Sarah Walter Chandler was born on March 10, 1829, in Kennett Square, Penn., to Quaker parents John W. and Maria Jane Chandler. At an early age, Sarah was fascinated with botany and was a quick study, educating herself on a variety of subjects.
A strong believer in freedom of thought, during her early years of school she organized other progressive women to study physiology. She felt that women should have some knowledge of their bodies, a subject many thought unfit during the early 1800’s. She attended John Simmons Seminary in Philadelphia and received a certificate of proficiency, and was made Principal of the school at age 16.
In 1854, she wed fellow Pennsylvania native Kersey Coates. Her husband, representing the Emigrant Aid Society, made one of his first trips to Kansas City in 1855. His job: populate the Kansas territory with anti-slavery settlers and at the proper time, vote Kansas in as a free state.
Coates returned to Philadelphia to fetch his wife and they departed the cultured environs of the East and traveled by river to the new Town of Kansas settlement that would later become Kansas City. On the morning of April 13, 1856, the Coates stepped off the steamer William Campbell after a 13 day journey and Sarah exclaimed, “And this is to be my home?”
They took up residence in a eight by 10 foot room on the second floor of the American Hotel, formerly owned by the Emigrant Aid Society. From her room she was privy to the wild nature of the new frontier, Indians from across the Kaw who came to town to carouse and race their ponies up and down the levee giving, as Sarah puts it, “unearthly yells.”
Shortly after their arrival, the Coates purchased land near what is now 10th and Pennsylvania to build their home. Threats of war, however, were growing and the Coates, being Abolitionists, were soon targeted by pro-slavery guerrillas such as William Quantrill and William “Bloody Bill” Anderson and their gang of Missouri Bushwhackers. It was common for them to sleep with pistols under their pillows for protection.
Followinig the Civil War, Sarah Coates became immersed in the women’s sufferage movement, becoming personal friends with movement leader Susan B. Anthony. “There should be no discrimination made between the sexes in regard to the ballot. I am opposed to class legislation,” she stated during a speech. “I am of the decided opinion that women should be the co-workers of men on State Boards and School Boards. In my opinion, when the moral sense of good women is called in to help regulate these matters there will be less fraud and imposition.”
Sarah Coates was a tireless organizer having chartered a number of advocacy groups including the History Club of 1882, the Kansas City Athenaeum and the Interstate Women’s Conference that brought women together interested in temperance and suffrage. When she died in 1897, tributes came from all over the country from people whose lives she had touched. Her funeral was held at the Coates home on Quality Hill and the porches, yards and streets surrounding their house were filled with people who wanted to pay their respects.
Noted Kansas City Historian Dory Deangelo said of Sarah Coates in her book Voices Across Time, “Abolitionist among slaveholders, a liberal Christian among orthodox believers, a suffragist among the most conservative, she was held in life long esteem by many. Her husband may have built landmarks, but Sarah Coates helped build lives.”
Material for this column came from the “Voices Across Time: Profiles of Early Kansas Citians” by Dory Deangelo and “In Memoriam Sarah Walter Chandler Coates,” published as a tribute by her children, Laura, John and Arthur in 1898.