Tristram Coffin

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Tristram Coffin, son of Peter Coffin and Joanna Kember, was born probably shortly before his baptism at Brixton, Devon, England, 11 March 1609/10.1 He died at Nantucket, Nantucket Co., Massachusetts, 3 October 1681.1

Tristram married Dionis Stevens, daughter of Robert Stevens and Dionis (…), at England about 1629.2,3

There is no authentic record of Tristram Coffin's early life. He probably married and lived in Brixton until his emigration from there in 1642. In 1639-40 he was a church warden there, and in 1641 was constable. A difficulty arose between him and Thomas Maynard of Brixton, gentleman, which in midsummer of 1641 was referred to as the arbitration of Robert Savery and Henry Pallexfew, Esquires. How this was decided is unknown, but if adverse to Tristram Coffin it may have been one of the reasons he left the parish for New England.

There were many immigrants that seemed to have no reason to leave England. Tristram seems to be one of them. He may have come with Robert Clements, and like him, he had estates in England, owning property in Dorset as well as in Devon. He was of the landed gentry and before his departure, not of the puritan faith. One would expect to find him allied with the Royalist forces yet in the very year of the crises between Charles I and Parliament, 1642, he left England for the colonies, bringing with him his wife, five children and his mother, thus evincing a determination to stay in the new land. Apparently, then, he was moved neither by a desire for property nor freedom in religion in emigrating. The times were troubled ones and it is possible that he could see peace in prospect for England for some time while perhaps America offered a chance of security and freedom that attracted him. It is stated that his younger brother John was wounded at the battle of Plymouth Fort and died eight days later although the authority for the statement is never given. It may be a tradition that has descended in the family. If true, it may have been a factor in his decision to emigrate.

His name does not appear on any existing passenger list of the time. Tradition in both the Clement and Coffin families say both men came together on a ship owned by Clement, but nothing gives the name of the vessel. Tristram settled at Salisbury for a few months, removing shortly to Haverhill (Pentucket) where with the other inhabitants, he obtained of the Indian Sachems, the deed of the township. He signed the deed with five other men, among them being the Rev. John Ward and Robert Clements, his name standing third in the list. So far as is known this is the earliest extant autograph of Tristram Coffin, the deed dated 15 Nov 1642.

He settled in Haverhill near Clements and tradition again states that he was the first person to plough land in the town, having constructed his own plow. With Clement, he was made a freeman in Haverhill in Nov 1645. About 1643, he moved to another part of Haverhill, then before 1647, to Newbury, being in 1648 in Salisbury, in 1649 Newbury again, and finally in 1654, back in Salisbury. About 1658 he became interested in the island of Nantucket forming a company for its purchase and removing there in 1659.

With Samuel Winsley of Salisbury he sued Richard Ayre of Salisbury about a hogshead of beef and was in Court again in 1649. In 1653, his wife, Dionis, was presented in Court for selling beer for threepence per quart. She proved by the testimony of Samuel Mooers that she put six bushels of malt into the hogshead and hence was discharged by the Court, the case being that beer should sell for fourpence per quart and four bushels of malt should go to the hogs head. In 1653 he acted as attorney for William Furber and 1654, "Mr Tristra. Coffyn" served on the Jury. This same year he was sued by Theophilus Satchwell for not "insuring him three acres of accommodation according to promise" and won the case. (Essex Co., Court Files.) While a resident of Salisbury, before his departure for Nantucket, he was a commissioner (Justice of the Peace) there.

The early land records of Norfolk County, Essex County, and of Ipswich show that Tristram Coffin migrated between Haverhill, Salisbury, and Newbury during the nearly twenty years he lived in Essex County.

Why Tristram Coffin went to Nantucket is not known for certain. The probability is that it came though his acquaintanceship with Thomas Macy, a cousin of Thomas Mayhew who owned the Island by purchase from the agents of Sir Ferdinando Gorges and Lord Sterling. Mayhew, who was a resident and governor of Martha's Vineyard, probably was desirous of seeing Nantucket settled and offered the land very cheaply to Coffin, Macy and their associates, the price being 30 pounds and two beaver hats, while the deed is dated 2 Jul 1659. The first records of the proceedings in regard to Nantucket were kept at Salisbury but after the Island came under the jurisdiction of New York, the records were kept at Albany where they are still.

