Nielsen Hayden genealogy

Frances Jane

Female 1747 - 1816  (69 years)


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  • Name Frances Jane  
    Born 1747  Charles, Maryland Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Gender Female 
    Died 25 Apr 1816  Cox's Creek, Nelson, Kentucky Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Person ID I6678  Nielsen Hayden genealogy
    Last Modified 2 Dec 2015 

    Family William John Coomes,   b. 8 Aug 1734, Coomes Purchase, Charles, Maryland Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. 6 Nov 1824, Cox's Creek, Nelson, Kentucky Find all individuals with events at this location  (Age 90 years) 
    Children 
    +1. William John Coomes,   b. 13 Mar 1769, Charles, Maryland Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. Bef Jun 1844, Daviess, Kentucky Find all individuals with events at this location  (Age < 75 years)
    Last Modified 19 May 2017 09:44:39 
    Family ID F3857  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

  • Notes 
    • The following is a transcript of a paper written by genealogical researcher and 5th great grandaughter of Frances Jane Coomes, Rita Mackin Fox:

      While conducting research on the life of Kentucky pioneer Frances (a.k.a. Jane) Coomes (a.k.a. Combs, Coombs, Coombes)--Kentucky's first teacher, among other achievements--the status of women in American history became very clear. I experienced firsthand the frustration of trying to discover the story of one Kentucky pioneer who had the misfortune of being born a second-class citizen--a woman. For Frances and other women in American history, very few historical documents exist to tell us what their lives were like. When a woman's accomplishments were deemed noteworthy enough to be included in a civil document or historical record, she usually was referred to in connection with her husband's name because, upon marriage, almost all women in colonial and federal America were viewed as being one legal entity with their husbands.

      While Frances Coomes had many historical accomplishments in her own right, she is referred to in most state history books only as Mrs. William Coomes. Her maiden name is unknown. Some researchers believe her to be a Lancaster, others a Greenleaf or Greenwell, and yet others a Mills. But I have yet to see any solid proof for any of these surnames. I hope one day to find her marriage record--which is probably in Maryland or Virginia--but I know many other Coomes researchers have already tried and failed to turn up such evidence.

      Kentucky historians and Coomes researchers can't even agree on her given name--Frances or Jane. There was a plaque erected in her honor during the 1930s at Fort Harrod State Park in Harrodsburg (also referred to in this paper as Harrod's Town, its original name), Ky., which referred to her as Jane. Several deeds in Nelson County, Kentucky, the first of which was dated 10 March 1789, refer to her as Frances. To illustrate the confusion, at Frankfort's Department of Libraries and Archives, there are two biographical sketches on her in the vertical files--one under Jane, the other Frances. The "Jane" file lists her achievement as being Kentucky's first schoolteacher. The "Frances" file describes her role as Kentucky's first woman physician. Both mention her being the first Anglo in Kentucky--woman or man--to manufacture salt. Because she is called Frances in the only primary documents I have found, I will use that name, unless citing a source that names her otherwise.

      With that established, let me share what I have learned of my ancestor, Frances Coomes, my maternal fifth-great-grandmother. In the process, I hope to give my reader a glimpse of the life of a pioneer woman on the Kentucky frontier.

      Frances makes her marks on Kentucky history

      Frances's husband William is credited, along with Dr. George Hart, an Irishman and physician, as being one of the first Catholics in Kentucky. Of course, they actually were the first Catholic males, as the entire Coomes family emigrated at the same time. Along with Frances, their nine children are overlooked as being among the first Catholics in Kentucky. All of their children were born before the family emigrated to Kentucky circa 1775-76. Like so many other questions yet to be answered, the exact date of Frances and William's arrival at Harrod's Town is in dispute. Martin Spalding and others give 1775 as the year. However, Frances's arrival is not included in the following passage from Allen's History of Kentucky: "In September 1775, three more ladies arrived in Kentucky, and, with them their husbands and children settled in Harrodsburg, to wit: Mrs. Denton, Mrs. McGary, and Mrs. Hogan." The Fort Harrod entry in the Kentucky Encyclopedia reads: "Among the pioneers who arrived in 1776 were Jane Coomes, who started a school and taught for the next nine years...." But all sources agree that the Coomes family was in Kentucky by 1776, the year Kentucky County, Virginia, was created by the Virginia Assembly. Harrod's Town served as the county seat.

