Alfred's First Family: The Coffins
By Bruce Tucker, Alfred Historical Society
The fall of Quebec in 1759 signaled the end of France’s domination in Canada and a cessation of warfare by their Native allies. For over half a century this warfare had kept the English settlements pinned against the Atlantic coast, unable to venture into New England’s interior. The end of war was not even official before English colonies plunged into the hinterlands, anxious to lay claim to the frontier lands and carve out a brighter future.
Among those seeking a fresh start were the Coffins of Newbury,Mass. The older coastal villages such as Newbury had been settled for over four generations. Each successive generation divided the farms among their children until the inherited lands were too small to support a family. Land on the newly opened frontier could be had relatively cheaply if one didn’t count the tremendous labor investment in clearing the land and building homesteads. The Coffins were willing to take that risk and join the rising tide of settlers venturing into central York County, satisfying the pent up demand for land.
Tradition has held that Simeon Coffin was a man badly in need of a fresh start. Parsons states (p.8) that the Newbury shipwright had built a vessel for a merchant whose bankruptcy had left both parties financially embarrassed. Whether seeking means to repay his creditors or escape them entirely, Coffin apparently felt plunging into the Maine woods was his best career option. In November of 1764 he did just that, spending the winter in a wigwam near the present residence of the Carter’s on Federal Street. Evidently pleased with the areas prospects, he was reportedly joined by his brothers Stephen and Daniel the next year.
Research does not dispute these traditions but the arrival of Simeon may not have been as sudden or serendipitous as believed. In July of 1763, Simeon witnessed a deed to his brother Daniel who was described as a cooper and already a resident of Phillipstown (Sanford). The deed was for 40 acres in Sanford on lower School Street, later termed the Moulton neighborhood. (YCRD 34/279) There Daniel became Sanford's first trader, supplying his neighbors with fish, molasses and rum. (Emery p.33) Family connections may have led the Coffins to the area. Jeremiah and Jotham Moulton who later sold the Coffins much land were the sons of Jeremiah Moulton, famed Indian fighter and land agent for the Phillips hers who held title to much of central and northern York County. The mother of Simeon, Stephen and Daniel Coffin was Lydia Moulton from Hampton, N.H. and a distant cousin of Jeremiah Moulton.
In 1770, the Moultons were awarded a settlement in a land dispute in Superior Court. It appears this was an action to quiet title on 1000 acres in present day Alfred, possibly against people who had settled there without benefit of purchase. The courts determined the Moultons were the rightful owners but the occupants were given opportunity to buy the land from them. Not all of them did but many Alfred pioneer families including Giles, Knights, Halls and Barnes did buy these lands.
A map was included to delineate who claimed the land and the extent of their claims. Daniel Coffin purchased near 400 acres of this land for 77 L 18s 11p, lots #7,#8,#9. (YCRD 43/71) Daniel apparently let his brother Stephen remain on his lot as they both joined in the deed to convey their joint interest when it was sold in 1773. (YCRD 46/41)
Little is known of Simeon’s activities in Alfred but a few tantalizing clues emerge. In 1769, Simeon was named surveyor of highways in Massabesic and lay out a road two rods wide through his neighborhood in 1773. (Emery 259) In 1772 Simeon sold his 100 acre homestead that abutted and included both sides of the outlet to Massabesic (Shaker) Pond. No deed could be found conveying this land to Simeon but he claimed title “by vertue of my fencing some of said land and building a house and barn on it” (YCRD 42/252) The deed was witnessed by brother Daniel and other neighbors. The most intriguing tidbit is a deed conveying the John Knight parcel (lot #2) to the Shakers. The description begins at a rock “3 rods from the grist mill Simeon Coffin built”. (YCRD 61/77) This would be near the Shaker Mill site and could be the lure that drew Simeon to this locale. Simeon did serve as a ”straw” when his brother in law Valentine Straw sold parcel #1 and 200 acres adjoining to Jabez Ricker in 1782. (YCRD 47/41+42) Ricker later exchanged this property for Poland Springs and was subsequently conveyed to the Shakers.
Simeon’s fate seemed to be tied to the religious fervor that swept the frontier in the mid to late 18th century. The Coffins had heard the evangelist Hezikiah Smith rail against the established Congregational Church in their Newbury hometown. When they removed to Sanford Smith preached at the homes of Daniel and Simeon Coffin in 1766, 1768, and 1771. In 1772, Daniel was instrumental in organizing the Baptist Church in Sanford, the first established church in town, the third Baptist Church in Maine. (Emery 98) Some of the Coffins were members of the Merry Dancers who gathered in the Mast Camp area near Bunganut and were preached to by the Shakers in 1781 and 1782. Simeon’s death, however, was reported in 1786, before the Shakers were officially gathered in 1793. (Parsons 21) Many of his children were closely associated with the sect. Simeon’s son Isaac settled in Gorham but returned to Alfred in 1795 and joined the Shakers there. Isaac and wife Eleanor and children Peter, James, John, Isaac, and daughter Eleanor all lived and died as Shakers. Another daughter of Simeon, Pheobe, was “given to the Shakers by her parents” but left the sect to marry Jacob H. Clement who previously lived in Alfred. (McLellan 431,444)
The other Coffin brothers apparently got itchy feet as Alfred became civilized and they plunged deeper into the wilderness. By 1800, Daniel Coffin was residing in Bethel, Me. Stephen had left Alfred some years earlier and signed the Oath of Allegiance in Conway, N.H. in 1776. He apparently died there in 1798. On a personal note, luckily not all of the Coffins joined the Shakers- a sure way to prune a family tree. Stephen Coffin is an ancestor of ye olde ed.
Emery, Edwin History of Sanford reprint 1987
McLellan, Hugh History of Gorham 1903
Parsons, Usher History of Alfred 1872
YCRD- York Co. Registry of Deeds, Bk./Pg.