At a meeting in Nantucket, 15 Jul 1661, it was agreed that the owners should choose their lots and apparently Tristram Coffin was given the first choice.

When he went to Nantucket in 1659, he was a man of late middle age, about fifty years, with the instinct for leadership strongly developed. He was apparently just and kindly, although he had the necessary firmness for the government of the various factions of the island. The Indians looked upon him as a friend and he negotiated a purchase from them the land he had purchased from Thomas Mayhew who had not secured an Indian deed to the property.

For several years after this he, with his sons, held the controlling interest in the Islands he being conceded to be the richest man there, excepting his son Peter. With his sons he bought the island of Tuckernuck after vainly trying to have his other associates join in the purchase. He assumed the obligation to construct a corn mill, built and maintained it. He employed large numbers of Indians on his land. Benjamin-Franklin Folger, the historian of Nantucket, says of him: "The Christian character which he exhibited and which he practically illustrated in all the varied circumstances and conditions of that infant colony, is analogous to that which subsequently distinguished the founder of Pennsylvania, so that the spirit of the one seemed to be but the counterpart of the other." It is not surprising that a man of this type should have been made Governor
of Nantucket.

Between 1675-6, there was a dispute in court between Thomas Macy, then chief magistrate, and William Worth his son-in-law, on one side and John Gardner, Peter Folger and others on the other side. The islanders lined up on one side or the other. The matter was a question of land and superior authority, for Massachusetts on one hand and New York on the other. Tristram Coffin was of Macy's party and aligned against Gardner, although subsequently he again became friends with the latter.

The feeling for accepting the jurisdiction of Massachusetts instead of New York grew stronger and Governor Andros, who had suceeded Lovelace, again made Tristram Coffin governor perhaps in hope of settling the controversy. This commission is on the Nantucket Records (1:101) instead of the New York ones.

Tristram Coffin held the office of Governor until 1680 when John Gardner was appointed a year before Coffin's death.

After the marriage of his daughter Mary to Nathaniel Starbuck, Tristram deeded them some land, this being in 1664. This was unusual, but probably prompted by the fact that his sons were all co-purchasers with him in the island. Later he gave to his sons the remainder of his real estate.

In 1680 Tristram was brought into Court for an infringement of the Admiralty law. A ship having been cast away it was salvaged by the people of the Island while he was magistrate and he neglected to make an accounting satisfactory to the court. He was penalized for the full amount of her estimated value and this after he had parted with all of his property excepting enough for the old age of himself and his wife. The court evidently thought the fine excessive and remitted a part of it, Capt John Gardner standing good for his friend in this matter.

Less than a year later he died. The town records give the date his passing as 2 Oct 1681, but the probate records state twice that he died the third of the month. He left a very small estate as he had given most of it away to his sons and daughter and the fine inflicted by the Court of Admiralty took a large amount of the residue. At a Court of Sessions, held the 29th of November 1681, administration "on the estate of Mr. Tristram Coffin, deceased, the 3d day of October, 1681" was granted to his three sons.1


Dionis Stevens b. 4 Mar 1609/10, d. 1682
  • Peter Coffin1 b. 18 Jul 1630, d. 21 Mar 1715
  • Elizabeth Coffin1 b. abt. 1631, d. 19 Nov 1678
  • Tristram Coffin1 b. abt. 1632, d. 4 Feb 1704
  • James Coffin+1 b. 11 Sep 1639, d. 28 Jul 1720
  • John Coffin1 b. abt. 1641, d. 30 Oct 1642
  • Deborah Coffin1 b. 15 Nov 1642, d. 8 Dec 1642
  • Mary Coffin+1 b. 20 Feb 1644/45, d. 13 Nov 1717
  • Lieutenant John Coffin1 b. 30 Oct 1647, d. 5 Sep 1711
  • Stephen Coffin+1 b. 10 May 1652, d. 14 Nov 1734
This person was last edited on28 Apr 2016


  1. [S8] Mary Lovering Holman, Ancestry of Charles Stinson Pillsbury and John Sargent Pillsbury (Concord, New Hampshire: Rumsford Press, 1938), 605-615, further cited as Holman, Pillsbury Ancestry.
  2. [S8] Holman, Pillsbury Ancestry, 605.
  3. [S1872] Clarence Almon Torrey, New England Marriages Prior to 1700, 3 vols. (Boston, Massachusetts: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2011), 342, further cited as Torrey, New England Marriages (2011).