Although I meant to write about Uncle Henry Coffin, it is clear that his story needs the “backstory” to provide the beginning. The story of Henry Bernard Coffin and his role and influence in the family starts with his going to South America as a young man. The short story is that he got rich there (at least rich by the rest of the family’s standards), and took on the responsibility for supporting all the female relatives (both sisters and two/three nieces) who had no other means of support. Meaning they had no husband supporting them, not that they didn’t work themselves. This is, of course, much more complicated than the short story.
How the Coffins got to South America
I have never heard anything substantive about how the Coffins went to South America, or why they ended up in Argentina. Recently I found a brief manuscript written by C. Louis Coffin. In this manuscript, he described some of the Coffin story before his time and provided some information that I have never learned anywhere else. Of course it raises as many (or more) questions as it answers. Cousin Louis (1884-1972) was the son of Bernard, grandson of Telemachus, and grandnephew of my g-g-grandfather Zebulon. Bernard and Uncle Henry were first cousins.
The story from Cousin Louis was that when his grandfather, Telemachus (1802-1891) was old enough to go out on his own, he was sent to New Orleans by his mother (Abigail Butler Coffin). My guess would be that he was around 18-20 years old when this happened, so between about 1820-1822 and not many years after the family had migrated to Cincinnati. His mother had purchased a flatboat and loaded it with produce. She reportedly told her son to sell the contents and the boat and to seek his fortune. He did as she had bid. Once in New Orleans, Telemachus found a whaler, which was captained by one of his Nantucket uncles, and he signed on as cabin boy. This is undoubtedly what he would have done had he still been on Nantucket. He was said to have made voyages to “the Western Islands”, Africa, and Brazil, and the River Plate (the Rio de la Plata) in Argentina.
In Argentina Telemachus met and married Brigida Kiernan (c 1811-1884) in 1831. Her father was described as having been a Deputy Collector of Customs in St. John, New Brunswick before migrating to Argentina because he could not advance in Canada. The Reform Act of 1827 was cited as happening after this migration and because of Mr. Kiernan’s job limitations. I’m guessing that he was from Ireland and that was a strike against him in the late 1700s and early 1800s in Canada. The date of the Reform Act suggests that the Kiernans left Canada before 1827. Brigida was born about 1811, perhaps in England (on Louis’s death certificate), perhaps in Buenos Aires, The Argentine (the Barney Genealogical Record at the Nantucket Historical Association website seems to suggest this).
I do not, yet, have anything that documents their marriage or where it took place. It seems likely that it was in Argentina. I have found a passenger list from 1832 that shows Telemachus, Brigida, and a 15 month old baby arriving in New York from Buenos Aires.
I do not have any pictures (that I know of) of either Telemachus (click his name) or Brigida (click here), but found these miniatures on the Nantucket Historical Association website. These paintings were probably done right around the time of their marriage. A quick study of some Cincinnati city directories helps place Telemachus in Cincinnati from about 1834 to 1842. He was not listed in directories for 1819, 1825, 1829, and 1831. He was also not listed in directories from 1846, 1859 and 1885. My guess is that he was living in Argentina around 1830, lived there with his new wife and family until about 1832, and then came back to Cincinnati to introduce his wife and daughter to the family. It looks like they lived in Ohio from about then to about 1843. After that he and his wife and family returned to Argentina.
There is a record in the Nantucket Historical Association’s Research Library website that describes Telemachus’s bankruptcy in 1843 in Ohio which may be connected to this. It seems likely that this bankruptcy was related to his business in Cincinnati with his brother H.B. Coffin (who died in 1841). I haven’t yet found the documents associated with with bankruptcy.
Louis wrote that his grandfather had accumulated a fortune trading with the U.S. (presumably from Argentina) but lost it through his partner in New York. Telemachus reportedly sent his son, Bernard (1832-1917), presumably from Argentina to the U.S., to salvage what he could for the family.
Although Bernard was born in Cincinnati, he had lived for some time in Argentina. He was the only child of Telemachus and Brigida to survive to adulthood. He had spent about the first ten years of life in Cincinnati and he was close friends with a number of his Coffin cousins as a result. This included Jessie, Henry, and Katie Coffin, the three children of Zebulon. It was likely during this trip to figure out the family fortunes, that Bernard met and married Mary O’Shaughnessy. Mary’s half-brother, Richard Dalton, was married to g-g-grandpa Zebulon’s older daughter, Jessie.
As Louis reported it, his parents were married in 1874 in the Cathedral of Cincinnati (St. Peter’s Cathedral). Bernard and his wife also lived mostly in Argentina, traveling to visit family in the Cincinnati area when possible and sending some of their children to school at times in Cincinnati. Two of their children, Louis and his oldest sister, were born in Cincinnati while the other children were born in Argentina.
At this point I am left with a series of questions about Telemachus and his life in Argentina. I think Telemachus owned land and raised cattle, which would be what he traded with the U.S. In order to get Uncle Henry’s story in order I need to know more about this. I know that Uncle Henry went to him as a young man, about 1866, and learned from him. So the story is to be continued.