Biography of Thomas Coates of Fillmore County

Thomas Coates was a native of Yorkshire, England, his home being near the County line; their nearest important town was Worksop, in Nottinghamshire. The district is probably one of the most interesting in the old Country, and has certainly been in all times one of the most beautiful.

In the time of the Saxons; between the eighth and ninth century, when the country was known as Mercia, this neighborhood suffered a great deal through the inroads of the Danes; those intrepid Vikings, or Norsemen who loved to roam the North Sea and exploit the English and other shores.

The neighborhood is also famous because of the Sherwood Forest, and the stories of daring deeds done by “Robin Hood and his Merry Men” who we are told was a renowned outlaw in the twelfth century, who was always popular with the rustics because he plundered the rich and gave his surplus to the poor. From the number of large mansions in the neighborhood, the district is known as “The Dukeries” the great parks of which were part of the Sherwood Forest. The Robinhood hills rise to a height of 600 feet, and are still the happy hunting grounds of the local Dukes, Earls, and Gentry during the season.

It was in this historic neighborhood that Thomas Coates was born and raised, and where in July 1848 he was married to Sarah Annie Johnson. Up to the time of their leaving England, he worked in the limestone quarries and rented a farm which was often done by enterprising men.

They came to this Country in 1871, bringing with them a young family of seven children five boys and two girls, arriving at Lincoln in the month of May. The B. & M. Railroad was then just laid as far as Lincoln, so they stayed there until the track was laid as far as Crete, then they made their way west, and he bought some Railroad land on Section 18, near the Turkey creek in Saline County. They lived there until the year 1873 when he bought the homestead rights of the northeast quarter of section 2, in Liberty Township, Fillmore County, where they resided until the time of their death; Mr. Coates dying in 1888 and Mrs. Coates in 1911.

We are indebted to Mr. Joseph Coates, the fourth son in the family, for the following reminiscences, who remembers very distinctly the farm horns in England (especially where the good Apple trees stood) as well as the experiences of pioneer life on the prairie.

When they came to this country there was plenty of wild game still in the neighborhood which helped to make the new life interesting. One day he came very suddenly on a large herd of antelopes lying in a ravine, when on their seeing him they made a rush which seemed to shake the earth; such was the apparent effect caused by those particular kind of animals, when starting to run. The prairie fires were the terror of their lives, the fiery monster could be seen coming for three days before it reached their place, and could be seen three days after it had passed. This gave sufficient warning, and time to make fire guards, but often the fire would leap the guards, and not even Turkey creek proved a hindrance to its onward march of destruction.

He would often visit the camp fire of the Indians, and sit in their circles watching their mode of life and listening to their old war and other songs. The Indians always seemed as happy as larks, life on a whole seemed a real pleasure, for they made the best of their conditions. They were often very poorly clad, even in the coldest of weather, and explained their ability to stand the cold by saying, “Indian all face,” and of course, the white man does not usually cover his face. They were always glad to have a dead sheep, no matter what might have been the cause of its death. One day when about thirteen years of age he was out hunting rabbits, when quite unexpectedly an Indian came up to him and took the gun out of his hand, after looking it carefully over, the Indian handed it back without making any remarks and walked away, but young Coates at the time thought his end had come. On another occasion he went with a party to hunt antelopes, taking with them seven or eight dogs, but no guns. On the first day out they saw a lone antelope, and as soon as the dogs saw it they gave chase, and in a run of about eighty rods caught and killed it. The next day they saw a herd of fourteen, bunched up together, but this time the dogs would not touch them, and being without guns they could only look on with great disappointment, as the animals finally made their escape in single file.

Among the most peculiar incidents of the early years are those resulting from the tornado which visited the neighborhood and completely destroyed the house and farm buildings on the “Wadman” place near the Turkey creek.

When the tornado struck the house, Mrs. Wadman (nee, Mary Coates) had retired for the night with her two children. They were lying’ on a feather bed which lay on a mattress oh the bedstead, when they were carried away by the storm and afterwards found in a ravine some four rods away, but were lying on the mattress, the feather bed and bedstead having mysteriously gone in some other direction. The brother, John, and the hired man were also in bed when John was carried and thrown into a large pond four rods from the house, and while in the water some roof or other was pressed down upon him, the nails of the shingles being pressed into his neck and back, and then just as suddenly taken away from him. When he was found by his brothers who had come to the rescue, he lay in the cellar all that was left of the house, and was without clothing; being left with only the neck band of his night shirt. The hired man was found with a large cut over the eye; who felt sure he was dying, but he soon got over the shock.

To show the force and the mysterious power of a tornado, we mention the fact, that a bull wheel of a large “header” which would have needed some time to be removed from its place by a practical machinist, was instantly removed without any other damage to the “header” and was carried a mile and a half over the country, being afterwards found on section 19 in Saline County.

Mr. Wadman at this time was raising white faced cattle, and had at the time of the storm a white faced thorough bred bull tied to a hitching post in the middle of the yard, and was therefore right in the middle of the storm, yet in spite of the sweeping away of the buildings on every hand, the bull was found the next morning in the same place quite unconcerned, and contentedly chewing his cud as though nothing had happened.

Many stories might be told about the great blizzard, and the grasshopper plague, but these are similar to the incidents already recorded.

During those early years Mr. Coates could buy in his neighborhood corn in shock at five cents a bushel, eggs were sold at five cents a dozen and butter at five cents a pound.

Mrs. Coates died in 1911. Mr. Thomas Coates, Her Husband, Died in 1888.

Mrs. Coates, “Grandma,” as she was usually called, will long be remembered for the great service she rendered to the families in the district, often acting as both doctor and nurse. She was ever willing to lend a helping hand in the time of need, and was an ever welcome visitor in every home. Her stories of the old country and its people were in great demand, the information being both interesting and instructive. She visited the old country three times, thus crossing the Atlantic seven times, no small undertaking for a woman, and especially for one who never got over that sad experience of seasickness. Mr. Coates crossed the Atlantic three times having visited America as early as 1865, when he came as far west as the Niagara Falls. In making that first sea trip he was sixteen weeks on the ocean, and therefore had quite a seagoing experience. Many and great were the changes from the old to the new, but they had the consciousness that the change was to their mutual advantage, and they shared in the joys of developing the agricultural resources of a new country, and helped in the making of a home for future generations.


Pioneer Stories of the Pioneers of Fillmore and adjoining Counties, by G. R. McKeith, Press of Fillmore County News, Exeter, Nebraska, 1915.

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