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Nellie Coupe, pioneer Whatcom County teacher

Profile of Nellie
Coupe by Bowden below

Profile of Nellie
Coupe by Edson

Skagit River Journal
Coupe Research

(Nellie Coupe)
Profile of Nellie Moore Coupe
Early Schools of Washington Territory, By Angie Burt Bowden, 1935
      Mrs. Coupe was Miss Nellie Moore, a niece of Mrs. Granville O. Haller, who had been given a broader education than usual at a young ladies' seminary in Baltimore, at General Haller's expense for the special purpose of acting as governess to the Haller children. The General, after the Indian Wars, had brought his family to Whidby Island about 1863, where they made their home.
      Coming west by way of the Isthmus and California, Miss Moore reached Whidby [now spelled Whidbey] Island in January, 1866. It was not long before other dwellers on the island begged the general to permit their children to share the instructions of Miss Nellie. Even Henry Roeder at Whatcom sent his oldest boy, John, to board at the Island so that he could go to the little private school. Among the children from the well-to-do folk of the settlement who were her pupils were those from the Ebey, Judson and Crockett families.
      That summer when John Roeder went home he brought Miss Nellie up to Whatcom for a visit at the express invitation of his mother. And so she became the life-long friend of the Roeder and Eldridge families. An interesting anecdote is told of her trip to the mainland:
      "When Nellie Moore and John Roeder came to Whatcom on the little boat, Captain John Cosgove, which on the trip had often to stop overnight in Swinomish Slough when the tide did not serve, Miss Nellie was given the captain's quarters since no provision was made for ladies at that time. On landing, she said to John, 'Nobody has asked for my fare!' and he replied, 'Oh, the captain would never charge a lady!' " Talk of the days of chivalry!
      In 1870 she married Thomas Coupe, who was a member of the historical Coupe family of Coupeville, Whidby Island. Mrs. Coupe's special ability as a teacher followed the young couple to their new home at Lynden where many children were sent to her to board and receive instruction. Mr. Coupe, in 1881, was elected county treasurer and they came to Whatcom to live. The people there asked that she open the school which for several years had had small attendance because of the coal mines closing. It was the little school at Sehome, still furnished as it had been in 1868 when Isabella Eldridge had taught and Mrs. Coupe had visited it. She had expected. to have only the young children but 12 children assembled for lessons, among them many of the older ones, including Hugh Eldridge, then 19, and Lottie and Victor Roeder, who had come back from Port Townsend to go to school to Miss Nellie, as she was long called. The other scholars were Pat Coney and his two sisters, a young lad by the name of Whittier, a cousin of the poet, who boarded with the Roeders, and three of the W.H. Fouts children.
      In a letter to Miss Carhart, Bellingham's efficient librarian, Mrs. Coupe told of an experience of that term of teaching: "While I was teaching that first term in the little old schoolhouse on the bluff, Lottie and Victor Roeder, while on their way to school one morning, came upon a fine buck feeding in the dense woods at the corner of what is now C Street, where the old Reveille Building stood in later years. Victor gave Lottie his books to carry to school and he hastened home for his gun. When he returned the deer was still feeding. He shot it, took it home and dressed it and finally came to school, bringing me a hind quarter as a peace offering and excuse for tardiness. Deer were plentiful in those days.''
      Mrs. Coupe was county superintendent of schools in 1883 when Skagit County was cut off from Whatcom. After the division she continued with Whatcom and so became the first school superintendent of the present county.
      In 1884 the Sehome school had become unruly and the teacher, a young woman of little experience, left. Mrs. Coupe was persuaded by Judge Hyatt to again take this school. Her regime was marked by success and a most pleasing response on the part of the pupils. A new school had been started on the south side and it was not progressing at all satisfactorily so after the Sehome term was completed, the funds having not been sufficient for a very long session, Mrs. Coupe took over this other school. It speaks much for her ability as a teacher and the power she had to draw out the best in her pupils that many of the Sehome children followed her around the Bay and paid $2 into that district's school fund for the privilege of attending her school.

