangements to settle Kansas. They were a direct threat to the ideals and way of life of these Southerners.
In Kansas City’s first elite neighborhood, Pearl Hill, towering just above the levee on what is a now-demolished 1st Street, the community watched on high alert. Women, dressed in their finest garb, lined the Southern-style porches facing the river. Jesse Riddlesbarger and his Southern friend, Charles Kearns ensured that the Confederate flag hung high from this hill. It was, in fact, the first Confederate flag raised in Kansas City.
Beside the flagpole was a working cannon aimed perfectly northeast toward the enemy. Over 60 feet above the current-day Kansas City, these men gathered around the cannon while an enormous crowd, “wild with enthusiasm” could be heard as each flint was lit and cannonballs flew freely over the Missouri River.
This was well before the Civil War that would tear the country in half over the contestation of slavery, but that cannon fire certainly was there to send a message to these abolitionists crowding on the levee, ready and willing to sacrifice their lives to ensure Kansas Territory would be free.
There are names synonymous with the Free State movement such as Jim Lane, Charles Jennison, and notorious John Brown, a radical abolitionist-turned-terrorist who stormed Harper’s Ferry.
All of these men were radical at the time – they were heroes in the North and steadfast enemies of the South. There were others, not always linked to the Free State cause, who openly held beliefs that would get the average citizen killed at this tumultuous time coined the Border Wars.
One of these men, Kersey Coates and his wife, Sarah, took an even greater risk than the average abolitionists. Instead of settling into Kansas with like minded pioneers, Kersey Coates decided to fight this battle in the proslavery City of Kansas. And, not only did he stay, he prospered and grew to be one of the city’s leading businessmen who is credited for making decisions that would turn Kansas City into a metropolis. In addition, Sarah Coates made her own mark on society in her many roles.
Life in Pennsylvania
Born in Sadsbury, Lancaster County, Pa. in 1823, Kersey Coates’s parents, Lindley and Deborah were longtime members of the Society of Friends. His father “was possessed of remarkable natural talent, was an able debater, and a bold and fearless advocate in the cause of emancipation of the Southern slaves.”
Kersey’s father was a farmer, but as his son grew, he could see that he was more in tune with business. Kersey was sent to Whitestown Seminary and Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. He then taught literature at a high school before opting to enter law school. He was admitted to the bar in 1852.
Born in 1829 in Pennsylvania, Sarah Walter Chandler was the daughter of John and Maria Chandler. Her father was a Pennsylvania senator, and both her parents were Quakers who encouraged their only daughter to be outspoken.
Well-educated, Sarah organized a group of women to study physiology when it wasn’t openly acceptable for women to have knowledge of their own bodies. She attended Simmons Seminary in Philadelphia where she became a teacher at 16 and was made principal two years later.
Sarah openly discussed her viewpoints of freedom for all and encouraged reading so women would be aware of what was “going on in the business, scientific and literary world,” Kersey Coates met his match. The couple married in 1855.
Just a year earlier, Kersey Coates made his first trip West as an agent of the Philadelphia Emigrant Aid Society. “Following the lead of his father,” Theodore S. Case wrote, “who was a bold and active member of the Underground Railway, [Kersey] openly espoused the Anti-slavery cause and devoted his energies to settling up the virgin prairies of Kansas with free men and educating its people to the principles of freedom and equal rights.”
Kersey had been sent by these businessmen to make investments in the area. His wife, Sarah, later wrote, “Lawrence was his choice for a home, and Leavenworth possessed many attractive features, but with this far-seeing eye he discerned that this little straggling river town, then but the landing for Westport, had possibilities possessed by no other which he beheld.”
In 1854, he purchased on behalf of these businessmen $6,600 worth of real estate stretching from the Missouri River to Santa Fe between Main and Broadway. These 110 acres in the heart of the city would later change his life.
Going to Kansas City, Dangerous Kansas City
The dangers of an openly abolitionist couple in Kansas City cannot be stressed enough.
Kersey Coates headed back to Pennsylvania to pick up his wife in the Spring of 1856 to take her to her new home. Aboard the William Campbell, the couple arrived at Westport Landing April 13, 1856.
“But alas!” Sarah Coates wrote in her diary, “How my heart sank when the thought passed through my mind, ‘And this to be my home!’”
The sight of a frontier town at the crossroads of Native American ejection, the battle over slavery and the impetus of the three trails would have been foreign to an educated lady from the east. “’Be brave,’ said the spirit in me, and instead of sitting down and weeping, as most women would have done, I immediately went to work to investigate my new and strange surroundings,” Sarah wrote.
The couple’s first meal together was at the American Hotel, commonly known as the Gilliss House Hotel. The hotel on the levee had been built by William Gilliss and Benoist Troost in 1849 and was sold by Gilliss to agents of the Emigrant Aid Company of Boston in September 1854.
