Jane Coomes [Delta Theta] - Well-Spring In the Wilderness
Delta Kappa Gamma - Project Pioneer Women Teachers
'Our journey begins in Charles County, Maryland. Here we have the first record of Jane Coomes. She and her husband, William, together with other pioneers under the leadership of James Harrod, migrated from Maryland to Kentucky. They were the first Catholic immigrants to Kentucky so far as history records. This group came out of Maryland in the spring of 1775 and reached Fort Harrod on September 8 of that year.
We can picture their journey, and the following might well be a description of it:
Probably at one particular fork of a stream a marauding band of Indians
had been beaten off by the men. The days passed, like as like, with long
slow pulls and sharp aching declines and the endless rise and fall of the
big hills. There was Kentucky spread before them. Purple shadows
cloaked the roof of the world. As they entered, Kentucky appeared to them
as it was later described, the dark and bloody ground. Beyond lay no
lush bluegrass, no fertile plain and well-kept farms, but interminable hills,
wild rough country, matted laurel, scrub cedar, hostile pine. No sign of
This was the setting at Fort Harrod where they settled and where Mrs. Coomes became the first school teacher of our infant commonwealth.
Jane Coomes's little school was built of the customary round logs with no chinking between them. It had a dirt floor, a slab door hung on deer thongs, and only one window. According to one authority this window was covered with doe skin; another had it greased paper. A mammoth fireplace, which extended along the entire east wall, had an opening at the south end through, which sections of logs could be hauled in and fitted over andirons. The seats were made of puncheons set on peg legs; there were no backs. A dunce stool stood in the corner; a rod for chastising nearby.
Mrs. Coomes taught the beginners the alphabet which was inscribed on paddle-shaped pine shingles. These paddles were equally useful to impart knowledge or inflict punishment. They were imitations of the hornbooks of Queen Elizabeth's time. Dillworth's speller and the New Testament were the sole textbooks. When the they studied the Bible and hymnbooks. They learned to write and solve number problems from copies set them by the teacher. Charcoal and smooth boards took the place of paper and pencil, and the juice of oak balls were used for ink.
It was a 'blab school' where all studied aloud, their swaying bodies keeping time to the tune of their ABCs. Perhaps the children studied as hard - being grateful for any opportunity to learn - as the boys and girls of today do, who have cultured teachers and attractive textbooks. Certainly their teacher was a woman of more education than was common for women at that time.
Jane Coomes has two large credits to her account in early Kentucky annals. She was not only the first teacher in Kentucky. She was not only the first teacher in Kentucky but is given credit, also, for being the first person to manufacture salt in Kentucky. She did this with the aid of some small boys while camping for several weeks at Drennon Springs on the Kentucky River near the present site of Frankfort.
The fact that the Coomes school was kept despite the hardships and irregularities of pioneer life, although for perhaps only three or four months during the year, proves the high estimate put upon education by the founders of Harrodsburg.
The following statement is of particular interest, considering the present agitation for raising teachers' salaries: 'With low pay, often in tobacco - which was legal tender - bear bacon, buffalo steak or jerked venison, these pioneer teachers eked out a precarious existence
In spite of the toils and hardships of the pioneer families, out of their ranks came many of our ablest leaders. Jane Coomes and her husband and sons remained in the fort for nine years, during which time William Coomes took an honorable part in the defense of the station, through the siege of 1776-77. He cleared land and helped with the provisioning of the fort. One of the sons was in the famous battle of Blue Licks.
Strangely, although Jane Coomes taught at Fort Harrod and was our first Kentucky teacher, there are none of her relics in the museum there. However, a replica of the original school building is located not far from the entrance of the stockade, and with a little imagination, visitors can picture Mrs. Coomes and her charges at work there.
On Sunday, October 13, 1935, the first school teacher who taught in Kentucky was honored by the Kentucky chapter of the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae in a dignified and impressive ceremony. A memorial tablet near the replica of the first log schoolhouse in Harrodsburg was unveiled by Miss Nora Coomes, Bardstown, Kentucky, a direct descendant of Jane. Miss Coomes lifted from the face of the bronze tablet a spray of goldenrod, Kentucky's flower. As she stepped aside, Miss Ruth K Donnelly of Louisville read:
To the memory of Mrs. William Coomes who opened and taught the first school in Kentucky.
Also on the plaque were the dates 1775, the year she came to Harrodsburg, and 1784, the year in which she and her family left for Nelson County.
Rev. John F Knue of St. Elizabeth Church, Louisville, spoke at the unveiling ceremony. He told of the hardships Mrs. Coomes and her family shared in coming from Maryland to Kentucky and of the building of the fort, in which her husband did his part, felling the trees for the cabin schoolhouse inside the stockade. He said, in part:
With the earliest day in Kentucky, education, was considered one of the foundations
of community life, and had it beginning in Fort Harrod 160 years ago with the activities
of Mrs. William Coomes, a mother, whom we are assembled here to honor...
... Mrs. Coomes picked up these chips, and smoothed their surfaces. I can see her
now, painstakingly writing on one chip of the figure '1', on another '2', and so on,
and likewise the letters of the alphabet, and words on more chips until she had the
fundamentals of education to place before the children of the settlers. Primitive, yes,
but the more primitive the more glory to this woman - the busy mother of a family who
found time to teach the children of the backwoods.
The memorial services included music furnished by the Harrodsburg Choral Club. The Rev Father, Felix Pitt, Louisville, chairman of the Catholic school board, presided.
