General John Coffin, (General, UK)

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General John Coffin, (General, UK)

Birthdate: (82)
Birthplace: Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States
Death: May 12, 1838 (78-86)
St John, New Brunswick, Canada
Immediate Family:

Son of Nathaniel Coffin and Elizabeth Coffin
Husband of Ann Coffin
Father of General Guy Carleton Coffin; John Townsend Coffin, Admiral; Henry Edward Coffin, Admiral, UK; Caroline de Longueuil, Baroness; unknown Pearson and 3 others
Brother of Nathaniel Coffin, Jr; Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin, 1st Baronet; Elisabeth Coffin; Christian Coffin; Jonathan Coffin and 2 others

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About General John Coffin, (General, UK)

Loyalist, Fought at Bunker Hill, Commander of the "Orange Rangers" On last boat out at evacuation of new York. After war settled in New Brunswick, Canada Built new home "Alwington Manor" War of 1812 promoted to General

COFFIN, JOHN, army officer, businessman, politician, jp, judge, and office holder; b. c. 1751 in Boston, son of Nathaniel Coffin, the last receiver general and cashier of British customs for Boston, and Elizabeth Barnes; brother of Isaac Coffin and nephew of John Coffin*; m. 21 Oct. 1781 Ann Mathews (Matthews) of Johns Island, S.C., and they had ten children; d. 12 May 1838 in Westfield Parish, N.B.

     Born into a prosperous mercantile family that had connections with the governing élite of colonial Massachusetts, John Coffin spent his childhood in Boston, where he received a respectable education and was introduced to the doctrines of the Church of England. Coffin and his family probably had many reasons for remaining loyal to the British crown during the American revolution; certainly the family’s prosperity depended on a continued attachment to the existing order.
     John Coffin launched his military career on 17 June 1775 at the battle of Bunker Hill. His activities thereafter are unclear until 19 Jan. 1777, when he was commissioned a captain in a newly formed provincial corps, the Orange Rangers. After serving with the Rangers in New Jersey and New York, he exchanged into the New York Volunteers on 19 July 1778. This regiment was transferred late in 1778 to the southern colonies, where Coffin saw action in both Georgia and South Carolina. His distinguished service at the battle of Eutaw Springs in September 1781 led to his promotion as major of the King’s American Regiment on 28 Aug. 1782. When his unit was disbanded in 1783 he was placed on half pay. Even though he would see only a brief period of military service following the Revolutionary War (during the War of 1812 he raised the New Brunswick Fencibles), he received regular promotions, becoming a full general on 12 Aug. 1819.
     Following the withdrawal of British troops from the southern colonies, Coffin spent much of 1783 in New York attempting to secure his future once the war had officially ended. He was to relocate in territory destined to become New Brunswick. Edward Winslow* obtained property for him on the west side of what would be named Saint John Harbour, and Henry Nase, formerly under Coffin’s command in the King’s American Regiment, received a contract to construct the major’s house. After making these preparations, Coffin and his family embarked for Parrtown (Saint John), where they landed on 26 Sept. 1783.
     Coffin immediately set about establishing himself. Probably taking advantage of his position as one of the loyalist land agents, he acquired from Beamsley Perkins Glasier* an interest in Glasier’s Manor, a 5,000-acre estate situated at the confluence of the Nerepis and Saint John rivers. In 1790 he obtained ownership of the property, by then enlarged to 6,000 acres. Coffin was involved in numerous other land transactions, primarily in Kings County, and erected both a grist-mill and a sawmill on the manor. Not confining his business ventures to real-estate speculation and agricultural pursuits, he also retailed fish, lumber, and rum. His shrewd business sense, drive, and financial resources ensured him considerable success, although he was never able to enjoy an aristocratic way of life or to accumulate a vast fortune.
     Despite his active participation in the campaign for the partition of Nova Scotia and his association with many of the loyalist élite, Coffin had not achieved immediate political success when New Brunswick became a reality in 1784. He was not offered a high-ranking government appointment, though he would become a justice of the peace and a judge of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas. On the fringe of political preferment, he was obliged to seek election to the House of Assembly in order to have a voice in provincial affairs. Returned as a representative of Kings County in November 1785, he served for 25 years. He was twice accused of manipulation: in 1796 he was charged with distributing provisions to voters and in 1810 his seat was declared vacant because of irregularities in his election the preceding year. As a member of the assembly, Coffin emerged as a leading defender of the principles of church and state and revealed his contempt for the champions of democracy. During the legislative session of 1802 eight assembly members under his leadership passed a revenue bill despite the fact that a quorum was not present [see Samuel Denny Street*]. Coffin’s fiery disposition involved him in several duels, one of them with the radical James Glenie*.
     In Kings County, an oligarchy was established with Coffin and George Leonard* as dominant members. From 1786, when he was appointed to the bench, Coffin accumulated many county positions, including that of chief magistrate. In company with Lieutenant Governor Thomas Carleton*, Chief Justice George Duncan Ludlow*, and others he was a founding member of the New England Company’s New Brunswick committee in 1786, and in 1807 he became superintendent of the Indian school the company had established at Sussex Vale (Sussex Corner) [see Oliver Arnold*] . His many positions, including that of assemblyman, gave Coffin great power in all matters both secular and religious within Kings County.
     In 1812 Coffin received an appointment that he must have felt was long overdue: he became a member of the New Brunswick Council. As usual, controversy dogged his footsteps. In 1824 a situation arose which led the members of the Council to consider whether or not he had forfeited his seat. Coffin had moved to England in 1817, but had not relinquished his seat or received official permission to be absent. The matter was referred to the colonial secretary, who concluded that Coffin had indeed forfeited his position. After giving Lieutenant Governor Sir Howard Douglas* the impression that he would return, however, Coffin was reinstated. Though he made periodic visits to the province thereafter, he was no more attentive to his duties and was removed from the Council in 1828. John Coffin’s political ascent had ended.
     Coffin did eventually re-establish residence in New Brunswick, where he spent the remaining years of a life marked by a determination to succeed in every endeavour.