It is truly amazing that Gilliss, a slaveholder himself, agreed to the sale of his hotel to his enemy. But, always the businessman, the price of $10,000 was probably too good to pass up.
Sarah and her husband settled into an 8×10 foot room on the second floor of the hotel. From that window, Sarah saw the tense situation of what they were up against as abolitionists. “It was no usual thing to see 50 or 60 armed Southerners arrive and to hear their cry, ‘Death to all the d—-d Yankees!” Sarah wrote. The threat was so large that they slept with guns under their pillows.
Sarah was less than impressed with Kansas City. “It was a most unsightly spot, with scarcely a redeemable feature about it.”
The territorial governor of Kansas, Andrew Reeder (1807-1864) was in a heap of trouble just a month after the Coates’s had settled. When Missourians stormed over the border to vote illegally, the scales were tipped and the legislature (coined “The Bogus Legislature”) elected were pro-slavery men. Reeder was “hotly pursued by his pro-slavery enemies” who “swore they would kill him on sight.”
The American Hotel was where they would hide him until he could escape to the east. “I was ready and willing to do my part to save the life of one so valuable to the cause of human freedom,” Sarah explained. Kersey was in Lawrence at the time, so about five women, including Sarah, decided the only way to get him past the proslavery men buzzing about the town was to change his appearance.
“Disguised as an Irish paddy, with pipe in mouth, and assuming an air of perfect independence, he sallied forth from his place of concealment, walking boldly down stairs into the reading room, and there took his seat as though he were free from suspicion as anyone in the house,” Sarah recalled.
Later, Andrew Reeder would send a photograph of him in disguise to Sarah, writing, “[The photograph] is but an insignificant token of my gratitude to you and Mr. C.”
Before the Civil War, Kersey Coates was able to carve out unforeseen relationships with more than his friends from the east. In 1857, he helped organize the Chamber of Commerce. He became involved in banking, real estate and merchandising. When the Emigrant Aid Society wanted to sever ties with Kansas City due to its proslavery leanings, Kersey Coates purchased those 110 acres he had bought on their behalf and began building.
He developed what became known as Church Hill between 8th and 12th St. between Holmes and Troost Ave. that originally was “the core of Kansas City’s Black community.” In the subdivision known as Perry Place, Kersey Coates only sold to African Americans until 1870.
His allocation of land for African Americans allowed for the creation of several churches and the area’s first Black school.
The Civil War
In 1859, the couple built a beautiful brick home on the outskirts of Kansas City at 10th and Pennsylvania (a street he named for his home state) in a subdivision he built and called “Quality Hill.” The neighborhood on one of the highest bluffs overlooking the West Bottoms became the place for the elite, especially those who shared their beliefs. It became the most exclusive neighborhood, replacing the old Pearl Hill, into the 1880s.
Sarah later recollected, “I thought Kersey was crazy when he talked of building here.”
At the time he built on Quality Hill, it stood out in the open, free from any neighbors except for the log cabin occupied by Fr. Bernard Donnelly, the log church and Catholic burial ground a block south.
It’s no surprise that the Coates household was that of a Republican household in support of Lincoln. On the day of the 1860 election, “he was one of only 70 or 80 citizens who were calling to put themselves on the record as ‘Black Republicans.’”
As a businessman leasing space, Kersey would often become liable for the debt of merchants. In 1856, a man named Franklin Conant built a one-story frame store on the northwest corner of Missouri Ave. and Main. When it failed, the business was sold on the eve of the Civil War to William Gilliss and Kersey Coates. Both men were wealthy but not genuinely interested in store operations.
The fact that Kersey was in business with one of the area’s most active proslavery men, William Gilliss, may seem shocking, but he likely was looking to turn a profit in unforeseen times. And, the men did conduct business together under the name “Gilliss & Coates” for a few years until “Gilliss, being outspoken and of Southern sympathies, was told by the provost marshal to soft-pedal his views, shut up shop or get out town. He chose the last two alternatives.”
The business was then sold to brothers, Lathrop and Thomas Bullene. In 1863, the Bullene’s bought the interest in the store which would later become Bullene, Moore, & Emery, the precursor to Emery, Bird, Thayer (EBT).
Kersey and Sarah got their wish in 1861 when Kansas was admitted as a free state, but the celebration was short-lived due to the outbreak of the Civil War. Kersey had visions of building a large hotel at 10th and Broadway on his land, but only the foundation had been finished. There, the Union Army used the foundation as a barracks and called it Camp Union. “I remember it well, with its old cannon that always looked so formidable, its adjoining barracks, and the dear old flag that waved so proudly over all,” Laura Coates Reed, daughter of Kersey and Sarah Coates recalled. The cannon was used to warn the area of impending danger.