Harrodsburg tradition calls Mrs Coomes "Jane", but in Nelson County records her name appears as Frances. The date of her death sometime between 1789 and 1813 is not known. One authority gives it as about 1813.
The only records of her illustrious ancestor in the possession of Miss Nora Coomes are a family tree showing the direct descent of Miss Nora from William and Frances Coomes. It is a bit puzzling that rather than her signature on this deposition there is her mark. Judge S.J. Boldrick, Louisville, who examined the Nelson County records, gives this explanation: There were no eye glasses to be had in her old age, and in the signing of several deeds which she executed she did not see well enough to sign her name and had to make her mark.
William Coomes was registered in the records as the owner of a thousand acres of land. Part of this acreage is the present site of Wickland, home of three governors.
In Bardstown, Kentucky, in one of the old cemeteries, sleep William and Jane Coomes and many of their descendants. Other descendants live nearby; still others are scattered all over the country. Jane Coomes was, indeed, as is expressed in our favorite toast to Kentucky:
Daughter of the East,
Mother of the West,
Link between the North and the South."
Pioneer Medical Men and Times in Kentucky
John A Ouchterlony, A.M.M.D.
University of Louisville
The First Female Physician
In the company of emigrants with whom Dr. Geo. Hartt came to Kentucky were also Wm. Coomes and his wife, Frances. The husband was brave and intrepid; took part in many fights with the Indians, and had numerous adventures and hair breadth escapes. He reached a high age, and was much respected and honored; but it is especially his wife who claims attention in connection with pioneer Medicine in Kentucky. She was a woman of remarkably vigorous intellect, great originality and fertility of resource, and of strong and noble character. She certainly was the first female who ever practiced Medicine in Kentucky and according to some she was the first of her sex to exercise the beneficent functions of the healing arts of our State. She was physician, surgeon, and obstetrician, and her fame and practice extended far and wide, even attracting patients from remote settlements and not only in Kentucky, but in adjoining States.
Under whatever circumstances she might be placed, she was ever actively engaged in useful occupations tending to the comfort and welfare of the people around her.
This excellent couple came originally from Charles County, Maryland, whence they had removed to the south branch of the Potomac River in Virginia. On the way to Harrod's Station the party encamped for some weeks at Drennon's Lick, in the neighborhood of the present city of Frankfort.
Here Mrs. Coomes, aided by those of the party not engaged in hunting, employed herself in making salt; the first time, perhaps, that this article was manufacture in the State.
According to a tradition in her family, she was the first woman who made bread in Kentucky.
She brought with her from Maryland a supply of calomel, which she administered very freely when she thought it was really needed; but, ordinarily she was quite [cha y] in dispensing it, owing to its being exceedingly expensive. As a substitute for this valuable medicine, and as a purgative, she would make a sort of extract of the bark of white walnut, by boiling the bark down to a syrupy mass, which was then made into pills. In those troublous times, when gunshot wounds from the rifles of hostile Indians were almost an everyday occurrence, she often cut for and extracted bullets. Among the more notable surgical achievements, the record of which has come down to our day, there are two especially worthy of mention as showing either a very sound, clear, and practical judgment, or a wonderfully accurate surgical instinct. The first case occurred in the person of one of her grandchildren, who was born with the feet turned up against its shin bones. This was evidently a case of congenital calipers caleaneus, the rarest of all different forms of club foot, and was treated according to correct surgical principles by this backwoods surgeon of the eighteenth century, and only with brilliant success, but the cure also effected with remarkable rapidity. The means adopted consisted of a series of hickory splints made by herself, of appropriate shape and size which were kept in position with bandages, the dressing being changed every few days to suit the progress of the case.
The second case was a man who had come from Virginia to consult this celebrated woman doctor. He had a chronic ulcer somewhere on the lower extremities, constituting a severe lesion, for which he had applied in vain to many physicians.
Mrs Coomes having critically examined the patient, informed him that she could cure him, but the treatment would necessarily be severe; if he thought he could endure the suffering it entailed she would be willing to undertake the management of his case. The patient having expressed his willingness to undergo whatever suffering might be necessary in order to affect a cure of his disease, we may assume that her operative procedures were begun without delay. Her operating table was rather primitive and of rude construction, but not the less effective. It was made out of a piece of timber hewn specially for her purpose, and so constructed as to enable her to strap the patient down upon it, with a view to obtain perfect immobility, or as near to it as possible. The patient having been firmly secured in a suitable position, the operator proceeded to make a dam of clay around the diseased locality, in order to protect the surrounding healthy tissues, and then applied a powerful escharotie by pouring hot boiling lard over the affected surface. Doubtless it was a rude procedure, but it was the best circumstances would permit; and after all, the principle involved was sound, and the brilliancy of the cure was a satisfactory demonstration of the merit of the remedy.
Kentucky, so justly proud of the beauty and virtue of its women, may thus claim to have had the first female physician and surgeon on the continent. What though she never saw the inside of a medical college! What though the degree of Doctor of Medicine had never been conferred on her! In those days there were few who had; yet her work was good, her success undoubted, and her life was noble. Among her posterity there is a physician, a distinguished member of this Society [Dr. Martin F. Coomes, of Louisville, who may point with pride to this old lady as one of his ancestors not only of blood, by by profession.
On reflecting upon the life and labors of this remarkable woman, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that she must have had a preceptor. Her work was too good to have been entirely the work of empiricism. The long and intimate association of Dr. Hartt with her family as friend and neighbor renders it extremely probably that she had the benefit of his instruction, and perhaps also of the use of whatever of a medical library he possessed.
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