In Fallise, a town of Normandy, stands the old chateau of Courtition, once the home of the Norman Coffins. The family traces its ancestry to Sir Richard Coffin, Knight, who accompanied William the Conqueror from Normandy to England in the year 1066 and to whom the manor of Alwington in the court of Devonshire was assigned. The English records show the name as Coffin, from which it was changed to Cophin, and it is also found as Kophin, Coffyn, and Coffyne. From Arthur's Derivation of Family Names, we learn that Coffin is in Welsh, Cyffin, which signifies a boundary, a limit, or a hill. In French, Caffyn, means bald. Coffin is also a word of Hebrew origin, signifying a small basket (coffer). Coffers were used in collecting the loaves and fishes after the five thousand were fed as told in Matthew 14:19. The name may have had its origin as an occupation such as a carpenter or maker of coffins. Before 1254 the Coffin family was flourishing at Portledge near the sea, in the parish of Alwington, five miles from Biddeford, England.
Portledge-Devonshire, EnglandOur Coffin line in America was founded by Tristram Coffin (Coffyn as he always signed his name), who was born in Brixton, a small parish and village, near Plymouth, in the southwestern part of Devonshire County England, in the year 1605. About 1630 he married Dionis Stevens, daughter of Robert Stevens, Esquire, of Brixton, and in 1642, emigrated to America with his wife, five small children, his widowed mother, and two unmarried sisters. It is not known on what ship they took passage but it is generally believed that it was the same ship that brought Robert Clement, who owned the ships "Hector," "Griffin," "Job Clement," and "Margaret Clement". Both men settled at Haverhill in 1642.
Tradition has it that Tristram Coffin was the first man to plow land in the town of Haverhill in Norfolk county, Massachusetts Bay Colony, he having constructed his own plow. In 1648-49 he removed to Newbury where he kept an ordinary and kept the Newbury side of Carr's Ferry. He returned to Salisbury and was commissioner of the town. In 1659 along with several others, he visited Nantucket, then under the jurisdiction of New York and in July of that year a deed was given by Thomas Mayhew, confirming the sale of the island of Nantucket to nine proprietors for 30 pounds and two beaver hats, one for himself, Mayhew, and one for his wife.
The nine proprietors were:
Peter Coffin (son of Tristram)
Besides the purchase of the island from Thomas Mayhew, a business negotiation was made with the Indians and the whole neck of land called by the Indians, Pacummohquah being at the East end of Nantucket was bought from them for 5 pounds. A previous sale of land on Nantucket had been made between Mayhew and two Sachems.
Tristram returned to the island with his family in 1660 where he was Chief Magistrate 1671 and Commissioner in 1675. The Coffin family that settled at Nantucket included Tristram, Sr., James, Mary, John, and Stephen, each the head of a family. Tristram was thirty-seven years old when he arrived in America, and fifty-five years old when he removed to Nantucket. During the first year of his residence there he was the richest proprietor. The property of his son, Peter who was living in New Hampshire, is said to have soon after exceeded in value that of the original proprietor, the family together owning about one-quarter of the island and the whole of Tuckernock.
Tristram died at his home on Nantucket Island, New York later Massachusetts, October 2, 1681, leaving a widow, seven children, sixty grandchildren, and a number of great-grandchildren. By 1728 there had been born to him one thousand five hundred and eighty-two descendants, of whom one thousand one hundred and twenty-eight were living. According to Savage, Twenty-six of Tristram's descendants graduated in 1828 at New England colleges, fifteen at Harvard alone.
It is believed that Thomas Mayhew asked John to come to Martha's Vineyard as there was a need for a blacksmith. Mayhew reportedly sold John 8 acres for $1.00 fronting on Edgartown Harbor and running back in a wide swath to Peases' Point Way. This lot was purchased from Thomas Paine's estate. Paine, Governor Thomas Mayhew's stepson and son-in-law, was lost at sea in 1657, along with Thomas Mayhew, Jr., on a voyage to England.
