I have often wondered about the Coffin family’s migration from Nantucket to Cincinnati. I am still piecing together the history and the possibilities but this is how it seems to me to have happened.

Nantucket before 1835

Until very recently, I have never found specific information about my Coffin family leaving Nantucket, except that I knew they did at some point. Based on the births and deaths of children of Cyrus and Abigail Coffin, my great-great grandparents, that family migrated between April 1813 when a son Zebulon was born in Nantucket and August 1814 when that son died in Cincinnati. I recently came across a brief background of his live and travels, a typed manuscript, written by C. Louis Coffin in about 1966. In this he described his great-great-grandmother’s having “escaped from Nantucket in 1813 and came to Cincinnati with her 31 year old son Cyrus”. This was Sarah Folger Coffin, widow of Isaiah Coffin, my great-great-great grandparents. So for the present I am assuming that the Coffins left Nantucket after April 1813 and before the end of that year. The family grouping most likely included Sally and her two youngest children, Cyrus, his wife Abigail, and their 5 youngsters. It appears that at least 3 of Cyrus’s other brothers also came to Cincinnati but it is not clear whether they all came at the same time. Other Nantucket family names also appear in early Cincinnati records and there may have been a number of groups that migrated west.

Isaiah Coffin, husband of Sarah or Sally as she was known, died in April 1813 in Nantucket. So far I have not found any record or note of why he died, at the relatively young age of 55. He did reportedly leave a will, which I have not found yet. Sally was left with 2 young children still at home: a daughter, Eliza, was not quite 12 and a son, Christopher was just 7 years old. There were also 2 married sons and 3 grown sons who were not yet married. My great-great-grandfather, Cyrus was their oldest son. He was married and had 5 young children of his own, the youngest of whom (Zebulon) was born 2 days after the death of Isaiah. I do not know whether the family had already made plans to migrate or whether Isaiah’s death was an important factor.

From a historical perspective, the War of 1812 was causing significant problems for Nantucket and its inhabitants. As noted by Obed Macy in 1835: by 1811 many of the inhabitants of Nantucket began to think of removing themselves to “the country” as it seemed more likely that war would take place. There were growing concerns about the value of real estate. “The thoughts of those who proposed to remove were, in general, turned towards Ohio, attracted by the flattering accounts received from that state of the salubrity of its climate and the luxuriance of its soil.” Nantucket’s soil by that point did not support growing enough crops to support the population of the island. So this may partially explain why the Coffins headed to Ohio and Cincinnati.

Cincinnati 1838

Nantucket is an island about 30 miles south of Massachusetts, which was an even more significant distance to cross in the early 1800s than it is today. By the time war was declared by the United States against England, Nantucket was already feeling the effects of the conflict. It was increasingly difficult to import the food and other necessary items to the island. English ships prevented most incoming and outgoing contact with the continent. The whaling ships, Nantucket’s primary source of income and where most of the inhabitants’ money was invested, were mostly at sea when the war was declared and many were captured by the English. Many American sailors were impressed into the service of the English. As R.A. Douglas-Lithgow wrote: “The miseries and deprivations of the Revolution were repeated; the same struggle for existence was maintained against the same terrible odds.”

“It is not the purpose of the writer, nor is it feasible, to chronicle in detail either the privations and sufferings of the islanders during this terrible war, or the spirited efforts they made to mitigate its evils by fervent appeals to both the American and the British authorities. Their ships at sea, which represented their most valuable possessions, were in imminent danger, all business was at a standstill, many of the families were reduced almost to beggary and starvation, and the condition of the involuntarily unemployed was, indeed, desperate.”

So it appears that there was a very difficult life facing the Coffins on Nantucket when they left. There were few jobs and there was little money among the inhabitants to purchase goods or services even when they were available. Moving to “the country” and going west might have seemed like a pretty good idea, and likely to provide a life with more potential than they were leaving.

  1. Douglas-Lithgow, R.A. Nantucket A History. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1914. [Read online at Google Books.]
  2. Macy, Obed. A history of Nantucket. Boston: Hilliard, Gray, and Co., 1835. [Book from the author’s private library. The image of the Nantucket map was scanned by the author for this posting.]
  3. Cincinnati 1838 image from the Library of Congress, American Memory, Digital ID g4084c ct001308 http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g4084c.ct001308

Catherine about 1863-1865

I’ve been thinking about my great great grandmother, Catherine Justice Coffin, again. I recently finished reading a book, American Grit edited by Emily Foster. This is a collection of letters from a woman in western Ohio to her family back home in Maryland after she and her husband moved to the wilds of the West to farm. The time period is about the same as for my g-g-grandmother so I thought it would be interesting and might show me something about what life in Ohio was like in those days. Although I think there was a difference between living on a developing farm and living in the state’s biggest city, I felt like I had more of a sense of just how much work day to day life took in that time period. Thanks to Judy for taking it out of her library for me.

