City of Cynthiana

Code Red


William Tell Coleman:

By Thelma Taylor

William Tell Coleman was born February 29, 1824 in Harrison County but he is almost never mentioned by local historians. However, many books and articles have been written about him, his discovery of Colemanite, manufacture of borax, his line of clipper ships that traveled regularly from New York to San Francisco, and his efforts to bring law and order to San Francisco.

William Tell's mother died when he was eight and his father died the next year. He lived with an aunt for until he was sixteen when he went to St. Louis. There he worked with a lumber company and went to St. Louis University. He was in San Francisco in 1849, not to search for gold but to supply miners with materials they needed. This was the beginning of the William Tell Coleman & Co. Wholesale Dealers and Commission Merchants.

With the gold rush came crime and lawlessness to San Francisco. George Washington's birthday came on a Saturday that a lynching was about to take place in downtown San Francisco. Some were pleading to let the courts take care of the prisoners' guilt. Others demanded that they be hanged. The streets were cleared that evening without any bloodshed, but Sunday morning many people headed for city hall to administer justice in one way or another. Coleman was on his way to church when he saw that a mob spirit was developing. He went home and changed from his "Sunday" clothes, came back and went to the balcony of city hall. He told the people circling below him to form their own court, try the man and if he was found guilt, they could hang him; if he was not guilty they had to let him go in peace. They agreed and the trial was held.

Coleman was made prosecuting attorney and judge. An assistant justice of the Supreme Court acted as defense attorney. After hours of testimony the case was given to a jury. They deliberated for three hours. Nine was for conviction and three against. Crime continued to keep the city in suspense. A fire was set deliberately for the purpose of looting the city. A group of responsible citizens formed the Committee of Vigilance to help control crime. Coleman became chairman. Contrary to many stories about the Vigilantes, they did not participate in indiscriminate hangings. These were a group of good people who worked to keep the city of San Francisco safe while the legal process was almost at a standstill.

Robert Louis Stevenson called Colman the Lion of the Vigilantes. He said that when Coleman arose and shook his cars, the whole brawling mob was silenced. He was proposed as a candidate for the US presidency by the New York Suit, but he was too far from Washington, DC to be an effective candidate. His businesses prospered to the point that he had to establish offices in New York to take care of the massive trade he had in San Francisco during this prosperous time. He had a fleet of clipper ship that sailed from New York to San Francisco around the Horn in 90 days. There was no Panama Canal. During World War II a cargo ship was named the SS William T. Coleman in memory of him.

In 1882, Coleman discovered hydrous calcium borate in Death Valley. It was named colemanite for its discoverer. He began the manufacture of borax there using his newly discovered chemical. . He designed the "20 Mule Team" design that was on boxes of borax to represent the mules that hauled the calcium borate from the mines.

In a letter written by Coleman at San Francisco June 7, 188 1, he said in part: I have been hoping that I would be able to visit Kentucky With a business house in New York and many advantages to make the trip, I have not however, been able to visit Kentucky for over 20 years I suppose you know that in the breaking up of our family, my father's personal effects were scattered to the winds, and we have few things to remember him by. If you have a miniature or a likeness of him of any kind, I would like for you to send it to me. If you have anything of his of any kind or nature, be kind enough to let me have it." Coleman's father was Napoleon Bonapart Coleman who served Harrison County as a State Representative from 1828 to 183 1. Many books and articles have been written about William, Tell Coleman, especially about his shipping business and his part in establishing a working government in California but few know that he was born in Harrison County, Kentucky.

Other atricles about Harrison County and Harrison Countians.

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