Methodology: Connecting Joseph Coleman & Joseph Coleman as Father & Son

The dog days of summer seemed like a good time to blog a series about my Coleman and Coffin lines. I’ve written several thousand words covering multi-generations of these lines, culminating with the family of Joseph Coleman of Bowdoinham, Lincoln, Maine, who I wrote about a couple of days ago.

If you’ve followed the details of Joseph the son instead of Joseph the father, you might have noticed that I’ve never mentioned any smoking gun connecting Joseph in Bowdoinham with the family in Nantucket and Orange County, New York.

That’s because there is no one document connecting the two men. Instead, it took years of sorting out the Coleman families, eliminating possibilities and then connecting them on the strength of preponderance of evidence and the Bowdoinham FAN club.

For many years, Joseph Colman/Coleman in Bowdoinham was a complete mystery. It took very little effort to find him marrying Ruth Spurr in 1793 in Roxbury, Massachusetts:

American Ancestors

The land deed detailing the purchase of land in Bowdoinham by Joseph Coleman in 1796, sold by James Bowdoin of Dorchester, Massachusetts, tied this couple neatly together, as there are no other Joseph and Ruth Colemans anywhere around.

Lincoln County, Maine Deed Book 37: 226-227

During the next two decades, my research on this line consisted of chasing down records for every Coleman family in Massachusetts during the second half of the 18th century. It ended up being a process of eliminating each and every family, one by one. This was all before the internet age.

In 1850, Joseph Coleman stated that he was born in Massachusetts. Of course, that could have meant Maine because Maine was part of Massachusetts in 1770, which is about when Joseph was born.

However, I could find no links between the very few Colemans who were in early Maine and my Joseph.

Next, every book in the Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850 series that I could lay hands on, which was most of them over a twenty year time span,  was checked. I read every Coleman genealogy that I could find, which mainly covered William Coleman of Gloucester, Massachusetts and Thomas Coleman of Nantucket, Massachusetts.

I hired a researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society to read some records to which I had no access, including the Massachusetts 1798 Direct Tax. I reasoned that even if my Joseph’s father had died by then, it would still guide me to towns where Colemans lived. Nothing came of that venture except for more possibilities crossed off the list.

It did become quite evident that Joseph as a given name was rare in almost every Coleman family in Massachusetts, with the exception of the descendants of Thomas Coleman of Nantucket. Among that group, Joseph was a popular name.

After all the negative findings, I narrowed my focus to the Nantucket group. Again, I contacted NEHGS and learned about the Nantucket Historical Association and their fabulous online database. Eliza Starbuck Barney compiled information on 40,000 residents of Nantucket covering the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

The family of Joseph and Eunice (Coffin) Coleman quickly made itself known. Here was a couple who were exactly the right ages to be parents to my Joseph. Although the births of their children weren’t recorded in Nantucket vital records, it did note the baptism of three daughters in December 1773.

The NHA database also included the most valuable clue of all – that the family removed to Newburgh, Orange County, New York.

Nantucket Historical Association Surname Database

Because of the reference to Newburgh, New York, I was able to prove that Joseph Sr. didn’t die in 1775 off the coast of Guinea and land deeds, along with marriage records, proved the names of his five children, at least those who survived to adulthood. I’ve found no evidence of the existence of a child Eunice and I believe Mary Ann and Polly are the same person.

Now, for the critical steps of connecting Joseph Sr. and Joseph Jr. First of all, even though the land deeds say the grantors/ grantees are all residents of that place, I think that might or might not be true. Joseph Sr. was correctly identified as “of Nantucket” in 1774, but in all transactions involving this family, I am not positive that they were residents of where the deeds state they were.

For example, the daughters lived in the town of New Windsor, but were identified as living in Newburgh. At times, Newburgh is identified as part of Ulster County, which it was at an earlier point in history, but was in Orange County at the time the deed was recorded. It doesn’t seem that the county clerk required much proof of residency; he just took the word of the people filing the deed.

Third, knowing that Joseph Sr. and Joseph Jr. were both mariners presents an easy way for them to travel back and forth over thousands of sea miles.

Although Joseph Jr. appears in the 1820 census of Bowdoinham, there is a Joseph Coleman in the 1820 census of Calais, Washington, Maine, which is across a narrow strip of water separating it from New Brunswick, Canada. This Joseph Coleman is an older man and has two young men in the household with him.


Being a mariner, Joseph could easily have stopped off in Calais for a while to check it out. Yes, this could be another man entirely, but Calais happens to have some very early tax records from the 1820s that have survived.

Calais Tax List, 1820

In 1821, one Thomas Coleman appeared on the same list:

Calais Tax List, 1821

Coincidence or not, “my” Thomas, Joseph’s son, turned 21 that year.

In 1822, three Colemans appear, Joseph, followed by Thomas and William:

Calais Tax List, 1822

If they are in order of age and are, indeed, father and sons, William would be one of the unknown sons of Joseph and Ruth (Spurr) Coleman.