John built his first home on that property in 1682, a one story structure 24' X 32' with a shed roof and faced the harbor. The original portion of the house is buried by much enlargement and modification. It was on this property that he had his blacksmith shop. The blacksmithing trade must have been very profitable for John Coffin became the owner of much real estate on Martha's Vineyard. In the 1700's, the house was owned by various craftsmen, tailors and coopers among them. Today the address is 55 South Water Street. Looking East from this property today, one sees the Yacht Club, Town Dock, Chappy Ferry, and Chappaquiddick Island. 1
John and Deborah's second house on Martha's Vineyard was built in 1703. Today the address for this house is 22 North Water Street. The house was occupied by John's descendants for many generations until it was taken over by the North Water Street Corporation in 1946 to preserve it. It, like the Desire Coffin house, is now maintained by the Preservation Society and is occupied by antique and decorator's shops.
Among the many who have lived in the house was the famed Dr. Daniel Fisher. He married Grace C. Coffin, John's great-great-granddaughter in 1829 soon after coming to the Island. Her dowry, it is said, was her weight in silver. We don't know how much she weighed, but no doubt enough to help Dr. Fisher begin his many business enterprises. Dr Fisher built his own sidewalk from the front door to the corner of Main Street so he wouldn't get muddy shoes. The house sat much closer to the street, then a mere cart path, and when it was widened, the house was moved back and it appears that the rear addition was turned 90 degrees and reattached. There are eight other Coffin homes on the Walking Tour of Martha's Vineyard which were built and owned by John's descendants. 2
John and Deborah had eleven children of whom nine grew to be adults. Four sons and three daughters were mentioned in his will dated 1 Sept 1711. In his will probated 17 April 1712, he leaves sheep on Nantucket, now in possession of son Peter, to wife Deborah. (It is wondered if son Peter lived in the house deeded to John by his father?) He also mentions sons, Samuel, Enoch and Tristram and daughters Hannah Gardner, Deborah Macy and Lydia Thaxter. Daughters Love and Elizabeth may have died young or as spinsters prior to 1711. John Jr. and Benjamin probably died young.
After John died 5 September 1711 at Edgartown, Martha's Vineyard, Deborah returned to Nantucket where she died 4 February 1718. The will of Deborah Coffin (wife of John ) dated 13 March 1717/18 probated 13 May 1718 names son Tristram who received land in New Hampshire and was executor; and daughters Hannah Gardner and Deborah Macy. See http://history.vineyard.net/cemetery/th/th29.htm for a picture of John's tombstone and The Coffin Family of Martha's Vineyard at http://history.vineyard.net/coffin.htm#john8.
John and Deborah were the parents of our third generation ancestor, Samuel, "King Sam". In 1706, Samuel Coffin, and his wife Miriam (Gardner) joined the Society of Friends. Two years later his parents (John and Deborah) joined. His sister Deborah joined in 1711 and Samuel's brother Tristram and wife Mary (Bunker) joined the Friends in 1715. This was in the very early days of the Quaker movement on Nantucket, for it was in 1700 that Tristram's daughter, Mary (Coffin) Starbuck, sister to John, had become a Quaker.
Samuel's son, William, our fourth generation ancestor, was the progenitor of the majority of the North Carolina Coffins. The descendants of William Coffin and his wife, Priscilla (Paddack) 3 include many notable religious and civic leaders such as Levi Coffin of Underground Railway fame and Charles Fisher Coffin of Richmond, Indiana who assisted in raising funds for the first building at Earlham College.
In review of our descent from Tristram there followed in our line four generations of male ancestors bearing the Coffin surname: John, Samuel, William, and another Samuel, the father of Mary. She is the last ancestor to bear the Coffin surname in our line. She is the third great-grandmother of Fannie, Clayton, Betty and Christie Hill. Mary married Gideon Stevens and their son, Evan Stevens married Priscilla Betts, whose daughter, Paulena Stevens (author of the three journals written in Martinsville, Ohio between 1859-1867) married William Janney whose son, Carl Russell Janney married Fannie Kendrick whose daughter, Georgia Janney, married Clayton Hill. Clayton and Georgia were the parents of Fannie Kendrick (Hill) White, Clayton Robert Hill, Betty Jo (Hill) Kochan, and Christie Ann (Hill) Russell.