      Frances began to make her place in Kentucky history soon after entering the region. Spalding, writing in 1844, cites information provided by Frances's son, Walter A. Coomes, who said he was about 16 years old when he arrived at Harrod's Town. Spalding reports that William Coomes was born in Charles Co., Md., and later moved to the south branch of the Potomac River in Virginia. (It is not yet known if they were married in Maryland or Virginia.) The Coomes family emigrated from Virginia to what is now Kentucky together with Abraham and Isaac Hite. Spalding shares this glimpse of Frances's first historically noteworthy activity:

      "On their way through Kentucky to Harrod's Station, the party encamped for seven weeks at Drilling's (sic) Lick, in the neighbourhood of the present city of Frankfort. Here Mrs. Coomes, aided by those of the party who were not engaged in hunting, employed herself in making salt--for the first time, perhaps, that this article was manufactured in our State."

      George Morgan Chinn describes the salt-making event as follows (although her being Irish is not yet proven):

      "While the party was camped near Drennon's Lick, Mrs. Coomes, a resourceful Irish Catholic...collected a few kettles and directed the boiling of salt water from the spring. The Indians had long used this method for obtaining salt, but for the early settlers it was hardly a practical solution. Even if heavy and precious iron kettles large enough for the project could be obtained, it took from 800 to 1000 gallons of the salty spring water and days of feeding the hot fires under the boiling kettles to produce one bushel of salt--comparable in value to 20 British shillings, a good cow and calf, or 1000 pounds of tobacco."

      Needless to say, Frances was an invaluable person to have along on the Wilderness Trail from Virginia, through the Cumberland Gap, and into Kentucky. She proved even more valuable once she arrived at Harrod's Town. According to one biographical file in the Library Extension Division, she is credited as being the first woman physician in Kentucky. The sketch reads:

      "There she practiced medicine and surgery, and she was in wide demand on the frontier as an obstetrician....From Maryland she had brought her meager supply of medicines. These she supplemented by making her own from herbs. She dispensed calomel, her principal drug, sparingly. As a substitute, she boiled an extract of white walnut until it became a sirupy (sic) mass, and then made pills of it."

      This biography, which cites Dr. John A. Ouchterlony's Pioneer Medical Men and Times of Kentucky as its source, also describes two examples of Frances's healing practices. She successfully treated a case of clubfoot in one of her grandchildren, who had been born with her or his toes touching the shin bones. Frances bandaged the deformed feet daily until they were normal. Another treatment is described in greater detail:

      "... that of a man who came to her from Virginia for treatment of an ulcer. She informed him the treatment would be severe, but he consented. She provided an operating table of hewn timber, constructed to enable the patient to be strapped down. She used clay to fashion a dam around the diseased tissues and then applied a powerful escharotic (sic) by pouring hot boiling lard over the affect[ed] surface. It was a crude procedure, but the principle was sound. And the patient was cured."

      Dr. Ouchterlony is quoted as writing that Frances "certainly was the first female who ever practiced medicine in Kentucky, and according to some was the first of either sex to exercise the beneficent functions of the healing art in our State." The sketch stated (though it did not attribute the statement to Ouchterlony) that "it is assumed she may have practiced medicine before her neighbor, Dr. Hart, had an opportunity to do so, although it is believed that she had the benefit of his instruction and perhaps the use of whatever medical library he possessed."

      At Harrod's Town, the Coomes family lived outside the fort, but used the fort for protection during sieges and attacks by Indians, which continued long after the Coomes family moved on to Nelson County. The first of the attacks began in March 1777, when the fort came under continuous attack by Indians. Several Kentucky histories, including Spalding's, recount the narrow escape of William Coomes in an attack outside the fort in which one of his Harrod's Town companions was killed.