Thomas Coleman remained on that list through 1823 and then disappears. What happened to “my” Thomas Coleman? Well, he married Mary Elizabeth Astle in Nelson, Northumberland, New Brunswick, Canada on 22 June 1830. If this early Calais family is my Coleman bunch, Thomas headed north.

Thomas might have traveled by land into Canada, but he easily could have sailed all the way to the Miramichi River, which empties into the ocean, and the village of Nelson.

Joseph and William Coleman remained on the Calais tax list until 1825. Joseph would have returned to Bowdoinham. What became of William? I have never found a trace of him. True to form, no Coleman owned land in Calais at this time.

What I can prove, though, is that my Thomas Coleman named his only son, WILLIAM, and sometime before the 1840 U.S. census, he brought his young family back into the United States to live. Thomas and family spent the remainder of their lives in – you guessed it – Calais, Maine. Another proven fact is that both William Coleman and his son, my great grandfather Hartwell Thomas, followed the sea. Captain William Coleman was a tug master along the St. Croix River and Bay of Fundy, while Hartwell became a master mariner. This seems like a bit too much of a coincidence to me.

Here is a comparison of “my” Bowdoinham Joseph and Joseph Jr. in New York. Notice that, aside from a county clerk mentioning that all in the deed resided there, there are no other facts which preclude them from being the same man.

Joseph of Bowdoinham:

1. Born 1768-1772
2. Married Ruth Spurr in Roxbury, MA on 24 August 1793
3. Of Bowdoinham when he bought land there on 22 October 1796
4. Of Bowdoinham when he sold the same land on 19 December 1798
5. 1800 census – Lincoln County, Maine
6. 1820 census – Lincoln County, Maine
7. 1830 census – Lincoln County, Maine
8. 1840 census – Lincoln County, Maine
9. 1850 census – Lincoln County, Maine
10. Died 15 April 1852 and buried in Brown Point Cemetery, Bowdoinham, Maine
11. Had no other relatives with the Coleman surname nearby in Maine
12. No primary documents have been found proving the birth places of Joseph’s children, aside from Thomas’s death certificate (88 years old at death) stating he was from Richmond, Maine.

Joseph of New York:

  1. Birth not recorded, but siblings born c1761-c1775
  2. Deed dated 4 April 1796 names Joseph and his four sisters as heirs of Joseph Coleman. States he is a local resident. (Six months later he is called “of Bowdoinham” if the same man as my Joseph, which is certainly physically possible.)
  3. Deed dated 4 February 1801 again states he is of New York as he records land sale to Isaac Belknap as his share of estate of his father.
  4. NO land deeds found in his name in New York
  5. NO marriage record found for him in New York
  6. Appears in NO census records in New York
  7. NO death/probate record found for Joseph in New York
  8. NO further records of any kind have been located for Joseph inn New York.
  9. Both the estate inventory of his father and that of his mother’s cousin, Benjamin Coffin, supported an on-going continued tie to friends and relatives in Massachusetts based on debtor and creditor lists.

There is nothing in either of these Joseph’s fact lists that precludes them from being the same man. How would Joseph of New York have ended up marrying Ruth Spurr in Roxbury in 1793? Look at the New York Coleman FAN club. Some of his mother’s Coffin cousins lived in the Boston area, specifically Dorchester and Roxbury. The 1790 Roxbury census includes Isaac Belknap, not his brother-in -law, but a cousin by marriage.

Isaac Belknap, Roxbury, MA 1790

That’s not to mention all of his mother’s cousins and extended family ties in the Boston area. Being a mariner, access to Boston was simple!

Assuming that Joseph in Bowdoinham is one and the same person, aside from buying his 1796 property from James Bowdoin, who lived in Dorchester, Massachusetts, what would make Joseph traipse off to the wilds of southern Maine and the tiny village of Bowdoinham? Again, check out his Bowdoinham FAN club through the only records available – the censuses. In 1800, the Bowdoinham census is just three short pages. Although there are no Colemans living nearby (since he had no brothers, that isn’t so odd), there are multiple Coffin families, a Bunker family (related by marriage)  and one John King (his maternal grandmother had married William King, who did have a son John) and Joseph’s neighbor was Isaac Gardner, who would have been a cousin on his mother’s side of the family.

I haven’t researched the other early Bowdoinham residents, but no doubt they included a few other acquaintances of Joseph’s from Massachusetts.

Joseph Coleman Sr., mariner, seemed to be a somewhat restless soul, always on the move. My Joseph had some of the same wandering spirit and the love of the sea continued down through my line to my great grandfather.

I’ve had a couple of top-notch, professional researchers agree with my conclusion that Joseph Coleman of Bowdoinham, Maine and Joseph Coleman of Newburgh, New York are one and the same man. What do you think?








2 thoughts on “Methodology: Connecting Joseph Coleman & Joseph Coleman as Father & Son”

  1. I absolutely love the way you described the detailed methodology and reasoning that you followed, meticulously, to come to your conclusions. Seeing how experienced researchers solve their mysteries gives me new ideas for solving my mysteries. Here, I have to agree, it surely seems very, very likely that you have YOUR Coleman family here. Congrats!

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