Last year, I had started a timeline of Catherine’s life, back around when the COG assignment was to write from a timeline (the 91st COG, just about a year ago). What I quickly discovered was that I didn’t have much beyond dates and places for major life events to bring her to life.

And so, as is typical for me, my FRADD (Family Research Attention Deficit Disorder) kicked in. I never did get the story of my great great grandmother, Catherine, written. An archivist friend, when asked about Yellow Springs Ohio and the old spas, recommended a couple of books. I ended up requesting and reading a book about Mary Gove Nichols life. (Thanks to the library consortium system, I can often get books that my local library doesn’t have.) The connection was that Mary Gove Nichols was born and lived in the same time period as Catherine, and more importantly was the co-owner of the Yellow Springs Spa at about the time that Catherine was there. The title of the book is Shameless and it is a very good description of women’s status in the early to mid 1800s in this country. The Water Cure was popular as a treatment for a number of ills, particularly consumption (which Catherine had). The Water Cure included baths in cold water, drinking lots of water, and healthy meals (lots of vegetables I think) among other prescriptions. The Yellow Springs, in Greene county about 60 miles north of Cincinnati, was already known in the 1830s to have some benefit for those with chronic diseases.

CEC cemetery record

Although I don’t have any direct evidence that ties Catherine to the Water Cure, I do have evidence that she died of “pulmonary consumption” in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Catherine Elizabeth Justice was born the 30th of December 1821, in Clermont county, Ohio. This is southwestern Ohio just east of Cincinnati and bordered by the Ohio River on the south. Her father was Jesse Justice Jr., from New Jersey and her mother was Susan Wilcox from Nantucket originally. They met in Clermont county and married in 1818. Their first child, a son, had been born in February 1820 and died as an infant in the fall of 1821 before his sister, Catherine, was born. The family stayed in Clermont county until sometime after the next brother, Theodore, was born in January 1824. Between then and December 1828 the family moved into Cincinnati. The family is enumerated in the federal census of 1830 in Cincinnati. In the mid to late 1820s Cincinnati was growing quickly, and became the first major inland city in the young United States. Incorporated in 1819, Cincinnati had river transport by the Ohio River which was the main route to New Orleans. The population of Cincinnati, or the greater Cincinnati area including Newport and Covington, Kentucky, in 1835 was about 35,000. Jesse Justice opened a grocery shop and became active in the city. By 1834 he was City Marshall.

Between January 1833 and April 1834 3 children of Jesse and Susan died. An infant son died at 3 months old. A 4 year old daughter died of cholera. And a second infant daughter died within a day of being born. Catherine and her brother Theodore were the only living children. Catherine and Theodore were close in age but there is little information in the family vault about him. The last child born to Jesse and Susan, William Harrison Justice, was born in April 1840.

Catherine was 18 years old, married for 6 months, and pregnant with her first child when this last brother was born. She married Zebulon B. Coffin, who also had a grocery shop in Cincinnati, and was involved in the community. Her daughter, Jessie Malvina, was born in November 1840 so was just 7 months younger than her uncle Harrison. At the time of the 1840 federal census, I believe that Catherine and Zebulon must have been living with her parents in Cincinnati. At least, they fit the right age groups for the Jesse Justice family enumerated in Cincinnati; in addition I have not found them enumerated anywhere else separately.

At some point, before the federal census in 1850 but not documented beyond stories, the family adopted (probably not legally) a young boy said to have been found by Harrison in Cincinnati on the street with nowhere to go. The story is that Harrison found Anthony Burton, about age 9, living on the street and told his mother who took him in. In 1850 Anthony was enumerated with the Zebulon Coffin family in Newport, Kentucky (which is directly across the Ohio River from Cincinnati). Jesse and Susan Justice and their family lived next door. At the time of the 1860 federal census, Anthony lived in Newport in Susan Justice’s home along with Harrison. Between the two households there were three young people within a year or two of the same age: Jessie Malvina Coffin, Harrison Justice, and Anthony Burton.

There is little passed down in the family lore about Catherine (or Kate as some of her cousins called her) as a person. She and Zebulon had 2 more children, each about 6 years apart. It is likely that she was “delicate”. Much of the picture of Catherine that exists is from a few letters I have, both to and from her. She, along with others in the family, wrote to Anthony while he served in the Civil War. By that time, she was also probably experiencing the effects of her consumption. We know she was only 44 when she died August 31, 1866 in Yellow Springs, Greene, Ohio.

I think the next step in learning about g-g-granmother Catherine’s life will involve looking more closely at these few other documents I have. All of these need to be transcribed. As I remember, I got as far as putting them in sheet protectors, but need to take that next step. I wonder where I put them? I guess finding them and starting to transcribe them could get put on my March Genealogy To-Do List. Maybe.

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