COFFIN, JOHN, businessman, militia officer, and office holder; b. 19 Aug. 1729 in Boston, Mass., son of William and Ann Coffin; d. 25 Sept. 1808 at Quebec, Lower Canada.
At the outbreak of the American revolution John Coffin was established in Boston as a merchant, distiller, and shipowner. Although usually discreet and reserved, he did not conceal his loyalist sentiments; nor did other members of his family, some of whom decided to emigrate. He himself reached Quebec early in August 1775 on his schooner Neptune, with his wife, Isabella Child, their 11 children, and a few belongings.
Upon arrival Coffin bought a lot at Près-de-Ville, on the St Lawrence at the foot of Cap Diamant, and set about building a distillery there. But with American troops on the verge of attacking Quebec, the site was hastily converted into a defensive post and fitted out with guns. Coffin volunteered for the militia and joined a small force which early on the morning of 31 Dec. 1775, during a violent storm, stopped the attack led by Major-General Richard Montgomery*, killing him and turning back his men. Governor Guy Carleton, militia captain Thomas Ainslie, and lieutenant-colonels Henry Caldwell and Allan Maclean* attributed this success to the militia officers and to Coffin himself. In July 1776 Maclean paid him tribute: “To your resolution and watchfulness . . . in keeping the guard at the Pres-de-Ville under arms, waiting for the attack which you expected; the great coolness with which you allowed the rebels to approach; the spirit which your example kept up among the men, and the very critical instant in which you directed Capt. [Adam] Barnsfare’s fire against Montgomery and his troops, – to those circumstances alone do I ascribe the repulsing the rebels from that important post, where, with their leader, they lost all heart.”
In May 1778 Coffin, through William Grant (1744–1805), the attorney acting for Sir Thomas Mills* who was away in London, bought the house on Rue Saint-Louis which had formerly belonged to Michel-Jean-Hugues Péan* and in which Louis-Joseph de Montcalm* had died; Coffin had already been living in it for “about three years.” He was unable, however, to pay immediately the £1,000 that the land, house, sheds, and other outbuildings were worth. In the period 1778–81 he borrowed £465 from Thomas Dunn, and in March 1780 he signed a note to Grant for £1,058 to pay for his property, yet at the end of that year he in turn lent £2,500. In February 1783, as a result of “the misfortunes suffered in his business through the present war,” Coffin could not honour his obligations to Grant and therefore ceded him his house as repayment for the debt. He went to live at Près-de-Ville, on the site of his distillery, and then after 1785 returned to Rue Saint-Louis. In 1790 he obtained a loan of £190 from Jacob Jordan*, to whom he still owed £150 in March 1801.
As a loyalist Coffin presented numerous claims to the government, for example in 1776, 1778, 1783, and 1784. He estimated the rebel damages to his establishment and his ship at £961, not counting the confiscation of his property by Massachusetts in 1779. He also asked the British government for a land grant, and in 1802 received a certificate generously promising him, his wife, and nine of their children 1,200 acres of land apiece. These grants were to be taken up in the townships reserved for loyalists, but no exact place or period of time was specified. Because the letters patent for each 200-acre lot cost £5, Coffin and his immediate family did not follow up this offer; one of his grandsons, Lieutenant-Colonel William Foster Coffin*, did avail himself of it and obtained 1,200 acres of land in 1864.
Nevertheless John Coffin probably found compensation in the various offices he held. He was made a justice of the peace for the District of Quebec in 1785, and a lieutenant in the Quebec Battalion of British Militia in 1787. Late in December of that year Carleton, now Lord Dorchester, appointed him one of the commissioners to inquire into the whole matter of the Jesuit estates [see Augustin-Louis de Glapion*].By 1788 at the latest, he held the posts of deputy surveyor general of woods and deputy inspector of police at Quebec. The following year his name was listed as one of the owners of the first bridge across the Saint-Charles, which was called the Dorchester Bridge; in this capacity he was authorized to levy tolls for its use [see David Lynd]. In July 1794 he became commissioner of police for the town and district of Quebec, with a salary of £100 a year, and in August was made a captain in his militia battalion. In 1795 he received another promotion, this time to the post of surveyor general of woods for Lower Canada, a sinecure with an annual salary of £200 which he enjoyed for the rest of his life. In subsequent years Coffin received various commissions, including one for administering the oath to members of the Legislative Council and the House of Assembly and another for examining applications for crown lands. He was also one of the commissioners named to superintend the House of Correction at Quebec. He carried out these responsibilities until his death on 25 Sept. 1808. On three occasions his widow petitioned for a pension, but no action was taken upon her requests.
A confirmed loyalist, John Coffin helped to support the British crown in his adopted country by his own actions and by his family’s influence. From the time of its founding at Quebec in June 1794 he had been a member of an association established to uphold the British government in Lower Canada. Of his family, to which two more children had been born after his arrival in Canada, two sons, Thomas* and Nathaniel, were members of the assembly, as was his son-in-law John Craigie, who was married to his daughter Susannah. His son William became a captain in the 15th Foot, James was assistant commissary general in the army at Quebec, and John, perhaps preceded in office by his father, held the post of deputy commissary general from 1794 to 1800. His daughter Margaret married Roger Hale Sheaffe*, who succeeded Sir Isaac Brock as military commander in Upper Canada.
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