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Field visit to each school
      From that time on, even after she ceased teaching in the public schools, she had many private pupils — almost a continuous stream of them — including many of the children and grandchildren of her former pupils. During 1884, while superintendent of schools, she wrote of her tour of inspection made during that term:
      Leaving Whatcom for the north, a ride over five miles brought me to School District No. 16, which was certainly the tiniest schoolhouse I ever saw. I am sure the children ranged around its walls could have shaken hands across the room without leaving their seats; but it was neat, and within it I found fourteen as bright scholars as I have had the good fortune to meet; some of them towered far above their young teacher, Miss Mattie Kellogg, who, though but a novice in her profession, shows great judgment in her method of teaching. She receives $33.33 per month.
      Following the same road or rather trail, for it soon ceased to deserve any other name, my horse, after finally plunging through a succession of mud holes, brought up in the rear of the Saint Charles Hotel in Ferndale. Crossing the river I found quite a commodious schoolhouse in which Dr. Mayfield, with a salary of $50 a month, holds sway over sixty-one pupils to the entire satisfaction of both parents and children. This school contains pupils of greater advancement than any other public school in the county, and should be graded in order that the teacher might do full justice to himself and scholars.
      Leaving Ferndale I turned my horse toward Mountain View and four miles of good road brought me to the schoolhouse, a substantial building of hewed logs. There were 31 children of school age in this district, and the directors had ordered an expensive set of school furniture, but unfortunately my visit anticipated its arrival. This is the only school in the county in which I found an unabridged dictionary, and it is the private property of the teacher, J.S. Norton, who receives a salary of $40 a month.
      Retracing my steps, I turned off on the Semiahmoo Road and soon came to Enterprise school district, which is well named for certainly its inhabitants have exhibited a great deal of enterprise in school matters. They have the best schoolhouse in the county, and I doubt if it is surpassed by many in the territory in the country districts. The school is presided over by Mrs. Custer, who receives $35 per month and has 26 pupils on her roll.
      Continuing my journey I reached Semiahmoo school district. Six years ago I passed over this same road, then just newly opened, but it scarcely seemed possible that it was the same. Then I passed by two houses, amid piles of unsightly burned logs, in traveling a distance of nine miles. Now at very short intervals I came upon fine farms with well-cultivated gardens and promising orchards. Six years seemed too short a time to work such wonders. Semiahmoo has been unfortunate in its church and school buildings this year. The fates seemed to be against them, and the large schoolhouse, built only a couple of years ago, has gone out of the possession of the school directors and is in private hands; so, for the present, school is held in a small log house belonging to Mr. Ray. The school numbers 14 pupils and is in charge of Miss Amanda Elliott, who has had three years' experience in teaching in the schools of one of our eastern states. Her salary is $41 per month.
      From thence proceeding northward, my horse was induced with great difficulty to cross Dakota Creek. The banks were steep and it required a great deal more than moral suasion to convince her that it was not at all impracticable, but at last we effected it, she through the water and I over a log, and soon reached the little settlement of which I was in search, consisting of a few families who came in during last fall and winter. Whatever induced them to settle there surpasses me. To my woman's eyes the country presented a most unpromising appearance, the woods were so dense; but the settlers seem sanguine and say the soil is excellent when cleared. Such stout hearts as they must have possessed to face such a wilderness! And it is wonderful what they have accomplished without the aid of teams, and what roads they have made. And, in the midst of it all, found time to build a compact little schoolhouse that would not disgrace a much older district. Here Mrs. Wyncoop, for a merely nominal salary, is teaching nine little children, who manifest so much eagerness and interest in their recitations that it was a pleasure to listen to them. Northwest of this in the same district is another school of 22 scholars, taught by Miss Ida Elliott with a salary of $33.33 a month.
