Tag Archives: Nantucket – Original sources

Delving into Original 18th Century Sources, Part 2

Yesterday, I presented the idea of searching for original 18th century records to look for further clues about the family of Joseph and Eunice (Coffin) Coleman, who lived in Nantucket, Massachusetts in the 1700s.

The sources cited in the Nantucket vital record book were linked to the baptism of three of the Coleman children, Tamar, Elizabeth and Jennette, and to the death of Joseph Coleman, who died of yellow fever in 1775 off the coats of Guinea.


PR38 PR63

The first pertinent record, C.R. 3, states that the baptisms were entered in the books of the First Methodist Episcopal Church.

The other two records noted the death of Joseph, found first in the William C. Folger records, in the possession of the Nantucket Historical Association and in the Hon. Isaac Coffin records, in the possession of the Nantucket Atheneum.

It is important to note here that those repositories held the records as of 1925, when the Nantucket vital records book was published.

My first step, then was to verify that the records were indeed in those places. Both the Atheneum and the Historical Association exist today. I checked WorldCat for the First Methodist Episcopal Church records and this entry appeared:

Note the bottom left corner!
“Sorry, no libraries with the specified items were found.”

This is not a good start. Next, I phoned the Nantucket Historical Association, but left a message, which was returned the next morning. I spoke with a reference librarian, who had already begun to research my request. She told me that the First Methodist Episcopal Church wasn’t established on Nantucket Island until 1796, when the first minister arrived there. I asked about the possibility that earlier records had been lost, but she said she could find absolutely no reference to that church denomination until 1796. That is a full 21 years AFTER the Coleman children were baptized. Hmmm.

Obviously, something is wrong here. The most logical explanation would be that there was a typographical mistake when the book was published and the source was not C.R. 3. That means the children were baptized either at one of the Congregational Churches or the Society of Friends and since the Quakers don’t practice baptism, that leaves either the North or South Congregational Church.

The next step is to try to locate those records, but if you noticed the WorldCat entry description, the First Congregational Church records were included with the First Methodist Episcopal Church in the Church Records Collection:

Churches on Nantucket Collection, 1761-1986

Next step is to see if the Nantucket Historical Association has that set of church records.

However, the William C. Folger collection is, indeed, still housed at the Nantucket Historical Association and archivist Elizabeth Oldham was kind enough to track down the entry about Joseph Coleman’s death:


1739 (born)  – Joseph Coleman died of yellow fever


Entry listing the wife, children and spouses of
Joseph Coleman

The problem here is that no sources are given for this entry, which matches the information in the NHA database online. I have no doubts that the family removed to Newburgh, Orange County, New York and I located marriage records for Tamar, Janette, Mary Ann (Polly) and Elizabeth. However, I have no primary proof of the names of Polly, Eunice and Joseph Jr. I suspect that they might be named in the papers of  Isaac Coffin, Judge of Probate.

I am not at all sure that my Joseph married a Polly. You see, there was an unrelated (as far as I can tell) Joseph Coleman living in Orange County by the 1760s and he had a son, Joseph, born about 1774, close in age to my Joseph and I can’t find a marriage record in Orange County for any Joseph Coleman in the 1790s. It appears that this Joseph Coleman and others in Orange County at the time were descended from William Coleman who settled in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

I also googled Isaac Coffin to locate where his papers might be. The Atheneum didn’t appear to include them in their collection. It looks like the Isaac S. Coffin papers, 1820-1866, at the Peabody-Essex Museum might be the papers I am looking for, but correspondence from them indicated that they did NOT have this manuscript.

Considering that New England research is so “easy,” this has taken a lot of hours and days. These two posts cover 48 hours, but I have worked on and off for three months just to get this far!

However, I am not yet out of options, as a reasonably exhaustive search to me means leave no stone unturned. There are two remaining “stones” to be turned – the Nantucket Town Clerk and the Nantucket Probate Clerk (even though a search of probate records on microfilm in Salt Lake City yielded no estate administration for Joseph Coleman.)

The first phone call went to the Town Clerk, hoping that maybe that office might have some record, but nothing was located there.

My last hope was the Nantucket Probate Clerk, Susan D. Beamish. Register, who made my day! She discovered a one page probate administration entry for widow Eunice Coleman, who had already removed with her cousin, Benjamin Coffin, and her children to Orange County, New York!

It’s not the manuscript of the Hon. Isaac Coffin, Judge of Probate, but it’s even better because it is the ORIGINAL record!

Joseph Coleman Probate Administration, 1791

Unfortunately, this one page document only mentions widow Eunice Coleman, her deceased husband, Joseph Coleman, mariner, and the fact that she resides in New York. She was given the option to present an accounting either to the court in New York (Orange County) or to the Nantucket Probate Court between April and October of 1791.

