Coffin House (1678)

Life at home over three centuries (Newbury, Massachusetts)

Coffin House, occupied by the Coffin family over three centuries, reveals insights into domestic life in rural New England. The house, which contains the family furnishings, began as a simple dwelling built in the post-medieval style. Tristram Coffin and his family lived, cooked, and slept in two or possibly three rooms; their possessions were few. Beginning in 1712 the house more than doubled in size to accommodate a married son and his family.

As the family grew, they added partitions and lean-tos so that different generations could continue to live together under one roof. In 1785 two Coffin brothers legally divided the structure into two separate dwellings, each with its own kitchen and living spaces. With rooms from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, Coffin House depicts the impact of an expanding economy and new concepts, such as the notion of privacy, on architecture and modes of living.

Plan Your Visit


14 High Road
Newbury, Mass. 01951

Days & Hours

June – October 15

Tours on the hour
11 AM – 4 PM


$10 adults
$9 seniors
$5 students and children

Free for Historic New England members.


Tour involves standing, walking, and stairs. Visitors with limited mobility may be able to enjoy a first floor tour of the house. Folding chairs are provided for visitors who would like to use them while on tour. The site is not equipped with ramps, elevators, or lifts. There is no public restroom. Service animals are welcome. We are happy to work with you to make your visit an enjoyable one and we encourage visitors with questions or requests to call ahead.


Coffin House is on Route 1A in Newbury, across from the First Parish Burying Ground.


Street parking is permitted for short periods of time.

Contact Information

Coffin House Facade

Typical of early New England buildings, the main facade faced south to take maximum advantage of the sun's warmth in winter.

  • Coffin House Facade

    Typical of early New England buildings, the main facade faced south to take maximum advantage of the sun's warmth in winter.

  • Kitchen

    Nathaniel Coffin's 1712 addition included space for this kitchen. A Coffin cousin who visited in the 1840s recalled the dresser to the right of the fireplace “filled with very bright pewter platters, plates, and porringers.”

  • Sitting Room

    The sitting room shows us how the last generation of Coffins lived in this house, with space set aside for artistic and intellectual pursuits.

  • Buttery

    The buttery was used to make and store dairy and other products for the household. It was shuttered for coolness and whitewashed for cleanliness.

  • Spinet

    This musical instrument, known as a spinet, was kept in the "best parlor" along with the rest of the fanciest furniture.

The land on which Coffin House sits was home to indigenous people for thousands of years. At the time of contact with European colonists, the Native people living in the area were the Pawtucket, a collection of semi-autonomous family groups who all spoke a dialect of the Algonquian language and shared extremely close kinship ties with the Pennacook tribe of southern New Hampshire. The Pawtucket-Pennacook people had settlements or villages throughout the area we now call Massachusetts’ North Shore. They migrated seasonally and used the land according to the resources available which included foraging, planting crops, fishing, and hunting. Both the nearby Merrimack and the Quascacunquen (now called the Parker) Rivers would have afforded the indigenous people with valuable access to sustenance, fertile land, and salt marsh hay.

After first contact with Europeans, indigenous populations in New England were ravaged by diseases and greatly diminished in number. White colonists began arriving in large numbers in the seventeenth century and colonized the area, disrupting the lives of the indigenous people through conflict, disease, and displacement. By the early eighteenth century, most of the Pawtucket-Pennacook family groups who called this land home were forced to relocate, joining larger and stronger tribes in Canada and further south in Massachusetts. Today, members of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki people are direct descendants of those refugees.

In 1635, the first English colonists sailed up the Quascacunquen River and established their new town of Newbury on its shores. They claimed the land and built their town center around the Lower Green. White men were given property according to wealth and status and the small community flourished. By the 1670s, the younger generation was pushing out and moving northward toward the larger Merrimack River, creating a new town center around the Upper Green. Coffin House, which was built along the well-travelled High Road, was part of this new settlement. Decades after colonists forcibly occupied the land, the European colonists retroactively “purchased” large plots through dubious land deeds with the descendants of indigenous peoples. The land on which Coffin House sits was no different.


Tristram and Judith: First Generation of Coffins

The significance of Coffin House lies partly in the age of the original building but more importantly in the way in which it reveals how a home, built in 1678, grew and changed over the years to accommodate the needs of six generations of one family.

Tristram Coffin Jr. came to Newbury with his parents, siblings, aunts, and grandmother in 1643. Headed by Tristram Coffin Sr. and Dionis, the Coffins were a prominent family who emigrated from Devonshire, England. At this time, Newbury was a new settlement and its economy was primarily a combination of agriculture and husbandry with a limited number of artisans and craftspeople.

