Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Civil War's Final Battle and Captain Frederic F. B. Coffin

The Battle of Palmito Ranch near the Rio Grande River in Texas is a rather unique American Civil War conflict due to several circumstances. The ranch is most well known as being the location of the last battle fought during the Civil War. The engagement took place on May 12 and 13, 1865, more than a month after General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9 and two days after Union troops had captured a fleeing Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who was wearing his wife's black shawl, near Irwinville, Irwin County, Georgia.

Remarkably, it was determined after the battle that Confederate participants were well aware of Lee's surrender and had likely received orders from both Union and Confederate headquarters ordering an armistice and surrender of arms. In the weeks leading up to May 12, the Confederacy had entirely collapsed and many historians classify the Battle of Palmito Ranch as a postwar action.

A second unique feature of the Battle of Palmito Ranch relates to its intended goal. Union troops were knowledgeable that Lee had surrendered and the Confederacy had fallen into disarray by early May. They could therefore wait out the necessary administrative procedures involved in the winding down of the war, such as the agreement of formal terms and processes associated with surrender.

About two months prior to the battle, however, Union Major General Lew Wallace had received official permission from Union headquarters to hold a secret meeting with Confederate Brigadier General James Edward Slaughter and Colonel John Salmon "Rip" Ford at Port Isabel, Texas, to propose a negotiated end to hostilities in Texas. Both sides had come to the realization that continued fighting was futile since it was readily apparent that the war was heavily tilting toward a Union victory. While an agreement was made, Slaughter's superior, Major General John George Walker, refused the proposed ceasefire and informed Wallace of his rejection in a series of blistering letters. Both commanders, however, came to an understanding that their respective troops would not confront one another without prior written notice.

In May 1865, Union Colonel Theodore Harvey Barrett, commander of the 62nd United States Colored Troops, stationed at Brazos Island off the southernmost tip of Texas, ordered an attack on the Confederate's Fort Brown for reasons that remain unknown. Under Colonel Barrett's orders, eight companies of the 62nd United States Colored Troops (about 250 men), two companies of the 2nd Texas Cavalry (about 50 men with no horses), and nine companies of 34th Indiana Veteran Volunteer Infantry (about 200 men) were prepared for the attack.

Barrett would later state that the foray onto the Texas mainland was to scavenge for food, particularly cattle, and cotton that was being shipped by Confederates over the Rio Grande River into Mexico in an effort to help pay for the rebel's war. Contemporaries and historians alike, however, believe that Barrett was determined to attack Fort Brown because he desired "a little battlefield glory before the war ended altogether."

The third distinctive characteristic of the Battle of Palmito Ranch is that the Union Army was defeated despite just having won the Civil War. This article is not intended to detail to battle itself as this has been admirably done by several historians, most notably Jeffrey William Hunt in his book The Last Battle of the Civil War: Palmetto Ranch. Rather, this essay focuses on a participant in the battle that later resided in Porter County, Indiana. That individual is Captain Frederic Fentress Bedggood Coffin, usually referred to as Fred F. B. Coffin.

Born October 20, 1833, in Randolph County, North Carolina, Fred F. B. Coffin was the son of Samuel Coffin and Elizabeth (Fentress) Coffin. Little is known of Fred's early life. His father, a millwright, was elected to the Indiana Legislature and served from 1845-1847. Fred appears with his family in the 1850 Federal Census residing at Blue River in Henry County, Indiana, along with his father, stepmother Rachel (Powers) Coffin, and two brothers, John and William.

On March 3, 1856, Fred married Susanna Barnett in Randolph County, North Carolina, and almost immediately after their marriage they removed to Nicollet County, Minnesota, along with his parents. It is believed that they may been attracted to Minnesota by relative B. Y. Coffin, a Methodist Episcopal minister. Fred's father would serve as state representative from Nicollet County from 1863-1864 and as a Nicollet County commissioner for fifteen years.

