If You Can’t Prove It, Try Disproving It!

In a perfect world, each ancestor will have a readily available, easily found record of birth, death, marriage and other various sundry events in his or her life. In reality, not all records are easy to access, and, as much as we may not want to admit it, some records – even in places with great records – don’t exist.

Of course, I have an example right at hand. My maternal grandmother, Hazel Adams, was a Coleman by birth. She was born and raised in Maine, but also lived in Massachusetts and a few other places as my grandfather was transferred for work.

Hazel’s father and grandfather and great grandfather were easily documented. Her father was Hartwell Thomas Coleman, son of William Coleman and Sarah Moriah Crouse. William was the son of Thomas Coleman and Mary Elizabeth Astle and Thomas was one of nine children born to Joseph Colman/Coleman and his first wife, Ruth Spur.

Joseph appears to have probably been born in March in Massachusetts between 1768-1772, based on his age in 1850 and recorded in the 1852 cemetery record when he died.

Massachusetts is pretty much known as a genealogical heaven given their wonderful records. This Coleman research mostly took place before the internet was around, but even if I had started this research, say, last year, the steps would be the same.

Joseph Colman married Ruth Spur on 24 August 1793 in Roxbury, MA, which today is part of Boston. No consent was given for Joseph to marry, so I assumed he was at least 21 in 1793.

My search for Joseph turned into a negative proof search, since little could be proved before he married and moved to Maine. A search of land records turned up a deed in which James and Sarah Bowdoin of Dorchester, MA (today, also part of Boston) sold to Joseph Coleman a tract of land in Bowdoinham, ME on 16 April 1796. That was the link explaining Joseph’s move from MA to ME.

  1. I checked records at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston, MA. Through their library loan program, I sent for several genealogies about Colman/Coleman families in New England in the 1700’s. I found no information about my Joseph Coleman, but learned that the given name “Joseph” was quite rare among colonial Colemans except in the descendants of Thomas Coleman, who settled in Nantucket, MA in the 1600’s.
  2. Local libraries in southern California had many of the books in the Massachusetts Vital Records Before 1850 series. I kept a running list of those volumes as I found them so I would know which towns did NOT have a record of the birth of a Joseph Coleman who might be mine. Every town I found was crossed off the list.
  3. I also checked the 1790 census for Massachusetts Colman/Coleman families. All of those families were crossed off the list. None had a son Joseph.  Noticeably absent, though, were any Colemans in the close vicinity of Boston, where Joseph married in 1793.

There was one possible candidate – a Joseph Colman born on 8 August 1769 in Newbury, Masschusetts to John Colman and his wife, Lois Danforth. However, he was NOT my Joseph. Ironically enough, this Joseph migrated to Vassalboro, Maine, which is only 40 miles north of the Richmond/Bowdoinham area. However, this Coleman family is well documented and he is definitely not my guy.

4. I hired a researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society to abstract names of each Coleman found on the Massachusetts Tax Valuation List of 1771, figuring that Joseph’s father would probably be on it. I investigated those few names,  without finding any new possibilities.

5. A check of the 1798 Massachusetts Direct Tax list produced no new clues.

At this point, to review, I had checked land deeds, investigated the 1790 census, hired a researcher to find Colemans listed in the 1771 MA tax list and eliminated Coleman families on the 1798 tax list.

There were no other Colemans living near Joseph in Maine from 1800-1820, with the exception of the second Joseph Coleman living in Vassalboro, so it didn’t appear that any male relatives lived nearby.

You’re probably asking what about probate records? Back in those days, probates weren’t too easy to come by when I lived in CA and the records were 3,000 miles away. Yes, I did eventually work my way through the eastern counties of Massachusetts and crossed the Colemans I found off the prospective parent list.

Years went by and my grandmother passed away in 1995 without me ever being able to prove who Joseph’s mother and father were. I know that was a disappointment for her – it was to me, too, since Massachusetts was known for its family history records. I had thought this would be a slam-dunk.

More years went by and the world entered the age of the Worldwide Web. It happened one day that I called NEHGS about another issue, but when I had a researcher on the line, I asked about any possible sources that I might have overlooked in my Coleman quest or that weren’t accessible when I first started my family research. This researcher, who is a very well known staff member there, agreed that the name “Joseph” was most common in the Nantucket descendants of Thomas. He also told me that there were gaps in the Nantucket records, which could easily explain my lack of success in identifying Joseph’s parents. He agreed that I had about exhausted the record possibilities.

There was one new resource, though, which might at least give some bread crumbs to try to follow. That database was being developed by the Nantucket Historical Association and is organized by surname and given name. Each entry brings up the equivalent of an index card entry. This most tantalizing entry popped up for “Joseph Coleman Jun.” Notice the live links!

NantucketHistAssnJosColemanEntry
Entry for “Joseph Coleman Jun.”

Here was a Joseph Coleman of an age to be the father of my Joseph. This Joseph died of yellow fever, off the coat of Guinea, according to the Nantucket death records, about 17 April 1775. Birth records are not recorded for these children, with the exception of daughter Elizabeth on 30 August 1768. The names of the other children were found in baptismal records according to the notation on the website.

Joseph married wife Eunice Coffin on 24 January 1760 in Nantucket, so these seven children were born between 1760 and 1775.

Another detail that caught my eye was that there were six daughters and only one son, Joseph. That meant no male siblings would be found when this Joseph reached adulthood.

I wish I could say that I’ve found definitive proof that this is my Joseph. This is still a work in progress, but I believe deep down that this is my Joseph and his family. I found it odd that there was no probate for Joseph in 1775, since he had a young family, but I am currently digging through Orange County, New York records. Eunice Coffin Coleman moved to New York with her children and her unmarried cousin, Benjamin Coffin, who mentioned her in his 1800 will. I have found no records for any Joseph Coleman in Orange County, although records have been found for his sisters.

It is possible that this Joseph Coleman died young and/or never married, but I did find one more crumb that might eventually lead to the solution of this mystery. There are no Coleman records extant in or around Boston for the 1790’s except for Joseph’s 1793 marriage. My working theory is that Joseph was indeed born about 1770-1772 and missed living in New England. When he came of age, he left New York and ended up in Roxbury for a short period of time.

Why was he accepted in the community and with whom did he live? His mother’s cousin, Benjamin Coffin, continued to have business dealings in MA and traveled back there several times. Joseph’s sister, Elizabeth, married a man named Isaac Belknap in 1786 in NY. The Belknap family was originally from Massachusetts and, in 1790, there were two Belknaps living in Roxbury – Charles and Isaac. These were cousins of Isaac in New York.

Could Joseph Coleman have traveled back to Massachusetts with one of his Coffin relatives and/or his brother-in-law’s cousin, met Ruth Spur and decided that his future was in Maine and not in New York? I think so, and right now, this is the only positive in a long line of negative proofs. It took a lot of disproving to get this far!

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