      Afterinterviewing the Iron Post, I turned southward, and fording Dakota and California creeks, I crossed over to the Birch Bay schoolhouse, a good building which has recently been erected; here found little Day Butler, the happy preceptress of 17 bright, happy children, who sing her praises. Following the Birch Bay road toward Ferndale, I visited the little school taught by Miss May Parr in the newly organized Pleasant Valley school district. The school only numbers nine pupils and Miss May, for the nominal salary of $50 for three months, is teaching as a matter of accommodation, to fulfill the requirements of the law.
      Returning to Ferndale and crossing to the east side of the river, a ride of three miles brought me to the residence of J. D. Rogers. The school in this district is held in rather a dilapidated old shanty, but Mr. Rogers has generously offered to donate a piece of land to the school district, and active measures are being taken for the erection of a suitable school building. His daughter, Miss Alice Rogers, is the teacher, and the inhabitants of the district have been so fortunate as to secure her services for three years in succession. This completed the list of schools on the west side of the county.
      My horse again plunged through the mudholes that guard the rear of Ferndale and I reached Whatcom without any adventure. The hospitality of the settlers of Whatcom cannot be surpassed.
      If readers are not tired of the school subject I would like to make brief mention of the schools as I found them upon the east side of the surveyed portion of the county.
      Finding the long, solitary ride rather irksome, I enlisted Miss Clara Fouts as my aide de camp upon this trip, and we left Whatcom for Bertrand Prairie. Twenty-nine miles of fairly good road brought us to the schoolhouse in which Mrs. Leteh is teaching, with a salary of $30 per month. There are 30 children of school age in this district. Miss Clara, being anxious to emulate my example upon a former occasion in interviewing an 'Iron Post' we plodded through a couple of miles of swamp in search of one, and took, a canter upon Her Majesty's trail. Returning by the same route we reached Lynden, which now boasts of a good schoolhouse, and excellent teacher — Miss Littell — and a school roll of 30 children who, in their recitations, acquitted themselves in a manner that reflected great credit upon both pupils and teacher.
      Still retracing our steps for seven miles, we reached the Nooksack school district, which last month returned the largest school census in the county. Under the able management of Professor Swaim [also misspelled as Swim and Swain], the children progressed finely this year. Eight miles from the Nooksack crossing, on the Sumas road, is the schoolhouse belonging to the Eaton school district. This district is proud of its school and schoolhouse, and it has good reason to be. During my half-day visit the deportment of the children was perfect, and when new settlers, in the midst of the multitudinous demands on their time, stop to build and furnish such a neat schoolhouse it speaks well for the future of the country. Miss Luella Austin, from Whatcom, taught the summer term and received $30 per month. This school reports the best attendance in proportion in the county.
      Turning off from the main road, we reached Carlysle district, which is minus a schoolhouse and returns the smallest school census in the county this year. A three months' term was taught in a cabin belonging to Mr. Kirkman, by Miss Clara E. Littell, who is an experienced teacher, and I marveled at the brightness of the children in such a dismal building. Leaving the Nooksack and turning toward Whatcom we passed through one of the newest school districts in the county, which centers at Ten Mile, where they have built a comfortable schoolhouse in which Mrs. F. Beaver very successfully taught a five months' school with a roll of 26 pupils, among which were numbered quite a large class of young ladies and gentlemen. Ten miles more brought us back to Whatcom which, though rejoicing in the title of School District No. 1, is still far behind most of her sister districts and does not yet boast a schoolhouse. However, I believe she intends to redeem herself by the speedy erection of a $2,000 building. There are 120 children of school age in the district, which has employed W. D. Greene for a term of three months at a salary of $60 per month.
      The schoolhouse at New Whatcom, if not all that could be desired, is at least classic ground, and should be venerated for the good it has done. In my rounds through the county I found numerous children whose parents once sought knowledge within its dingy walls. Here Mrs. Caldwell, a teacher of considerable experience from California, is employed for a salary of $35 per month. There are 24 children upon the roll. School District No. 4, which returned a census of 57 children of school age, is the most southern district in the county. At Bellingham is a good schoolhouse, in which Miss Maude Kellogg has been engaged ever since its erection, first as teacher of a private school and now as a public school. Miss Kellogg holds the highest grade certificate in the county and will serve on the county board of examinations next month.