Robert S. Elliot

ACC, Diocese of Fredericton Arch., Greenwich and Westfield Parish Church (Kings County, N.B.), vestry minutes, 1797–1853 (mfm. at PANB); “Inglis papers, 1787–1842,” comp. W. O. Raymond (copy at N.B. Museum). Kings Land Registry Office (Sussex, N.B.), Registry books, C-1: 183–85 (mfm. at PANB). N.B. Museum, Bibles, no.65 (Coffin family Bible); Coffin family, CB Doc; Jarvis family papers, E. J. Jarvis to R. F. Hazen and Munson Jarvis, 7 Sept. 1823; Nase family papers, Henry Nase diary, 20, 29 Sept. 1782; 7 Aug., 4, 26 Sept. 1783. PAC, MG 23, D1, ser.1, 7: 34, 277; D9; RG 8, I (C ser.), 719: 15–17, 23–24, 211–12; 1874: 35, 50; 1908: 4, 10, 15, 24 (mfm. at PANB). PANB, RG 7, RS66, 1838, John Coffin; RG 10, RS108, 1833. PRO, PRO 30/55, no.4088 (mfm. at UNBL). UNBL, BC-MS, Sir Howard Douglas letter-books, Douglas to William Huskisson, 31 Jan. 1828, 18 May 1829 (transcripts at N. B. Museum). Winslow papers (Raymond). Royal Gazette (Saint John, N.B.; Fredericton), 11 Nov. 1811, 23 May 1838. Lorenzo Sabine, Biographical sketches of loyalists of the American revolution (2v., Boston, 1864; repr. Port Washington, N.Y., 1966). J. H. Stark, The loyalists of Massachusetts and the other side of the American revolution (Boston, 1910). A memoir of General John Coffin . . . , comp. H. [E.] Coffin (Reading, Eng., 1860). R. G. Watson, “Local government in a New Brunswick county; Kings County, 1784–1850” (ma thesis, Univ. of N.B., Fredericton, 1969). Judith Fingard, “The New England Company and the New Brunswick Indians, 1786–1826: a comment on the colonial perversion of British benevolence,” Acadiensis (Fredericton), 1 (1971–72), no.2: 29–42.

