Beyond their names and dates of birth, marriage and death, it is often difficult to learn details of distant ancestors' lives. We are fortunate that Rev. Paul Coffin (1737-1821) of Buxton kept journals of his missionary trips to the inland frontiers of Maine, rife with biographical details of the people he encountered.
Coffin was pastor of the Congregational Church in Buxton from 1763 until his retirement in 1817. A full account of his tenure is given in The Records of the Church of Christ in Buxton, Me., which includes valuable records of church admissions, baptisms and marriages. But the most revealing picture of the man emerges from the journals he kept of his "tours." He reveals himself to be pious but prickly; gracious toward his hosts, but scornful of those who do not share his particular brand of faith.
His first two tours—to the Connecticut River through Massachusetts in 1760 and to Rhode Island in 1761—will interest Maine researchers less than his Ride to Piggwacket in 1768. His route took him from Narragansett No. 1 (now Buxton), across the Saco River to the present town of Hollis, up through Limington, Hiram and Brownfield to "Piggwacket" (now Fryeburg). There he met Captain Henry Young Brown, the founder of Brownfield, who, he says, "treated us not only hospitably but genteelly; has an amiable and accomplished wife and a pretty daughter of about twelve years, their only child. He appears a sober, religious man; of good judgment in religion, loving rational and intelligible christianity." Later on, Coffin mentions meeting a boy and girl named Farrington, ages 13 and 11.
In his sixth year this boy lifted his grandmother, who is now living and in good health. This lad's thighs are as big, Capt. Brown told us, as any man's in the place, which he could think of. He weighed 70 weight before he was two and a half.
These are details one will never find in dry vital records.
After the parson's 1795 Tour to Hanover, N.H., he began a series of missionary tours of Maine. The first, in 1796, took him through Windham, Raymondton (Raymond and Casco) and Otisfield to Rustfield (Norway), Paris, Sudbury Canada (Bethel), Hebron, Buckfield and Turner. Turner he described as "dispirited in religion, tired of its minister, and vexed by a party of Baptists and its own covetousness." Across the Androscoggin, Coffin visited Littleboro' (Leeds), Monmouth, Winthrop, Hallowell and Pittston, and then Cobbossee-contee (Gardiner), Readfield, Augusta, Goshen (Vienna) and New Sharon. In Farmington, he heard Mr. Hall, a Methodist, preach. "Much false grammar," he observed, "and truth poorly imparted. He was by no means a workman." He himself preached at Middletown (Strong) and Upper Town (Avon), and in the former township baptized four children. (I have extracted all the baptism entries from these journals here.)
Rev. Coffin's visit to New Vineyard provides us a glimpse of how one pioneer of that era lived:
[Capt. Daggett's] house is double, log and bark as usual. He has also a little building, north of his house, half under ground, for a cellar. Thus his house is a T. At the south end of his house, through a door, you go into a sweet little bed-room of logs and bark. It has no chamber, and seems an arch. This is well-furnished, and for this place 'tis admirably pleasing.
Coffin proceeded through Starks, Norridgewock, Canaan and Cornville to Fairfield (where a Baptist named Mrs. Noble pronounced his sermon "nothing but dishwater"), then coastward to the towns of what is now Knox County. He visited the German settlement in Waldoboro, where he met their minister, Augustus Keets.
Mr. Keets could not pronounce th. Then and with would not sound from his dutch mouth
He has a little meeting house, a little dwelling-house, a little wife and a little body. He appears sociable, benevolent and pious and is something of a divine.
Traveling south along the coast, Coffin arrived back in Buxton after 73 days of travel through 55 towns.
The 1797 tour lasted two months, and covered a broad stretch of central and western Maine. He lodged this time in New Vineyard with Deacon and Mrs. Norton.
They lodged me in a pretty bed-room. She, seeing me mightily pleased with my separate room, said, "why we have gotten a door." This seems a byword with them, as we here see but few rooms, parted and properly shut by doors.
His 1798 tour covered much the same ground. In the newly minted town of Hartford, he spent time with the Freeman Ellis family.
Ellis has a grown daughter, deaf and dumb, but sensible, and carefully industrious. She ironed me a shirt respectfully; and will, her mother says, always remember me, as differing from the Baptists, by baptizing infants.
The last of Coffin's travelogues, from his 1800 tour, offers a scathing review of a young Baptist preacher in Hebron named Hutchinson—undoubtedly the Rev. Daniel Hutchinson who later ministered to and married my ancestors in Hartford.
[Hutchinson] is ignorant, and very earnest and loud, not to say mad. The night meetings held by him are indecent and an open door to undue freedom between the sexes. Young men invite one another to go to them with such views. One who had attended meeting with such views was positively told by Hutchinson that his sins were forgiven. Oh! the wants of a true minister.
Things could have been worse, for a bit farther on in his travels Coffin would write that "Here in Fayette was witchcraft in plenty." The evidence for this was clear:
A Mr. Billings, a baptist teacher, soon to be ordained, has lost his milk for some time. The end of a cheese would come and go, and boil off from the fire, and finally come to nothing, &c. &c.
Rev. Coffin's journals are chock-full of anecdotes, pastoral descriptions and agricultural reports. Even if he didn't meet, praise or pan your ancestors, his accounts of late 18th century travel and living conditions in interior Maine may help enliven your family or town history.