During the Civil War, Kersey enlisted in the Missouri Home Guard in the 77th Regiment, rising to the rank of colonel. When Kersey was out on military duty, Sarah would be forced with her young children to hide in the basement of her home. Once a bullet from the nearby Camp Union went through a bedroom window of their home.
The war tore the region apart before it was ever to be put back together. During the Battle of Westport, the Lockridge Hotel at 5th and Main had its upper floor, a public hall, used as a hospital. 250 wounded soldiers from both sides were taken care of at this place, and among those helping was Sarah Coates.
“I recollect my mother, always active in good deeds, tearing up old sheets and hastening to the relief of wounded soldiers,” Laura Coates Reed later wrote.
Town Builder and a Women’s Suffrage Leader
After the Civil War, all that Kersey had was tied up in real estate. Prior to the war, he had secured the Missouri Pacific and Cameron Railroads in Kansas City, but the project was abandoned due to the war.
No railroad had yet reached the city; the closest tracks were 30 miles away. Kersey got in touch with capitalists in the east and was able to renew the contract for the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroads to build the Cameron branch, thus procuring “a charter for a bridge over the Missouri River at Kansas City.” He, along with Charles Kearney, Robert T. Van Horn, and Theodore Case had brought the railroad to the city.
The bridge became a direct link between Chicago and Texas. It was the first rail bridge across the Missouri River when it opened July 3, 1869, and established Kansas City rather than Leavenworth or St. Joseph as the dominant city in the region.
In 1870 just after the Hannibal Bridge spanned the Missouri River, the population of Kansas City was 32,260. Five years prior, the population was only 3,500. Because of the railroad, Kansas City was growing six times faster than St. Louis.
When a five-story hotel failed at 1005 Broadway where Camp Union once was, Kersey reclaimed the real estate and named it the Coates House. Across the street, Kersey had built the impressive Coates Opera House, completed in 1870 for $100,000. Inside the hotel, a portrait painted from the photo given by Gov. Reeder in disguise was painted and placed in the lobby.
Kersey Coates died in April 1887, just 33 years after he had arrived as an abolitionist in a proslavery town. He left his wife and three children, Laura, Lindley and Arthur. A year after his death, Sarah and and family demolished the original hotel and rebuilt it on the same site as the New Coates House Hotel. The hotel was partially destroyed by fire in 1978 and 20 people lost their lives. The hotel was restored and now remains a landmark in downtown Kansas City.
Friends called Sarah Chandler Coates “a physician of the soul.” She was an active member of many organizations, including the Women’s Christian Association that aided poor women, the Art Association and the Women’s Exchange, formed to help women who couldn’t leave their homes.
She was also the most active voice of women’s suffrage in Kansas City, fighting for women to get the right to vote with her close friend, Susan B. Anthony.
Sarah Coates died inside her home on Quality Hill July 25, 1897. In a letter written to her daughter, Susan B. Anthony said, “All of us are the poorer for the loss of her presence with us, but the richer, the better and nobler because of her heroic life, if we but strive to emulate her many virtues.”
Legacy in Kansas City
Kersey Coates was often described as bold, confident and enthusiastic while Sarah was timid, loving and trustful. Combined, these two emigrants “abhorred slavery” and worked openly to ensure that injustices were mended on the Missouri-Kansas border.
In 1892, the city wanted to clean up the area around what once was Kersey Coates’ premier neighborhood, Quality Hill. Under the leadership of George Kessler, West Terrace Park was created at 8th and Jefferson St., and the scenic drive below it was named Kersey Coates Drive. Unfortunately, the growth of the city had the drive demolished to make way for Interstate 35.
Regardless, the legacy of Kersey and Sarah Coates remains in so many aspects of our beloved Kansas City. It was the vision of men like Kersey Coates that gave way to the developments that made the city what it is today.
“He always expected great things from Kansas City,” Sarah Coates said before her death. “I never had the faith in the town he had.”
The Coates legacy is one of accepting a partner for who they are and being willing to make astonishing sacrifices for beliefs that were unpopular at the time – but were morally correct. Kersey and Sarah Coates are two pioneers who we are lucky to call Kansas Citians, and we are better and nobler knowing of their heroism.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com
2 thoughts on “A Battle For Freedom on the Border: the Life and Legacy of Kersey and Sarah Coates”
Thank you for being available to answer my email. Could you please explain where settlers were in 1830s in what became the state of Kansas? Your article on Kersey and Sarah Coates in the November 9, 2022 Martin City Telegraph refers to “the proslavery lot that had settled in the area in the 1830s.” Thank you for your help.
The proslavery lot were the early settlers into Missouri on the western border. Those who moved to the area came for the most part from Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Kansas was simply the territory at the time and the Indian Removal Act of 1830 had them relocating there before white settlement began in Kansas in 1854.