I have no idea why it took so long for her to file for letters of administration, when Joseph died in 1775. I could understand if she filed at the close of the Revolution, but that was in 1783. I wonder if son Joseph, turning 21 about that time, had anything to do with the timing?

Delving into Original 18th Century Sources, Part 1

How often do you access original sources? By original, I mean reading the actual record itself, whether you are lucky enough to hold the document or book in your hands or you read a microfilmed version or digital image.

Time and time again, family historians are urged to view the original record rather than reading a transcribed version or just an index entry.

I’ve pursued accessing many original records through the decades, but I have to admit that not many of them have been from colonial Massachusetts. A couple of years ago, I wrote about Emma Adams who married the man who never existed – William Seonnig – in Maine in the late 1800s. In reality, a researcher not only misread the marriage record, he/she transposed the first and last name, changing the surname “Bill” to the given name “William.” Thus, Loring Bill became William Seonnig.

Loring Bill Marriage Entry

More recently, I shared the story about the missing Coleman marriage record. FamilySearch had the record indexed, but the entry was not found in the proper year. It later turned out that the groom’s given name was incorrectly indexed as “David” when it was actually “Daniel.”

Indexed or transcribed records are known as derivative records because they are created, or derived from, the originals. Whenever there is a middleman between you and original sources, there is the possibility of human error.

This is one of the few blog posts I’ve written where I don’t yet know the end of the story because this particular research path is a current work in progress.

I have also written many times about my Coleman family. There is one break in the documented chain proving my grandmother Hazel Ethel Coleman’s ancestry back to Thomas Coleman, who settled in Nantucket by 1662, although he had lived elsewhere in the Massachusetts Bay Colony from the 1630s onward.

The break in the pedigree chain is with my grandmother’s 2x great grandfather (my 4x great grandfather), Joseph Coleman who was born somewhere in the span of 1768-1772 somewhere in Massachusetts. He married Ruth Spur in Massachusetts in 1793 and settled in Bowdoinham, Maine before 1800. He died in Bowdoinham in 1852.

The details are already given in the link two paragraphs up “one break” and this post isn’t about the last step of finding proof of parentage. Instead, the focus is on the difference between original and derived sources and actually locating/reading those records.

I don’t often pay professional researchers to do my work. The exception is when I can’t access certain records myself. For example, I paid a pro in Copenhagen to retrieve records from the Danish National Archives which haven’t been filmed or digitized and are not available elsewhere.

With as many New England ancestors as I have, I have maintained membership in the New England Historic Genealogical Society off and on through the years. I also know that, in spite of New England’s generally excellent genealogical records, there are gaps that create brick walls and the #1 place to seek help is NEHGS.

I decided that my Joseph Coleman brick wall was in need of professional advice since the only possible parents I had found for him were Joseph Coleman, born 1739 in Nantucket, and Eunice Coffin, his wife. This family left a very small paper trail, which led me to sign up for a telephone conference with Chief Genealogist at NEHGS, David Allen Lambert.

We spoke for only half an hour, but the time was well spent. He encouraged me to seek out original records that corresponded with the following derived records:

In the Vital Records of Nantucket, Massachusetts to the Year 1850, published in 1925, there were several entries for Joseph Coleman’s family.

Death of Joseph Coleman 1775

Tamar Coleman’s Baptism

There were actually three daughters of Joseph and Eunice baptized on 19 December 1773 – Tamar, along with her sisters, Elizabeth and “Jennet” or Jeanette.

If you haven’t used the Massachusetts vital records series, note the citations in each listing. Joseph’s has two – P.R. 38 and P.R. 63. Tamar’s entry has one – C.R. 3.

I will get back to what these citations mean in just a minute. I also found the Nantucket Historical Association‘s online surname database and found further entries for this family:

Joseph Jr., son of Joseph Coleman and Eunice

Family of Joseph and Eunice (Coffin) Coleman

This database was created through the work of Eliza Starbuck Barney.

Yes, I have tracked the family to Newburgh, Orange County, New York, but that has not provided any new information connecting my Joseph Coleman with his parents.

Therefore, Mr. Lambert suggested that I focus on tracking down the original records cited in the Nantucket vital records and contacting the Nantucket Historical Association to learn the sources of the Coleman family information in their database. None of the entries are source cited. Not only should I be looking for clues and/or further details about the family not found in the index, but I should try to fill in the story of Joseph Coleman’s life, as he died of yellow fever off the coast of Africa at the cusp of the start of the Revolutionary War.

Before we break until tomorrow for Part 2 – C.R. in the Nantucket vital records series refers to “Church Record” and P.R. refers to “Private Record.” The numbers after them refer to the list of records found at the beginning of the book. More on that on tomorrow, when I go down the rabbit hole, chasing the BSO (bright, shiny object.) I hope you’ll be following along with me!