      Long before Mrs. Coupe finished teaching in the public schools the other teacher who had much to do with the future of the schools appeared on the scene. These two who were the most vital factors of those early schools lived to see the results of their service to the schools, even though obtained through such widely differing methods. The woman had dedicated her whole life to the task of bringing culture and refinement, knowledge and a love of good literature into places where they were needed. The other, the man, did not hesitate to use a political advantage to further the interest of the schools.


Iron Post
      The Iron Posts were set as boundary markers by the United States Survey between 1859 and 1882 between Canada and the United States from Blaine to the Great Lakes. [Return]

Profile of Nellie Moore Coupe
The Fourth Corner, Lelah Jackson Edson, 1951
      Nellie Moore, "Miss Nellie" (Mrs. Nellie Coupe), first teacher on Whidbey Island, pioneer wife and mother in the Lynden District, first Whatcom County school superintendent (after Whatcom and Skagit were separated), was a niece of Colonel Granville O. Hailer. And this soldier, so prominent as a major in the Indian wars and the San Juan Island incident, must be credited with launching his relative on her career as an educator—a career that left a definite mark in the Northwest, and an impression that endures to the present in the minds of the older citizens.
      Haller, like thousands of so1dier in later wars, became enamored of the Pacific Coast and acquired several pieces of property on Whidbey Island while yet in uniform, with the idea of settling there after his discharge. He returned to Whidbey Island late in 1863. Before leaving the East, he arranged to educate his niece, Miss Nellie Moore, of York, Pennsylvania, with the stipulation that when her studies were completed she would go West as private tutor for his children. The course which the young woman followed in a Baltimore seminary was much more rounded than that customarily given to females of the period, since it included the arts, practical sciences, piano tuning, and general academic subjects.
      Mrs. Coupe has stated that she completed her studies in 1865, and left her eastern home; journeying by way of the Isthmus of Panama, and arriving at Whidbey Island in January, 1866, where she assumed her duties as tutor and governess. Vital statistics for this remarkable educator may be taken from her statements in an interview given the American Reveille of Bellingham, Washington, January 21, 1917, at which time she said, "I am seventy-two years old and sorry to admit it. Now ask ahead." She added that she came to Puget Sound in 1866, and had been a resident of Whatcom County since 1871. At the time of the interview, Mrs. Coupe was said to be an authority on astronomy, was coaching high school students, and had many private pupils which she explained made it necessary to use her bicycle instead of trying to make the calls by use of street cars.
      Nellie Moore's success as tutor and governess of Colonel Haller's children on Whidbey Island was such, that offspring of other families were admitted to the private school. These included children of the Ebey, Crockett, Judson, and Roeder families, with all of whom the teacher became a close friend. Two years after her arrival, or in 1868, she made a trip to Whatcom aboard the steamer Mary Woodruff, Captain John Cosgrove, at which time, in company with John Roeder, she descended into the workings of the Sehome Coal mine.
      In December, 1870, Nellie Moore married William T. Coupe "Tommie" son of Thomas Coupe, founder of Coüpeville: The next year, 1871, the young couple squatted on a homestead at Lynden, where she became the second white woman settler north of Whatcom, Mrs. Phoebe Judson being the first. The first white child to be born along the Nooksack was the Coupe's son, Thomas Louis, nicknamed "Russett." This was in 1875.
      W. T. Coupe was elected county treasurer in 1881, whereupon the family moved to Whatcom. Almost at once Nellie Coupe was asked to teach the Sehome school that same year with twelve pupils. After Whatcom and Skagit counties were separated (1883), Nellie Coupe became County Superintendent of the smaller Whatcom county in 1884. For many years she continued her profession, mostly handling private pupils in her later years, when she found herself teaching children and grandchildren of earlier students. Some of these she instructed in Latin, others in botany or geology, some on the piano, guitar, or cello; others perhaps in painting.
      There are men and women in the Northwest today, who received their early education from Nellie Coupe. They yet carry memories of the brilliant and outstanding little teacher, who, in the experimental days of the "safety-bicycle" daringly rode her wheel over the rough streets of Whatcom as she went about her serious business of education.

