Full nameEdit

Joshua Coffin

Vital StatisticsEdit


Joshua Coffin was the son of Joseph Coffin (?-?) and Judith Tappan (?-?)



Joshua Coffin was a noted historian, writer and abolitionist from Newbury, Massachusetts.

He graduated from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in 1817, and taught for many years, numbering among his pupils the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who wrote a poem in his honor entitled, "To My Old School-Master."

The same year Joshua graduated from college, his brother Thomas was lost at sea on brig "Horizon," on Aug. 4, 1817. Was just 23 years old.

Joshua Coffin was an early and ardent crusader against slavery in America. In December, 1831, in Boston, he met with a small group to found the New England anti-slavery society, serving as its first recording secretary. He was also a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and served as that group's first president. He later went to Philadelphia to teach the children of freed slaves.

He was the poet John Greenleaf Whittier's first school teacher, and the man who introduced Whittier to poetry by giving him a volume of Robert Burns' poetry.

In May, 1882, Whittier wrote, in a brief autobiographical sketch:

"When I was fourteen years old my first school-master, Joshua Coffin, the able, eccentric historian of Newbury, brought with him to our house a volume of Burns’ poems, from which he read, greatly to my delight. I begged him to leave the book with me; and set myself at once to the task of mastering the glossary of the Scottish dialect at its close. This was about the first poetry I had ever read, (with the exception of that of the Bible, of which I had been a close student,) and it had a lasting influence upon me I began to make rhymes myself, and to imagine stories and adventures." [1]

In a June, 1885, letter to Samuel J. Spalding [2] Whittier further heaped praise upon Coffin, saying:

Let me, in closing, pay something of the debt I have owed from boyhood, by expressing a sentiment in which I trust every son of the ancient town will unite: Joshua Coffin, historian of Newbury, teacher, scholar, and antiquarian, and one of the earliest advocates of slave emancipation. May his memory be kept green, to use the words of Judge Sewall, "so long as Plum island keeps its post and a sturgeon leaps in Merrimac River."

Coffin wrote several genealogical and anti-slavery books in his lifetime, including genealogies of the Woodman, Little, and Toppan families, and several magazine articles. But he is best known for his work, "A Sketch of the History of Newbury, Newburyport, and West Newbury, from 1635 to 1845," an exhaustive history of early Newbury. In his book, he notes that he spent part of his life in Newbury's historic Coffin House, which was built by his ancestor Tristram Coffin, Jr. Joshua Coffin's estimated dating of the house as being built ca. 1654 was, in 2002, disproven with carbon dating. The home is now dated at ca. 1676/7. [3]

After his death in 1864, Whittier wrote his epitaph, which can be seen upon his tombstone at Newbury: "Teacher and Christian rest! Thy threescore years and ten, Thy work of tongue and pen Abiding well the test of love to God and men. Here let thy pupils pause, And let the slave smooth with free hands, thy grave."

Principal writingsEdit

  • An account of some of the principal slave insurrections, and others, which have occurred, or been attempted, in the United States. (New York: The American Antislavery Society) 1860. (Full text online)
  • A Sketch of the History of Newbury, Newburyport, and West Newbury, from 1635 to 1845 (Boston, S. G. Drake, 1845) republished in 1977.
  • The Toppans of Toppan's Lane : with their descendants and relations, collected and arranged by Joshua Coffin, (Newburyport, Mass., William H. Huse & Co.) 1862.

External linksEdit




  1. Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, 1887-1889
  2. Vital records of Newbury, MA, births p. 112, 115

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