Fred Coffin appears in the 1860 Federal Census in Cortland Township, Nicollet County, Minnesota, with his wife and their two young children, Martha, age 2, and Jerome, age 1. The census record notes his occupation as farmer and the value of his personal estate totaling $250, which was quite low relative to other farmers in that area of the county, suggesting a small subsistence agricultural operation. In April 1861, Fred was elected to a director position in the Nicollet County Agricultural Society. This organization served to promote commercial agriculture and also organized the annual county fair. 

In 1862, tensions between Native Americans and European settlers were reaching a fever pitch in Minnesota. By August 19, New Ulm, a community of about 900 residents in Brown County, was attacked by Santee Sioux Indians resulting in 39 killed and 56 wounded (Native American casualty numbers are unknown).

Fred's father, Samuel, provided leadership during New Ulm uprising. A group of eighteen volunteer men, among whom Samuel was appointed a lieutenant, marched to New Ulm heavily armed and repelled more than one hundred Indians attacking the town. It is likely that Fred may have also been involved in the Battle of New Ulm. Historically, this battle is considered to be the deadliest Native American attack on a western community.

As a result of Confederate artillery opening fire on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and initiating the Civil War, Fred would enlist on September 22, 1862, at St. Peter, Nicollet County, Minnesota, and be commissioned a Sergeant in Company D of the 9th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Like many soldiers, Fred may have perceived that the war would be short-lived and the bounty he received for enlisting would provide some additional revenue to support his family.

While serving in Company D, Coffin spent most of his time in Minnesota on guard duty. He was discharged, however, on December 29, 1863, by Special Order No. 355 from the Headquarters Department of Missouri to accept a commission from President Lincoln as First Lieutenant of Company D, of the 1st Missouri Colored Infantry Regiment, though he would later lead Company K in his service with this regiment.

Regiments of colored troops were composed mostly of African American soldiers, though Native Americans and other individuals of color served in these units. Troops were generally Northern free black men and Southern freedmen, and the regiments were led by white commissioned officers, such as Fred F. B. Coffin.

Organized between December 7 through 14, 1863, at Missouri's Benton Barracks in St. Louis, the 1st Missouri Colored Infantry Regiment was placed under the command of Colonel Theodore H. Barrett. Within three months, on March 11, 1864, the unit's designation was changed to the 62nd Regiment United States Colored Troops (hereafter 62nd USCT) and the regiment served in the Department of the Gulf during the entire span of its Civil War existence.

First Lieutenant Coffin spent most of his commission as an officer commanding Company K of the 62nd USCT, which consisted of about thirty men. His service was apparently exemplary as he was promoted to Captain on December 14, 1864.

Carte de visite photograph of Captain Fred F. B. Coffin,
Company K, 62nd United States Colored Troops.
Source: Fine Military Americana.

As noted in Coffin's service return records below, he was on a leave of absence totaling sixty days during August and September of 1864. At this time Coffin was suffering from typhoid malarial fever. A letter submitted by C. Allen, Surgeon of the 62nd USCT, supporting a leave request for Coffin, provides insight into the seriousness of Coffin's illness.

Head Quarters 62d U.S. Cold Infty
Morganzia, La. August 7th 1864

First Lieut Fred. F. B. Coffin of this Regiment having applied for a certificate on which to ground an application for leave of absence. I do hereby certify that I have carefully examined this officer and find that he has Typo. [typhoid] Malarial Fever; he has twice before during the Summer been off duty four weeks and two weeks, respectively, with jaundice, and is very much debilitated. I further declare my belief that he will not be able to resume his duties in a [two illegible words] than Sixty days. I further declare my belief that an immediate change of climate is absolutely necessary to save life.

C. Allen Surgeon
62d Reg.t. U.S. Cold. Infty.

Through the first several months of 1865 the 62nd USCT would be stationed on Brazos Island performing general guard duty and escorting Union ships near the outlet of the Rio Grande River into the Gulf of Mexico. For instance, beginning January 11, 1865, Coffin's company was providing escort duty for the fifty ton screw steamer U.S.S. Clinton; the company returned to Brazos Island from their escort service service by January 31.

