Joseph Coleman: When Is a Death Record Not a Death Record? When It’s Not!

I feel like I’ve been tossed and turned on the sea. It’s an appropriate analogy, I believe, because Joseph Coleman was a mariner. If you’ve been following my Coffin and Coleman family posts, you’ll remember that I discovered some land deeds that appear to disprove the Nantucket vital record stating that Joseph Coleman died at sea of yellow fever off the coast of Guinea on 17 April 1775.


Death of Joseph Coleman?

On the surface, this looks pretty definite, doesn’t it? It’s in the collection of official Nantucket vital records. Note the P.R. 38 and P.R. 63. Those abbreviations are the sources of this information and mean that this came from private notes and manuscripts. One is the Isaac Coffin collection and the other is the William Folger collection.

I’ve spent months working on Joseph Coleman’s family because Nantucket records are incomplete. Many births aren’t recorded and deaths are missing. Early Nantucket genealogists compiled data to fill in some of these gaps. However, they were human and sometimes made mistakes.

The Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850 series for Nantucket contains this caveat for P.R. 38:


P.R. 38

I had always had lingering questions about this family. Eunice never remarried, but supposedly had several small children. How did she survive? It didn’t seem likely that her cousin Benjamin Coffin supported them out of the goodness of his heart. I also wondered about Joseph Coleman’s 1791 probate. Why had so many years passed between 1775 and then with no probate being administered? I could understand it being delayed until the war ended in 1783, but not until 1791. I theorized that perhaps Joseph owned land and son Joseph Jr. came of age, as he married in 1793. Some of my questions have now been answered with the discovery of several new primary documents.

Timelines can be invaluable when there are a number of events and dates. Here is one for the lives of Joseph and Eunice (Coffin) Coleman and it demands a complete retelling of the story of this family’s life.

1739.Sep30 – Joseph Coleman born in Nantucket, son of Joseph & Rachel (Norton) Coleman
1742.Jul18 – Eunice Coffin born in Nantucket, daughter of Cromwell & Ruth (Cromwell) Coffin
1760.Jan24 – Joseph Coleman & Eunice Coffin married in Nantucket
1760-1773 – Tamar, Jennet & Elizabeth born to Joseph and Eunice. The three girls were baptized on 19 December 1773, Nantucket.
1768-1772 – Joseph born to Joseph and Eunice. Age range based on gravestone age and age in 1850 census.
1774.Oct20 – Joseph Coleman of Nantucket purchases land from Morris Flewelling in Ulster County, New York
1775.Apr17 – Death of Joseph Coleman entered in Nantucket vital records, having died of yellow fever off the coast of Guinea.
1775.Apr17 – Joseph, mariner, and Eunice Coleman appeared in person to register a deed of sale to Francis Chase. Deed registered 24 April 1775.
1775 – Mary Ann, estimated birth year, born to Joseph and Eunice
1781.Feb7 – Tamar Coleman married Daniel Birdsall, New Windsor, Orange, New York
1786.Jan31 – Elizabeth Coleman married Isaac Belknap, New Windsor, Orange, New York
1788.June5 – Joseph and Eunice Coleman with Timothy and Mary Coleman, all of Nantucket, sold their share of their deceased father’s estate to Ebenezer Coleman.
1790 – Census shows Henry Watts, male over 16 and one female in a household next door to Benjamin Coffin, Orange County, New York. Henry Watts married Jennet Coleman, c1790.
1790.Jan5 – Joseph Coleman bought land from Thomas Palmer of Ulster County, New York
1791.Apr5 – Probate filed for estate of Joseph Coleman, Eunice Coleman administratrix. Papers filed both in Ulster County, New York and Nantucket, Massachusetts. Probate inventory shows continued contacts in both New York and Nantucket.
1793.Aug24 – Joseph Coleman Jr. married Ruth Spurr of Dorchester, Massachusetts
1795.Feb9 – Mary Ann Coleman married Chauncey Griswold, New Windsor, Orange, New York.
1796.May5 – Birdsall, Watts, Belknap and Griswold heirs + Joseph Coleman sell their shares of estate of Joseph Coleman, deceased.
1796.May5 – before 1799.Mar9 – Tamar (Coleman) Birdsall died.
1799.Mar9 – Benjamin Coffin wrote his will. Bequests given = 1/3 to children of sister Love Coffin, 1/3 to children of sister Jean Ramsdal, 1/3 to widowed cousins Abigail Gardner, Eunice Coleman and Mary Fosdick, sisters and daughters of Cromwell and Ruth (Coffin) Coffin.
1800.May22 – Will of Henry Watts proved. Widow Jennet. Sons Hiram and Harvey, Orange County, New York
1800 – Census shows Jannet Watts, head of household, with 1 F 45+, 1 F 26-44, 1 F 16-25, 2 M -10. Female over 45 may be Eunice. Coleman. No further record found for Jennet (Coleman) Watts or sons Hiram and Harvey Watts.
1802.Apr19 – Will of Benjamin Coffin proved. Eunice Coleman apparently still living.
1806-1810 – Mary Ann (Coleman) Griswold died, probably Orange County, New York
1852.Apr15 – Joseph Coleman Jr. died, Bowdoinham, Lincoln (today Sagadahoc), Maine

Joseph Coleman was robbed of about 16 years of his life by the data in the William C. Folger collection. His children would have grown up without a father and his widow most likely would have had to have remarried to survive.

Instead, this timeline makes it evident that Joseph planned his move to New York in 1774. Was it because of the chance of impending war with England or did he want a change of pace?

Since his occupation was mariner, did he continue that life after removing to New York? How often did he move back and forth between New York and New England?

Being a mariner, did he sail down the Hudson River to New York to access the ocean, or did he travel by land to perhaps Bridgeport or New Haven and sail from there to Nantucket?

By following all my Coffin family leads, I literally stumbled into all these new records for the Coleman family. I’d also searched some of these records in the past, but many more are digitally available now from home.

It’s turned out to be quite a story, as I’ve filled in so many details about the lives of Joseph, Eunice and their children. It looks like Joseph Jr., my ancestor, had the longest lifespan, by far.

This is a perfect example of how following collateral lines and extending the search to include more than vital records can be just the ammunition to crack open a brick wall.

 

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Joseph Coleman: When Is a Death Record Not a Death Record? When It’s Not!”

  1. Really love the way your timeline disproves the dubious private record of this ancestor’s death. And your post is a great reminder that it’s important to read up on sources before trusting their info!

  2. Great article and Love Coffin, what a name. Can’t assume that all sources can be trusted especially if the info seems a bit far fetched so great to see that checking more sources can help to confirm or deny dubious sources. As the description of PR38 says, it can give you clues to other info so that’s the beauty of some sources. The clues are the important element.

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