© 2000 University of Toronto/Université Laval


General John Coffin, the third son of Nathaniel, the Cashier, was born in Boston, 1756, was sent to sea at a very early age, and at the age of eighteen was in-command of a ship. In 1775, while his ship was in England, she was engaged by the government to take troops to America. He had on board nearly a whole regiment with General Howe in command of the troops, who was ordered out to supersede General Gage at Boston. The vessel arrived at Boston June 15th. Mr. Coffin landed the regiment on June 17th at Bunker Hill, and the action having already commenced, he was requested by the Colonel, "to come up and see the fun," the only weapon at hand being the tiller of his boat; he immediately, to use a nautical phrase, "unshipped it," and with equal determination, commenced "laying about" him, and "shipped" the musket, powder and beit of the first man he knocked down. He bore an active part and distinguished himself during the rest of the action. In consideration of his gallant conduct he was presented to General Gage after the battle and made an ensign on the field, shortly after he was promoted to a lieutenancy,

• "Memoir of General John Coffin." By Captain Henry Coffin, K. N., 1880, p. 17. but still retained the command of his ship. He was promised by General Howe on his arrival at Boston the command of 400 men, if he would go to New York and raise them. He accordingly went to New York when Boston was evacuated March 17, 1776, where he raised among the Loyalists a mounted rifle corps, called the "Orange Rangers," of which he was made Commandant, and from which he exchanged into the New York Volunteers in 1778. He took part in the defeat of Washington in the battle of Long Island in 1777 and went with that corps to Georgia in 1778. Here he raised a corps of partisan cavalry, composed chiefly of loyal planters. At the battle of Savannah, at that of Hobkerk's Hill, and the action of Cross Creek near Charleston, and on various other occasions, his conduct won the admiration of his superior.

At the battle of Eutaw Springs which he opened on the part of the King's troops, his gallantry and good judgment attracted the notice and remark of General Greene, the Revolutionary leader, one of General Washington's ablest lieutenants. Major Coffin with 150 infantry and 50 cavalry averted the advance on Eutaw. Colonel William Washington, a distinguished partisan leader, with numerous cavalry rashly dashed forward; he lost most of his officers and many of his men, and his horse was shot under him, and he would have been slain had not Major Coffin interposed, who took him prisoner. These two men, who had known each other well in private life, rode back to camp to share the same meal and the same tent.

In the Southern colonies the Revolutionists and Loyalists, waged a war of extermination, the partisans on both sides, seldom gave quarter or took prisoners. At the close of the conflict in Virginia Lord Cornwallis made him a gift of a handsome sword, accompanied by a letter conferring on him the rank of Major Brevet. Whilst Coffin was attached to Cornwallis, he was able to be of great service to him, but the bravery, not to say the extraordinary sagacity mingled with audacity of one man, could not save the army. Lord Cornwallis' army cooped up in Yorktown by a superior army of French and Americans, and blockaded by a French fleet, was in danger of starvation, and Coffin stood almost alone in successful forays, in which he frequently eluded the whole American and French army, and returned laden with the fruits of his success. In one of these raids he accidently came to the house of a wealthy planter whose daughter was to be married that day. He quietly surrounded the house with his troops and knocking at the door, sent in word that he wished to speak with the proprietor. On presenting himself, the gentleman was courteously made aware of his condition. He was told not to make any noise, but to order sufficient turkeys, ham, wine and other provisions to be put up, to satisfy his men; if this was done no harm would happen, but on the contrary, if any resistance was attempted, everything and everybody in the house would be destroyed. Coffin's character and resolution were well known, so the planter thought it best to graciously comply with the mandate. A large quantity of provisions was thus secured.

Captain Coffin supped with the wedding party, danced with the bride, and left in safety, taking care that no alarm should be given, and reached Cornwallis without accident by daylight.

Even when the enemy held Charleston, during which time he ran very great risks of being taken prisoner, he went to see Miss Ann Matthews, daughter of William Matthews, Esq., of St. John's Island, to whom he was eventually married in 1781. On the occasion of one visit, the house was searched for him by authority, and the gallant soldier took refuge under Miss Matthews' ample dress. At that time ladies wore hoops and they must have been of considerable size, when Major Coffin, who stood six feet two and was proportionately stout, could successfully conceal himself under one. At the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, that portion of his army consisting of native Americans, he failed to obtain special terms for, in the articles of capitulation. He, however, availed himself of the conceded privilege of sending an armed ship northerly, without molestation, to convey away the most obnoxious of them. Major Coffin determined not to be taken by the Revolutionists who had offered $10,000 for his head, so he cut his way through the lines, and reached Charleston, attracted by the charms of Miss Matthews. When Charleston was evacuated Major Coffin made his way up to New York, crossed the Hudson, having eluded all attempts at his capture and presented himself at headquarters, to the great astonishment of his friends in the British Army. Sir Guy Carleton, Commander-in-chief, appointed him Major of the King's American Regiment, vacant by the death of Major Grant.