Because a number of our Coffin ancestors intermarried with the Macys, Starbucks, Bunkers, and Gardners on the island of Nantucket, we share multiple paths of descent from common ancestors with Mary Coffin. We, therefore, share these relationships with her; besides being our third great grandmother, she is our 4th cousin 6 times removed, 5th cousin 4 times removed, 5th cousin 6 times removed, and 6th cousin, 4 times removed.
Among noted members of the Coffin family are Hezekiah Coffin who was captain of the first American ship to sail around Cape Horn and he was also captain of the BEAVER, one of the ships in Boston Harbor at the time of the Boston Tea Party, December 16, 1773. His Nantucket ship had carried whale oil to England and returned to Boston with a cargo of tea.
General John Coffin and his brother Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin, both Loyalists, belonged to the same line.
John Greenleaf Whittier, (1807-1892) the poet, is a 7th generation Coffin, descended from Tristram Coffin, Jr.
Levi Coffin, "President of the Underground Railroad", helped over 2,000 fugitive slaves escape to freedom in Canada. Among those he helped was Eliza Harris whose famous flight across the icy Ohio River was described in, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Levi was Simeon and his wife, Catherine (White) was Rachel Halliday of that book.
Lucretia (Coffin) Mott, Quaker preacher, suffragist, pacifist and mother of five was an inspiration to the women's rights movement.
Alice Virginia Coffin was one of the seven founders of the PEO Sisterhood, a Philanthropic Education Organization, of which Christie and Sheryl are members as well as Scott's wife, Madelyn.
"Tennessee Williams", born Thomas Lanier Williams in 1914, the dramatist, was son of Cornelius Coffin Williams who was son of Thomas L. Williams and Isabel Coffin. Isabel was grandchild of Dr. Charles Coffin, a well known cleric and college president.
Tris Coffin was a columnist for the Washington Times-Herald.
Sam J. Ervin, Jr., the late Senator from North Carolina, is descended from Stephen Coffin's daughter Judith through the surnames of Folger, Starbuck, Worth, Wilson, Tate, Powe and Ervin.
Included in this record are the coats-of-arms for the Coffin and allied families of our line: Stevens, Macy, Starbuck, Austin, Gardner, Bunker, and Shattuck. You will also note that this grouping includes the Polk coat-of-arms. That family line is on Clayton Hill's side. Interestingly it was found that Dr. Obed Macy married Lucinda Polk in Bruceville, Indiana, Knox County. That couple along with several others migrated from Knox County in 1849 to Los Angeles, California. Dr. Macy was the first physician of that area. They traveled through Kansas City (Westport) where they bought provisions for their long journey from Lucinda's cousin, John McCoy (John's mother was Christiana Polk Christiana Polke McCoy DAR Dedication Service ) who owned an outfitting store in Westport. John McCoy is called the "father of Kansas City" as he was the founder of the city of Kansas.
Revised August 1996
SOURCESCoffin, David. Coffin Family Newsletter, 1985-1994.
Coffin, Louis. The Coffin Family. Nantucket Historical Association, 1962.
Hinchman, Lydia S. Early Settlers of Nantucket, Tuttle Company, 1980.
Manuscript Files of the Nantucket Historical Society.
O'Gorman, Ella Foy. "Foy and Allied Families". American Historical Magazine, Vol XXIV, pp. 237-301. American Historical Society, Inc., 1930.
Railton, Arthur, A Walking Tour of Historic Edgartown. Dukes County Historical Society, 1988.
ENDNOTES1. The current owners (1994) are Paul and Jackie Ronan. This is their summer home. Their winter home is in Sausalito, California where they own an antique shop.
2. Christie met one of those descendants still living on Martha's Vineyard. She was Joanne Coffin Clark. She is a sixth generation descendant of John through his son, Enoch.
3. Priscilla Paddack was the daughter of Nathaniel Paddack. She was born in 1722 in the Jethro Coffin House which is now the oldest house on its original foundation on the island. Nathaniel had come to Nantucket in 1650 as a weaver. It was hoped that raising sheep and the woolen industry would be profitable on the island. However, the whaling industry proved much more promising and Nathaniel became a mariner.
See http://www.coffinfamilybooks.co.uk/ for a description of The Coffin Letters and The Coffin Diary, two new books by Susan Pine-Coffin who took us on a tour of Alwington during a visit to England in July 1998.