      Frances occupied part of her time in Harrod's Town as a teacher and is credited with being Kentucky's first educator. "Mrs. Coomes, at the urgent request of the citizens, opened a school for the education of children." The need was great, according to a fall 1777 census of the fort that shows nearly one-third of Fort Harrod's population was under the age of ten--58 white and seven black children. (It is not known if the black children, possibly slaves, were provided instruction.) Present-day Kentucky historian Thomas D. Clark described Mrs. Coomes' school as "nothing more than a dame school without significant implications of the English system of education. Her youngsters of Fort Harrod were taught to read and write from paddles with the alphabet inscribed upon them and from the Bible texts."

      The Library Extension Service biographical sketch quotes a Lexington Herald story about the school as follows:

      "Her texts were the New Testament and crude wooden paddles, which took the place of horn books of Queen Elizabeth's time, on which the letters of the alphabet and figures were printed. It was a blab school where all studied aloud, their swaying bodies keeping time to the tune of their A B Cs. A dunce stool stood in a corner; a rod for chastising the negligent nearby. The seats were made of puncheons or logs cut lengthwise, set up on peg legs, there were no backs. That little school room was built of round logs with no chinking between them. It had a dirt floor, only one window, covered with a doe-skin instead of glass, and a slab door hung on deer throngs."

      Kathryn Harrod Mason describes horn books as "a paddlelike affair made of clapboard and a piece of horn, which was steamed and flattened to provide a smooth writing surface." Mason adds the following anecdote:

      "Mrs. Coomes called the children with a brass bell that had once hung around the neck of a cow she had brought across the Wilderness Road."

      While Frances left no diary behind, we can get a glimpse of her daily life in this description of the typical pioneer woman in Kentucky:

      "Woman was something more than man's helpmate on the frontier ... 'it is not known whether the man or woman be the most necessary.' ... She was both mistress and servant, matron and nursery maid, housekeeper and charwoman, dairy-maid and cook....Custom and necessity united to lay upon her the duty of providing for every household need that the rude agriculture of the period did not supply, and in all the multifarious activities which engaged her skill and energy, she labored unaided by labor-saving machinery. And so she milked the cows in all weather, while sturdy men and boys watched an operation too effeminate to enlist their service; churned the butter and pressed the cheese; carried the tube to the spring and caught rain-water for the weekly 'washing' from the eaves in troughs and barrels; made her own soft-soap; washed, picked, carded and dyed the wool; pulled, broke, hatcheled and bleached the hemp; spun the thread; and wove the cloth; contrived and made the garments; reared her children; nursed the sick, sympathized with the distressed and encouraged the disheartened laborer at her side. In all this, and above it all, woman was the tutelar saint of the frontier."

      Frances in later years

      Spalding reports that Frances and William remained at Harrod's Town for nine years. By 1783, William had obtained a grant for 1,000 acres in Jefferson County on the Cox's and Stewart's creek watercourses. This land helped form Nelson County in 1784. William was deeded this land in December 1784. He became a prominent Catholic landowner in this area and is mentioned often in deeds, court records, and the marriage bonds of his daughters and sons. Frances seems to have slipped into obscurity, only mentioned by given name in a few deeds between 1789 and 1813 and identified as William's wife.

      The Coomes family Bible gives the date Frances died as 25 April 1816. William passed away on 6 Nov 1824. No will was probated nor is there a record of their estate being settled in Nelson County. Several of their children had moved on to Daviess and other counties, so it is possible they did not die in Nelson County. But they might not have had any property left to be divided. In 1813, William and Frances divided 1,646 acres of their land among eight of their nine children, excluding only Nancy Ann.

      While this paper has to come to an end, my search for Frances's story goes on. Primary records, particularly marriage, deed and will records may hold many clues, if only I can find them. Perhaps I'll even find mention of her in the diaries and records of her neighbors. But I already am quite proud of all Frances managed to accomplish--not the least of which is the feat of getting her name mentioned in any record in our state's male-authored history books.