Previous to the evacuation of New York, and probably in view of it, Major Coffin and others who were feared and disliked by the victorious Revolutionists, and were, therefore, thrust out beyond the pale of redemption, were sent by the British Government, to New Brunswick. At twenty-seven he laid down his sword and took up his axe, accompanied by a wife delicately nurtured in a wealthy family and a warm climate, and four negroes, one woman and three men, all brought from Giarleston. They arrived in October, 1783, when there were but two persons in or near the harbor of St. John. Mr. Symonds and Mr. White, fur-traders, kindly supplied the newcomers with provisions, and they immediately commenced clearing and felling timber. During the first winter they suffered great hardships, particularly Mrs. Coffin. His first mishap was the loss of his boots in crossing a swamp, now the market place of the city of St. John. Having selected some lots of ground fronting the harbor, he proceeded to explore the interior of the country. An ascent of about twelve miles up the beautiful St. John, opened out a rich and lovely landscape-hill and dale, magnificent woods, rivers and lakes, swarming with game and fish.

In this fine and fertile locality Major Coffin purchased for a trifle a tract of land from Colonel Grazier, to whom it had been granted by Government. Four men were sent up there to build a house, and in the following May, 1784, he and his wife and four black servants, took possession of their new residence, and called it Alwington Manor, after the family estate in Devonshire, which belonged to them in the time of William the Conqueror. Two of the men, and the woman, proved to be good and faithful servants, and when the slaves were emancipated, still remained with the family.

Settlers soon flocked into the province. Ten years' residence, with Major Coffin's activity, aided by his willing men, made it a respectable and desirable settlement. He was made a Magistrate of the county and in due time a Member of the Provincial Parliament, and of the Legislative Council, which offices he filled till within a few years of his death.

In June, 1794, His Royal Highness, the Duke of Kent, the father of Queen Victoria, who was then Governor of Nova Scotia, stopped at Alwington Manor.

Although retired from active employ, he still remained in the service on half pay, and in 1804 he was advanced to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In 1805 he went to England, where he was received with much distinction, and was presented to the King by the commander-in-chief.

The war of 1812 aroused all the warlike instincts of the old partisan; he snuffed the battle afar off, and at once offered to raise a regiment for home service. He soon had 600 men ready for service, which enabled the Government to send the 104th regiment to Canada, then hardly pressed by invasion. At the peace of 1815 he was promoted to the rank of MajorGeneral, and the regiment disbanded and General Coffin returned to half pay once more.'

He for many years alternated in his residence between England and New Brunswick. He was the oldest General in the British Army when he died in 1838, aged 82, at the house of his son, Admiral T. Coffin, in King's County, New Brunswick.

Those who knew the General well in his later days, recall with affectionate recollection the noble presence and generous character of the chivalrous old soldier, a relic of the days in which giants were in stature and in heart, true to his king and country, a humble Christian and an honest and brave man, who united to the heroism of a Paladin the endurance of the pioneer, and when he could no longer serve his Prince in the field, served him still better by creating a new realm of civilization and progress in the heart of primeval forest. His name will ever be held in honor in New Brunswick.

Eight of the children of General and Mrs. Coffin, all natives of New Brunswick, lived to make their way in the world, thanks to a grateful government and helpful country. The eldest son, General Guy Carleton Coffin, died in 1856, a General of the Royal Artillery; John Townsend Coffin, the second eldest, entered the British Navy as midshipman in 1799 and became admiral in 1841. Under the will of his uncle. Sir Isaac Coffin, he became the owner of the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. He died in 1882. Henry Edward Coffin, the third son, became a lieutenant

The loyalists of Massachusetts and the other side of the American Revolution

By James Henry Stark