COFFIN, JOHN, army officer, businessman, politician, jp, judge, and office holder; b. c. 1751 in Boston, son of Nathaniel Coffin, the last receiver general and cashier of British customs for Boston, and Elizabeth Barnes; brother of Isaac Coffin and nephew of John Coffin*; m. 21 Oct. 1781 Ann Mathews (Matthews) of Johns Island, S.C., and they had ten children; d. 12 May 1838 in Westfield Parish, N.B.
Born into a prosperous mercantile family that had connections with the governing élite of colonial Massachusetts, John Coffin spent his childhood in Boston, where he received a respectable education and was introduced to the doctrines of the Church of England. Coffin and his family probably had many reasons for remaining loyal to the British crown during the American revolution; certainly the family’s prosperity depended on a continued attachment to the existing order.
John Coffin launched his military career on 17 June 1775 at the battle of Bunker Hill. His activities thereafter are unclear until 19 Jan. 1777, when he was commissioned a captain in a newly formed provincial corps, the Orange Rangers. After serving with the Rangers in New Jersey and New York, he exchanged into the New York Volunteers on 19 July 1778. This regiment was transferred late in 1778 to the southern colonies, where Coffin saw action in both Georgia and South Carolina. His distinguished service at the battle of Eutaw Springs in September 1781 led to his promotion as major of the King’s American Regiment on 28 Aug. 1782. When his unit was disbanded in 1783 he was placed on half pay. Even though he would see only a brief period of military service following the Revolutionary War (during the War of 1812 he raised the New Brunswick Fencibles), he received regular promotions, becoming a full general on 12 Aug. 1819.
Following the withdrawal of British troops from the southern colonies, Coffin spent much of 1783 in New York attempting to secure his future once the war had officially ended. He was to relocate in territory destined to become New Brunswick. Edward Winslow* obtained property for him on the west side of what would be named Saint John Harbour, and Henry Nase, formerly under Coffin’s command in the King’s American Regiment, received a contract to construct the major’s house. After making these preparations, Coffin and his family embarked for Parrtown (Saint John), where they landed on 26 Sept. 1783.
Coffin immediately set about establishing himself. Probably taking advantage of his position as one of the loyalist land agents, he acquired from Beamsley Perkins Glasier* an interest in Glasier’s Manor, a 5,000-acre estate situated at the confluence of the Nerepis and Saint John rivers. In 1790 he obtained ownership of the property, by then enlarged to 6,000 acres. Coffin was involved in numerous other land transactions, primarily in Kings County, and erected both a grist-mill and a sawmill on the manor. Not confining his business ventures to real-estate speculation and agricultural pursuits, he also retailed fish, lumber, and rum. His shrewd business sense, drive, and financial resources ensured him considerable success, although he was never able to enjoy an aristocratic way of life or to accumulate a vast fortune.
Despite his active participation in the campaign for the partition of Nova Scotia and his association with many of the loyalist élite, Coffin had not achieved immediate political success when New Brunswick became a reality in 1784. He was not offered a high-ranking government appointment, though he would become a justice of the peace and a judge of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas. On the fringe of political preferment, he was obliged to seek election to the House of Assembly in order to have a voice in provincial affairs. Returned as a representative of Kings County in November 1785, he served for 25 years. He was twice accused of manipulation: in 1796 he was charged with distributing provisions to voters and in 1810 his seat was declared vacant because of irregularities in his election the preceding year. As a member of the assembly, Coffin emerged as a leading defender of the principles of church and state and revealed his contempt for the champions of democracy. During the legislative session of 1802 eight assembly members under his leadership passed a revenue bill despite the fact that a quorum was not present [see Samuel Denny Street*]. Coffin’s fiery disposition involved him in several duels, one of them with the radical James Glenie*.
In Kings County, an oligarchy was established with Coffin and George Leonard* as dominant members. From 1786, when he was appointed to the bench, Coffin accumulated many county positions, including that of chief magistrate. In company with Lieutenant Governor Thomas Carleton*, Chief Justice George Duncan Ludlow*, and others he was a founding member of the New England Company’s New Brunswick committee in 1786, and in 1807 he became superintendent of the Indian school the company had established at Sussex Vale (Sussex Corner) [see Oliver Arnold*] . His many positions, including that of assemblyman, gave Coffin great power in all matters both secular and religious within Kings County.
In 1812 Coffin received an appointment that he must have felt was long overdue: he became a member of the New Brunswick Council. As usual, controversy dogged his footsteps. In 1824 a situation arose which led the members of the Council to consider whether or not he had forfeited his seat. Coffin had moved to England in 1817, but had not relinquished his seat or received official permission to be absent. The matter was referred to the colonial secretary, who concluded that Coffin had indeed forfeited his position. After giving Lieutenant Governor Sir Howard Douglas* the impression that he would return, however, Coffin was reinstated. Though he made periodic visits to the province thereafter, he was no more attentive to his duties and was removed from the Council in 1828. John Coffin’s political ascent had ended.
Coffin did eventually re-establish residence in New Brunswick, where he spent the remaining years of a life marked by a determination to succeed in every endeavour.
ACC, Diocese of Fredericton Arch., Greenwich and Westfield Parish Church (Kings County, N.B.), vestry minutes, 1797–1853 (mfm. at PANB); “Inglis papers, 1787–1842,” comp. W. O. Raymond (copy at N.B. Museum). Kings Land Registry Office (Sussex, N.B.), Registry books, C-1: 183–85 (mfm. at PANB). N.B. Museum, Bibles, no.65 (Coffin family Bible); Coffin family, CB Doc; Jarvis family papers, E. J. Jarvis to R. F. Hazen and Munson Jarvis, 7 Sept. 1823; Nase family papers, Henry Nase diary, 20, 29 Sept. 1782; 7 Aug., 4, 26 Sept. 1783. PAC, MG 23, D1, ser.1, 7: 34, 277; D9; RG 8, I (C ser.), 719: 15–17, 23–24, 211–12; 1874: 35, 50; 1908: 4, 10, 15, 24 (mfm. at PANB). PANB, RG 7, RS66, 1838, John Coffin; RG 10, RS108, 1833. PRO, PRO 30/55, no.4088 (mfm. at UNBL). UNBL, BC-MS, Sir Howard Douglas letter-books, Douglas to William Huskisson, 31 Jan. 1828, 18 May 1829 (transcripts at N.B. Museum). Winslow papers (Raymond). Royal Gazette (Saint John, N.B.; Fredericton), 11 Nov. 1811, 23 May 1838. Lorenzo Sabine, Biographical sketches of loyalists of the American revolution (2v., Boston, 1864; repr. Port Washington, N.Y., 1966). J. H. Stark, The loyalists of Massachusetts and the other side of the American revolution (Boston, 1910). A memoir of General John Coffin . . . , comp. H. [E.] Coffin (Reading, Eng., 1860). R. G. Watson, “Local government in a New Brunswick county; Kings County, 1784–1850” (ma thesis, Univ. of N.B., Fredericton, 1969). Judith Fingard, “The New England Company and the New Brunswick Indians, 1786–1826: a comment on the colonial perversion of British benevolence,” Acadiensis (Fredericton), 1 (1971–72), no.2: 29–42.