In early May 1865, Coffin's commanding officer, Colonel Barrett, had ordered companies from the 62nd USCT, the 2nd Texas Cavalry (unmounted), and 34th Indiana Veteran Volunteer Infantry, a force totaling about 500 men, to cross over gulf water onto the Texas mainland to attack Fort Brown. The water crossing and march overland to Fort Brown was long and tiring; soldiers were fatigued from the extreme heat, minimal rations, and a lack of drinking water. Despite the condition of the soldiers, the objective of capturing Fort Brown was easily achieved as there were just a handful of Confederate pickets in the area.

Barrett's weary troops were next moved toward nearby Palmito Ranch where they would leisurely rest and camp on high ground. Barrett, however, failed to station pickets around his soldiers to observe any possible Confederate troop activities. It is believed that Barrett assumed that the few skirmishing Confederate soldiers his troops encountered merely left the area and returned to Brownsville.

Civil War patriotic envelope printed by D. Murphy's

Son, New York City, circa 1864.

Source: Collection of Steven R. Shook.

Some Confederate soldiers, indeed, made haste to nearby Brownsville to inform General Slaughter and Colonel Ford of the activities of Union forces, which clearly ran counter to the gentleman's agreement that had been established with General Wallace. An immediate call was made to rapidly assemble Confederate troops near Palmito Ranch and Brownsville, including artillery units, units that the Union forces lacked.

Carte de visite photograph of Confederate Colonel John

Salmon "Rip" Ford,
Company K, 2nd Texas Cavalry (CSA).

Source: Southern Methodist University, Lawrence T.

Jones III Texas Photography Collection. 

On March 13, Confederate troops surprised the Union forces and Colonel Barrett advanced westward from the hilltop placing skirmishers from the 34th Indiana in front of Colonel Ford's troops. Though well outnumbered, Ford's soldiers attacked Barrett's skirmishers and in the late afternoon Ford sent some of his troops to attack Barrett's right flank and his remaining soldiers to engage in a frontal attack.

Colonel Barrett's lack of any meaningful battle experience led to immediate troop confusion. Barrett was slow in developing tactics and communicating orders to his officers. It soon became obvious to Union forces that they were on the defensive and that the Confederates had the upper hand and failing to retreat would lead to their surrounding and absolute defeat. Hence, the Union soldiers were ordered to retreat and members of the 62nd USCT were directed to protect the rear of the retreating 34th Indiana and 2nd Texas Cavalry - in other words, remain and fight the Confederate troops so at least some of the Union forces could flee to safety.

Photograph of Private John J. Williams, Company B of the
34th Indiana Veteran Volunteer Infantry, killed May 13, 1865 at
the Battle of Palmito Ranch. Williams
is recognized as
the last man killed in the Civil War

Source: Hunt, 2002. [see p. 127]

The 62nd USCT did exactly as they were commanded, sending out their own skirmishers into the Confederate front line to provide some minor form of delay and protection for their own unit. Coffin's men and the rest of the 62nd USCT rear guard moved toward the Texas shoreline at Boca Chica; it was here where the Union troops crossed choppy Gulf Coast waters to eventually make their way back to their station at Brazos Island.

Now at the shoreline, Fred Coffin's Company K, at the very rear of the retreating Union forces, was ordered to remain and deploy skirmishers so that the other companies of the 62nd USCT could escape across the water. As commanded, Coffin had his soldiers spread out and fired a volley into Colonel Ford's Confederate troops. Both sides continued firing at one another for several minutes, neither being terribly effectual in hitting their intended humans targets. Ford, likely realizing that most of the Union soldiers from the battle had escaped across the water, then ordered his 120 mounted Cavalry to pull back and allowed Coffin and his company to safely cross the water in retreat. Hence, a legacy of Colonel Ford and Captain Coffin is that they led the last opposing units in a Civil War battle.

In 1903, several newspapers across the United States published a short article that originated in the The Inter Ocean Magazine, a Chicago newspaper publication, concerning this last engagement of the Civil War. The article states:

The last man fired upon during the civil war lives in this city [Huron, South Dakota]. He is Major Fred F. B. Coffin.... As the Confederates were leaving one cavalryman wheeled his horse around, dismounted, took deliberate aim, and fired at Major Coffin. The ball struck in the sand about six feet in front of him. This was at sundown on May 13, 1865. The following morning an order was received to the effect that General Dick Taylor and General Kirby Smith had surrendered to General Sheridan, which incident closed the war.