In 1646 the family, with the exception of the two older sons, Peter and Tristram, emigrated, eventually settling on Nantucket. Peter, the eldest son, left for New Hampshire, leaving fourteen-year-old Tristram Jr. the only remaining Coffin in Newbury. It is believed that Tristram was indentured to a local tradesman, as was common. His master was most likely a tailor, Henry Somerby. In fact, when Somerby died, it was twenty-one-year-old Tristram who married Somerby’s widow, Judith, in 1654.

Judith had three children from her first marriage, and, after marrying Tristram, she had ten more. The couple began their married life in a home on the Lower Green, which Judith had inherited from her first husband. Although this was a period of economic growth in Newbury, there were significant tensions between the English and the indigenous peoples, who were being forcibly removed from their ancestral lands. In 1675, strained relations broke out into full-scale conflict, known today as Metacom’s Rebellion or King Phillip’s War. Tristram Coffin, Jr. served in the War, and his son John and stepson Daniel Somerby were both killed during the fighting. After the conflict ended, and perhaps because of it, Tristram, Judith, and their youngest children moved up the road to a new home on the Upper Green.

The upper green in Newbury grew rapidly in the 1660s and 1670s as the sons and daughters of the first colonists built homesteads. Stephen Swett built the house at 4 High Road in 1670, and the Atkinson house on the upper green was built in 1664. The carpenters who built all of these houses adapted the building style and methods of England to the growing population of Newbury and the more severe climate of New England.

The original Coffin House, or part of it, survives today as the back section, except for the small addition on the southwest corner, which was added in the nineteenth century. Typical of seventeenth-century New England buildings, the main facade faced south to take maximum advantage of the sun’s warmth in winter. There may have been a porch with a chamber above off the south side of the house originally.

Nathaniel, Joseph, and Joshua: Growth and Change

Tristram Jr. and Judith lived in the house until they died in 1704 and 1705 respectively. The house and land were inherited by their youngest son, Nathaniel. In 1693 he married Sarah Brocklebank and together they had eight children. In 1712, the Coffins were financially stable and added the front range to the house, expanding the home significantly to provide more room for future generations.

This large and imposing addition facing the High Road is indicative of the important changes in Newbury in the eighteenth century. The road out front was so developed by this time that houses were reoriented to face it. The addition included refinements such as plaster between the ceiling joists in the southeast chamber and a chamfered roof frame. At the time the addition was created, the chimney bay in the ell was made wider and the chimney rebuilt to include fireplaces facing both ways.

Nathaniel, like his father, appears to have combined a variety of activities to support his family. On many documents, Nathaniel is listed as a merchant-tailor. Family account books indicate that he also started the tanning business that would sustain the family into the 1800s.

These same family and business accounts show that he enslaved man named Jack. Several generations of the Coffin family were involved in slavery and enslaved people lived and worked at Coffin House in the eighteenth century. Jack’s work included working in the tannery or on the farm, as well as tasks listed in the account books such as carting rocks, wood, and dung. There is also evidence that enslaved people in Newbury worked haying and threshing fields and on the salt marshes to harvest and stack the salt marsh hay which was very valuable for feeding cattle. Nathaniel also benefited from economic institution of slavery in his community, often accepting labor as payment or trading Jack’s time for commodities. The account book shows that he held debts for people in the community that he sold goods to, and for services rendered. A few years later, Nathaniel recorded the gifting of Jack to his son Edmund Coffin.

In 1725, Nathaniel’s son Joseph married Margaret Morse and brought her to Coffin House to set up a new household. When Joseph and Margaret moved in, Joseph’s parents and three of his siblings were still living there. Margaret and Joseph had eight children. Joseph, like the generations before him, engaged in a variety of activities to sustain the family. They continued in the tanning business, but also maintained tillage land, orchards, pasture, and livestock. Joseph Coffin himself purchased and enslaved a young woman named Lucy and gifted her to two of his daughters in 1771. He gave each daughter, Sarah Little and Susannah Boyd, half of Lucy’s labor and each “part” was valued at £45.

Both Nathaniel and Joseph were active in the local community. They held the office of Newbury town clerk consecutively from 1711 to 1773. The town’s population continued to grow. The first census, taken in 1765, indicates that the town’s population had reached 2,960. The town was an important agricultural community, but manufacturing enterprises were growing.

In 1755 Joseph’s son Joshua married Sarah Bartlett and brought his bride back to the house where his parents continued to live. Joshua and Sarah had twelve children (eight survived to adulthood). Joshua and Sarah also took in apprentices. Historic New England has a copy of the 1772 indenture between a Daniel Mitchell of Wells, Maine, and the Coffins. The agreement is that the Coffins will teach Daniel “the art, trade, and mastery of a tanner…during the term of 5 years, seven months, and 75 days..and also to learn him to read and write legibly…and at expiration of term give him 2 good suits of apparel for all parts of his body, one for the Lord’s day, the other for working days.”

