COFFIN, THOMAS, businessman, seigneur, office holder, politician, and militia officer; b. 5 July 1762 in Boston, son of John Coffin* and Isabella Child; d. 18 July 1841 in Trois-Rivières, Lower Canada.
Thomas Coffin arrived at Quebec early in August 1775 with his parents and ten brothers and sisters. His father, a Boston businessman, had decided to leave the American colonies when revolution broke out. While several of Thomas’s brothers took up careers in the army or public service, among them Nathaniel, who became a provincial surveyor in 1790, he himself went into business. By November 1782 he was established in Montreal, where he sold, among other things, West India rum, French and English brandy, port, Spanish wines, molasses, tea, soap, butter, and fruit. When he met Marguerite Godefroy de Tonnancour, daughter of Louis-Joseph Godefroy* de Tonnancour, the course of his life was, however, changed.
The couple were married in Montreal on 22 Feb. 1786 by Anglican minister David Chabrand* Delisle and went to live on the seigneury of Pointe-du-Lac. Coffin then devoted himself to his new role as a seigneur, for in addition to the sum of 66,902 livres 5 sols 3 deniers Marguerite’s dowry included a share in the seigneuries of Yamaska, Pointe-du-Lac, Roquetaillade, Gastineau, and Godefroy. Through various transactions in 1786 and 1787 Coffin became sole owner of Pointe-du-Lac. In the following years he gave his attention to developing this seigneury and made many land grants. On 8 April 1791 he donated to the fabrique of Pointe-du-Lac the church, the presbytery, and a property measuring 60 arpents. A prominent figure in his community, on 1 July 1790 Coffin obtained the office of sheriff for the district of Trois-Rivières, which he held until December 1791. Before long, however, he was facing serious financial problems. Since he could not repay a long-standing debt of £1,200, the seigneuries of Pointe-du-Lac and Gastineau were seized by the sheriff in June 1795 and sold to Nicholas Montour* on 25 October for £3,740.
While continuing to manage his much reduced estate, Coffin took part in political life. In July 1792 he had been elected to the House of Assembly for Saint-Maurice, which he represented until June 1804. He sided for the most part with the English party. In 1793 he voted against the choice of Jean-Antoine Panet* as speaker, supporting Jacob Jordan* instead. That December he succeeded in having a committee set up to draft legislation concerning highways and bridges in the province, and he was named to chair it. A bill he introduced early in 1796 to join the seigneury of Gastineau to the parish of Pointe-du-Lac aroused great anxiety, because it raised the question of the legislature’s right to establish or divide parishes without the bishop’s prior consent and without their being established canonically. Bishop Jean-François Hubert* saw in it an attempt to usurp episcopal powers. The assembly hesitated and finally decided to set the bill aside. But Coffin, who had been appointed a commissioner for the building of churches and presbyteries in June 1796, introduced another bill in March 1798 to set up a new parish. The coadjutor bishop designate, Joseph-Octave Plessis*, tried in vain to have it amended, even meeting with Governor Robert Prescott*, who assured him of his good intentions with regard to the church and his opposition to the bill. The ending of the session made it possible to avoid any decision on the matter, and Coffin did not succeed in getting the bill passed when he brought it before the house again in 1800.
Coffin did not seek re-election in 1804, but ran in the 1807 by-election in Trois-Rivières. Defeated by Ezekiel Hart, he got Benjamin Joseph Frobisher* to present a petition for him contesting the right of Hart, a Jew, to sit in the assembly and demanding his place. Even though Hart was expelled, Coffin did not benefit in any way. The following year Coffin won the election for Saint-Maurice and he sat in the assembly until October 1809. In the ensuing election, he withdrew after seven days of polling when he saw that he had received few votes. Subsequently, he represented Trois-Rivières from April 1810 until March 1814.
While an assemblyman, Coffin continued to be interested in business. On 18 Sept. 1798, in partnership with his brother-in-law John Craigie*, he founded the Batiscan Iron Works Company to carry out ambitious plans for exploiting iron ore on the seigneury of Batiscan. In exchange for a 99-year lease to the company of four pieces of land, Coffin received a share equal to an advance of £1,000. He was also appointed manager until 1 Jan. 1800 at an annual salary of £200. From its earliest years the firm had serious problems. In December 1800 a fire destroyed the building in which the forge was located, causing a loss estimated at more than £818. In the hope of re-establishing the business, the owners tried to obtain the lease to the Saint-Maurice ironworks, which ran out in April 1801 [see Mathew Bell], but they did not succeed. Coffin and Craigie then decided to take in two other partners, Thomas Dunn* in 1801 and Joseph Frobisher* in 1802, each holding a one-sixth share. Through various transactions in 1802 the company also acquired at least 10,125 acres in Radnor Township, an area rich in ore and timber, and in 1803 the partners bought the seigneury of Champlain from Alexander Ellice* for £2,000.
Modelling its operation on the Saint-Maurice iron-works, the Batiscan company mainly produced stoves, which were in great demand, sugar and potash cauldrons, kitchen kettles, and bar iron. It nevertheless regularly experienced financial difficulties. Thus in December 1808 Coffin, as manager of the ironworks, acknowledged that £2,300 was owing to McTavish, Frobisher and Company for various goods purchased in the period 1804–6; to repay this sum he assigned £800 of the company’s accounts receivable to them as well as all its bar and pig iron and manufactured wares, valued at £1,500. These problems were probably not unconnected with Coffin’s decision to hand his share over to Craigie on 13 Nov. 1811 for £7,538. The effort to put the ironworks back on a firm footing was unsuccessful and it closed around 1814.
After leaving the company Coffin devoted himself chiefly to his role as an assemblyman and to the numerous offices he had received through government patronage. He had been a justice of the peace since 1794, and in October 1811 Sir George Prevost* appointed him chairman of the Court of Quarter Sessions in the district of Trois-Rivières, which brought him an annual salary of £200. Since 1803 he had been colonel of the three Trois-Rivières battalions of militia, and in April 1812 he became commissioner of transports in the district of Trois-Rivières. On 16 Feb. 1813 he was appointed inspector of the town’s police, a responsibility he discharged for several years. Coffin was also made commissioner for numerous other matters in the district. His appointment to the Legislative Council on 8 May 1817 came in recognition of his importance in public life, and he served until March 1838.
From the autumn of 1835, however, Coffin no longer attended council meetings. He was 73 by then and in poor health. On 18 July 1841, a year after abjuring Protestantism, he died at Trois-Rivières, leaving at least one son, William Craigie Holmes. He was buried on 22 July in the Ursuline chapel, where his wife, who had died in 1839, already lay.
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