Nellie Coupe, from research by the Journal
      Capt. Thomas Coupe arguably left the more visible mark on Puget Sound, in both his namesake town of Coupeville and the Captain Coupe Park in the town. But his daughter-in-law, Nellie Moore Coupe, may have actually had a deeper influence on many more students in Island and Whatcom counties while both of them were living.
      Nellie had Northwest pioneers on both sides of her extended family. Her uncle, Col. Granville O. Haller, was her conduit to Whidbey Island. As Angie Burt Bowden explained in her 1935 book, Early Schools of Washington Territory, Nellie was "given a broader education than usual at a young ladies' seminary in Baltimore, at General Haller's expense for the special purpose of acting as governess to the Haller children," who came to Whidbey in 1863. Before the retired officer left the East after controversial service during the Civil War, Haller paid for the advanced education of his niece — then Ellen Moore, of York, Pennsylvania, with the stipulation that when her studies were completed she would go West as private tutor for his children, Lelah Jackson Edson explained in her 1951 book, Fourth Corner. Her training included the arts, practical sciences, piano tuning, and general academic subjects. After completing her studies in 1865, she journeyed via boat and rail over the Isthmus of Panama, and arrived at Whidbey Island on a steamboat in January, 1866.
      Other island dwellers soon begged Haller to let Nellie teach their children, too, and even "Henry Roeder at Whatcom sent his oldest boy, John, to board at the Island so that he could go to [Haller's] little private school. She taught children from Ebey, Judson and Crockett pioneer families and she remained a close friend with John Roeder for the rest of her life. Two years after her arrival, or in 1868, she made a tri to Whatcom aboard the steamer Mary Woodruff and in the company of John Roeder, she descended into the workings of the Sehome Coal Mine; she would soon know the miners' families well. Her sister Gertrude soon followed Nellie out to the Northwest and she married Charles Judson; the couple settled down in Whatcom County.
      In December, 1870, Nellie married William T. "Tommie" Coupe, son of the sea captain. Capt. Coupe (1818-1875) was a Maine native who also lived on Cape Breton Island, Canada. He moved permanently to Maine with his family at age 12 and in 1840 in Boston he married Maria White, a native of Bath, Maine. In 1849, he sailed West via the Straits of Magellan on the schooner Rochester and arrived at the Puget Sound islands as the captain of the bark Success in 1852. He sailed the Success between Puget Sound and San Francisco, carrying pile timber for building the wharves of San Francisco were being built and he gained fame and awe from fellow mariners when he sailed the Success as the first square rigger through the dangerous Deception Pass. Maria joined him on Whidbey Island in 1853 after she and their four children — Sarah E., William T. (Tommie), Maria J., and George M. Coupe, sailed around Cape Horn in 1853 in the clipper ship Thomas Church. She promised she would remain if he gave up sailing round the world on the sea and in 1854, Capt. Coupe gave up command of the bark Success and accepted command of the top-sail schooner Jefferson Davis, the first United States revenue "cruiser" on Puget Sound. They soon filed a 320-acre donation land claim on Whidbey and in 1854 he built the second frame house on the Island, much of it from redwood he shipped up from San Francisco. He formed the town of Coupeville, which replaced the nearby earlier town of Coveland as the county seat in 1881 and it was incorporated on April 25, 1910.
      In 1871 Tommie and Nellie Coupe squatted on a homestead at Lynden on the mainland. According to Edson, in The Fourth Corner, Nellie became the second white woman settler north of Whatcom, after Mrs. Phoebe Judson, who is considered the mother of Lynden. The first white child to be born along the Nooksack was the Coupe's son, Thomas Louis, nicknamed "Russett," born at Lynden in 1875 and moved his family back to Whidbey as an adult.
      Tommie was elected Whatcom County Treasurer in 1881, and he moved his young family to Whatcom, where they lived at homes on 18th Street near downtown. Over the years he would be reelected as Treasurer and then served as marshal in 1890-91. Nellie was county superintendent of schools in 1883 when Skagit County was cut off from Whatcom and after the division she continued with Whatcom, as the first school superintendŽent of the present county.
      Edson wrote that "Almost at once Nellie Coupe was asked to teach the Sehome school that same year with twelve pupils." In 1884 the Sehome school — the oldest one on the Bay, had become unruly and the teacher, a young woman of little experience, left. Mrs. Coupe was persuaded by Judge Hyatt to take this school, which was still furnished as it was in 1868 when she visited Isabella Eldridge while she taught there. Coupe taught pioneers Lottie and Victor Roeder there. Later she took over a new school on the south side in the old boom town of Fairhaven. She soon earned a state Lifetime Diploma, a rare certificate that allowed the holder to teach anywhere in the state, as long as the holder may live.
      During 1884, while superintendent of schools, she wrote of her tour of inspection made during that term and she repeated the tour in 1889. Her reputation was already such that many Sehome families sent their children to follow her around the Bay and paid $2 into that district's school fund for the privilege of attending her school. Later she ceased teaching in the public schools, she taught many private pupils.
      Edson recalled that Coupe instructed more than one generation, some students in Latin, others in botany or geology, some on the piano, guitar, or cello; others perhaps in painting. She also became well known for her taxidermy and curio collections. When interviewed by the American Reveille newspaper at age 72 in 1917, she was a recognized authority on astronomy, she coached high school students, and rode her bicycle instead of trying to make the calls by use of street cars. Nearly a decade later, fellow old-time Roland G. Gamwell noted in 1926 that Coupe was then a music teacher who at the age of nearly 80 years, "is making a success of an apartment house" Tommie died in 1922 and Nellie survived him, but we do not have a death date for her.

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Story posted on Jan. 1, 2010, last updated Dec. 27, 2010, with corrections by Donna Sand, March 17, 2011
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This article originally appeared in Issue 52 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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