In 1785 the house, which had consistently had three generations living as one family, was legally divided. Edmund Coffin, one of Joshua’s two sons, reached twenty-one and wanted his share of his deceased father’s estate. Consequently, a division was made first between the two sons and their widowed mother Sarah, and after her death in 1798, between the two sons. Each had exclusive use of certain rooms, stairways, and cellars with right of passage through some of the other rooms. The “families” lived separately under one roof, using different kitchens and entertaining rooms. The house remained divided this way through the last generation of Coffins to occupy the house.

Lucy and Joshua: Divided Spaces

Edmund and Joseph Coffin legally divided the Coffin house in 1785, and it was their children, Joshua (1792-1864) and Lucy (1811-1893), who lived in their separate spaces through most of the nineteenth century. Joshua graduated from Dartmouth College in 1817 and taught school for many years, numbering among his pupils the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who addressed to him a poem entitled “To My Old School-Master.” Coffin was ardent in the cause of emancipation and was one of the founders of the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832, serving as its first recording secretary. He also documented his own family’s (and other Newbury families) history of enslaving people. Coffin was as a collector and preserver of these important documents as part of his antislavery work.

He published A Sketch of the History of Newbury, Newburyport, and West Newbury from 1635 to 1845, genealogies of the Woodman, Little, and Toppan families, and wrote for the famous anti-slavery bulletin, The Guardian. As an adult, Coffin lived for a time in the downstairs southwest room of the house where his study is still visible today.

Meanwhile, Joshua’s first cousin Lucy (pictured) lived her whole life in the front range of the house, becoming the sole resident after the marriage of her sister, Elizabeth. She was musical, artistic, and scholarly, reading her Bible every morning in the original Greek. She lived her entire life in the house and made very few changes. By doing so, her preservationist mindset kept the house authentic and her dwindling family assets contributed to its preservation.

Coffin House kitchen

Coffin House kitchen

Becoming a Museum

After Lucy Coffin’s death in 1893, the house passed to her sister Elizabeth’s children. The family was well aware of the importance of a house that had remained so unchanged and in the same family for so many years, but was not interested in living in the house. A series of tenants and family members lived in the house for brief periods, but in 1929, Lucy’s niece, Margaret (Coleman) Merriam, who had inherited both sides of the house, made the decision to give the house to Historic New England. Today, Historic New England visitors can experience a home that had been lived in by one family for over 250 years and see the changes that came with financial, technological, and social fluctuations over the centuries.

Property FAQs

Find out about dog walking, photography policy, and more.

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  • When can I visit the Coffin House grounds?

    The museum grounds are open from dawn to dusk.

  • Are dogs allowed on the property?

    Historic New England welcomes responsible pet owners to enjoy our grounds. Dogs must be on a leash and under control at all times. Dog waste must be picked up and properly disposed of, off the property.

  • How do I become a member of Historic New England and get more involved?

    Join Historic New England now and help preserve the region’s heritage. Call 617-994-5910 or join online.

  • Can I take photographs at the museum?

    Interior and exterior photography for personal use is allowed at Historic New England properties. For the safety and comfort of our visitors and the protection of our collections and house museums, we ask that you be aware of your surroundings and stay with your guide. Video, camera bags, tripods, and selfie sticks are not permitted. Professional/commercial photographers and members of the media should visit the press room for more information.

  • When can I get inside Coffin House?

    Coffin House is open on the first and third Saturday of the month with tours on the hour.

  • Do I need to take a tour or can I just look around?

    All visitors to the house receive a guided tour.

  • Where are the Coffins buried?

    Most of the occupants of this house are buried across the street in the First Parish Burying Ground. Judith and Tristram are buried on the left side of the burying ground if you are facing the front gate.

  • How do we know when the house was built?

    For many years the house was thought to have been built in 1654. In 2002 sample borings of timbers in the original structure and front range were analyzed by the Oxford University Dendrochronology Laboratory in England. Study of the growth rings determined the original structure was built in 1678 and the front range in 1712.

  • Was Tristram Coffin Jr. related to the Coffin family of Nantucket?

    Yes. Tristram Coffin Sr. and family (except sons Tristram Jr. and Peter) moved to Nantucket in 1659.

  • How and when did Historic New England acquire Coffin House?

    Historic New England was founded in 1910 as the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities to preserve examples of early New England architecture. Coffin family descendants knew they had a historic treasure worthy of preservation, and they gave the house to Historic New England in 1929.

  • Did any Coffin family occupants ever have indoor plumbing?

    No. The reconstructed privy behind the house is in the same location as in 1929.

  • Do you provide admission discounts for EBT cardholders?

    EBT cardholders from all fifty states can show their card for $2 admission to house tours for up to four guests per card.

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