Research conducted to uncover the "last man fired upon during the civil war" fails to disprove Coffin's claim, suggesting that he may have indeed been the last individual to be shot at during the Civil War. Though Palmito Ranch was the war's last battle, it was not the last engagement. That claim belongs to the CSS Shenandoah, which destroyed several nonmilitary whaling ships anchored near the Bering Strait on June 28, 1865, in order to capture goods that could be sold to fund Confederate war activities. On August 2, however, the CSS Shenandoah boarded a ship and discovered a newspaper that contained information about the South's surrender, Lincoln's assassination, and the end of the war.

News item claiming that Fred F. B. Coffin was
the last fired upon in the Civil War.
Source: The Inter Ocean Magazine, May 24, 1903.

After the Battle of Palmito Ranch, Coffin remained with Company K of the 62nd USCT for about five months assisting in implementing the Confederates' surrender terms. His compiled service records also indicate that he was "Present on Military Commission per S. O. [Special Order] No. 42 Hdqrs. Army of the Rio Grande July 25, 1865." This special order was likely in reference to the court martial of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Gilbert Morrison, commander of the 34th Indiana Veteran Volunteer Infantry at Palmito Ranch.

Morrison was charged with disobedience of orders, neglect of duty, abandoning his colors (unit and American flags were seized by the Confederates), and conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline given his actions in battle. Morrison's trial took place between July 21 and August 28, 1865, and he was absolved of all charges.

Morrison's court martial was rather unique in that Colonel Ford, the enemy commanding Confederate troops in the battle, testified on behalf of Morrison. He related that control of the battle appeared to be under the purview of Colonel Barrett, not Morrison, and that Morrison's actions in battle seemed to be the outcome of commands and decisions made by Barrett.

Fred F. B. Coffin was honorably discharged from military service upon his resignation on October 9, 1865. The compiled service record returns for Coffin held by the National Archives and Records Administration provide the following outline of his activities during the Civil War, which have been transcribed exactly as they have been recorded. Additional notes for the purpose of clarification have been placed inside brackets.

  • Dec. 1863 (1 Mo. Inf., A. D.) Mustered in Dec. 29, 1863, by 1 Lt. J. M. Simeral. Present. Signs return as Comd'g Co.
  • Jan. & Feb. 1864. Present. Signs returns Comd'g Co.
  • Mar. 1864 (62 U.S. Col'd Inf.) Present. Comd'g Co. Signs return.
  • Apr. 1864. Present. Comd'g Co. since last return. Signs return.
  • May 1864. Present sick & Comd'g Co. D. Signs return.
  • June & July 1864. Present on special duty, Act. Reg. Qr. Mr. since June 10, 1864, per S. O. [Special Order] No. 47. Reg Hdqrs June 10, 1864.
  • Aug. 1864. Absent on sick leave (40 days) per S. O. [Special Order] No. 95 dated Hdqrs. Military Div. West Miss., New Orleans, Aug. 12, 1864.
  • Sept. 1864. Absent on sick leave 20 days, per S. O. [Special Order] No. 95 dated Hdqrs. Military Div. West Miss., N. O. [New Orleans], La., Aug. 12, 1864, with recommendation to Adjt. Gen. for an extension of 40 days.
  • Oct. 1864. Present. Joined Oct. 14, 1864, from Leave of absence.
  • Nov. 1864. Present for duty.
  • Dec. 1864. Present for duty during the month.
  • Jan. 1865. Appointed Capt. in the 62 Reg. U.S.C. Inf. by order of the President [Abraham Lincoln], to rank from Jan. 17, 1865, and signed L. [Lorenzo] Thomas, Adjt. Assigned to Co. K per S. O. [Special Order] No. 1, Par. 1, dated Hdqrs. 62 U.S.C. Inf. Brazos Santiago Texas, Jan. 10, 1865. (Capt. Co. K). Present. Appointed Capt. by the President [Abraham Lincoln] Dec. 14, 1864, & signed by Adjt. Gen. L. [Lorenzo] Thomas at Louisville, Ky. Assigned to Co. K per S. O. [Special Order] No. 1, Ex. 1 Hdqrs. 62 U.S. Col'd Inf. Jan. 10, 1865. Mustered in Jan. 17, 1865, by Capt. Chamberlain, A.C.M., New Orleans, La. Took command of Co. Jan. 28, 1865.
  • Feb. 1865. Present Comd'g Co.
  • Mar. 1865. Present sick in Quarters. Comd'g Co.
  • Apr. 1865. Present commanding Co.
  • May 1865. Present.
  • June 1865. Present sick Comd'g Co.
  • July 1865. Present on Military Commission per S. O. [Special Order] No. 42 Hdqrs. Army of the Rio Grande July 25, 1865 [Coffin was likely providing testimony in the court martial of Lieutenant Colonel Robert G. Morrison.]
  • Aug. & Sept. 1865. Present commanding Co.
  • Oct. 1865. Absent with leave per S. O. [Special Order] No. 51, Hdqrs. Western Dist. of Texas for an extension of 20 days.
  • Nov. 1865. Honorably discharged the service, having tendered his resignation, per S. O. [Special Order] No. 74, Ext. 17, Hdqrs. Mil. Div. of the Gulf, New Orleans, La., Oct. 9, 1865.

