Assistant Surgeon Richard M. Coleman was born in Kentucky. His date of birth is unknown.
He became a surgeon’s mate with the 7th Infantry in August 1818, after requesting to enter the military as a surgeon and being recommended by several people. He was appointed and wrote an acceptance letter from Cynthiana, Kentucky, in September 1818. He became an assistant surgeon in June 1921, and a major surgeon in July 1832.
In 1820 and 1821, Dr. Coleman wrote a series of letters to the Office of the Adjutant General requesting he be retained in service in the Army after hearing that there would be a reduction in forces. He also wished to be returned to the field rather than serving in hospital.
He was later a member of Colonel Henry Atkinson’s expedition to the mouth of the Yellowstone River in 1825, where he served as a surgeon. Col. Atkinson led a large force up the Missouri River from Council Bluffs, Iowa, in keel boats to the mouth of the Yellowstone River. As United States commissioner with Benjamin O’Fallon, Atkinson negotiated treaties of trade and friendship with seventeen Indian tribes and returned his escort intact to Council Bluffs.
Doctors Gale and Coleman were present when numerous treaties were negotiated with the tribes west of the Mississippi. Nine treaties appear in the records, which were made between June 9 and August 4, 1826, in which the names of Doctors John Gale and R. M. Coleman are noted as witnesses. Treaties were made with the following tribes: The Poncas; the Teton and Yankton Sioux, the Siouan, and Oglala bands of the Sioux; the Cheyenne; the Hunkpapa band of the Sioux; the Arikara; the Minatare; the Mandan and the Crows.
Dr. Coleman died of cholera while posted at Fort Armstrong on September 2, 1832, during the cholera epidemic at the end of the Black Hawk War. The dreaded disease had been raging on the island from about August 17.
“During the Black Hawk War of 1832, General Winfield Scott led 1000 troops, to Fort Armstrong, to assist the U.S. Army garrison and militia volunteers stationed there. While General Scott’s army was en route, along the Great Lakes, his troops had contracted Asiatic cholera, before they left the state of New York; it killed most of his 1000 soldiers. Only 220 U.S. Army regulars, from the original force, made the final march, from Fort Dearborn, in Chicago to Rock Island, Illinois. Winfield Scott and his troops likely carried the highly contagious disease with them; soon after their arrival at Rock Island, a local cholera epidemic broke out among both whites and Indians around the area of Fort Armstrong. Cholera microbes were spread through sewer-type contaminated water, which mixed with clean drinking water, brought on by poor sanitation practices of the day. Within eight days, 189 people died and were buried on the island.”
Dr. Coleman did not think of his own needs but spent his energies to the end looking for the comfort of his patients. He was buried in the Fort’s post cemetery, which is now lost under a railroad embankment. Today, there is a monument in his memory about 700 feet northwest of the original cemetery site.
The Black Hawk War officially ended just nine days after Dr. Coleman’s death when a treaty was signed at Fort Armstrong, which included the defeated Sauk and Fox Indians agreeing to cede to the U.S. the lands they occupied east of the Mississippi River.
The doctor was buried twice on Rock Island – once in 1832 and again in 1915 when he was re-interned.
In 1931, the Rock Island County Medical Society dedicated a bronze tablet to the memory of two surgeons, Doctors John Cale and Richard M. Coleman. The tablet was placed at the site of the cemetery at Rock Island.