Research suggests that immediately after discharge Fred F. B. Coffin moved to Coffee Creek (now Chesterton) where he purchased 160 acres of contiguous land in Liberty and Westchester Townships. What motivated Coffin to move to Porter County is unclear. It is possible that during the war his wife and children moved to Porter County and Fred was simply heading to the family's new home. Support for this is the fact that his daughter, Nora Belle, was born in Indiana in 1862 after Fred had entered military service.

Fred's Liberty Township property is described as the northwest quarter of Section 11, excepting the southeast quarter of the northwest quarter of Section 11, Township 36 North, Range 6 West. This land, composed of 120 acres, is directly southwest of the present day intersection of County Road 50 West and County Road 1100 North (Township Line). Stone Meadows Subdivision now occupies much of Coffin's Liberty Township property.

Coffin's Westchester Township land is described as the southeast quarter of the southwest quarter of Section 2, Township 36 North, Range 6 West. Today, this area is embraced by the east side of Dogwood Park and the Bethlehem Lutheran Church property - land immediately northeast of the intersection of present day 23rd Street and County Road 1100 North (Township Line).

Partial plat maps of Westchester Township (pink) and Liberty
Township (green), Porter County,
Indiana, indicating the
location Fred F. B. Coffin's 160 acre farm.

Source: Hardesty, 1876 [see pp. 73, 85].

While residing at Coffee Creek, Coffin received a letter dated October 23, 1866, from the Adjutant General of the United States, Lorenzo Thomas, informing him that he was being commissioned as Brevet Major for "faithful and meritorious service," which he formally accepted by letter dated November 3, 1866, and posted from Coffee Creek. This honorary promotion was precipitated by a letter written to Adjutant General Thomas by Colonel Theodore Barrett dated May 14, 1866 - the day following the Battle of Palmito Ranch.

Note that Barrett penned several letters during early May 1866 requesting the promotion of eleven of his subordinate officers. Perhaps these requests for promotion were to act as a counterweight for the disaster at Palmito Ranch. Had Colonel Barrett been court martialed as a result of his excursion into the Texas mainland, these officers may have muted their testimony so as to protect their commander. 

In his letter concerning Fred, Barrett writes that "Captain Coffin proved himself a brave faithful and meritorious officer, and I earnestly recommend his promotion."

Coffin's commission to Brevet Major became official on June 22, 1867, by General Order No. 65, War Department, Adjutant General's Office. Interestingly, his commission was backdated to May 13, 1865, the second day of the Battle of Palmito Ranch, and it is suspected that his promotion was a result of his company's valiant service in that conflict.

Letter written by Colonel Barrett requesting
a promotion for F. F. B. Coffin
Source: National Archived and Records
Administration, NARA M1064, Roll 242.

Letter written by Fred F. B. Coffin, of Coffee Creek, acknowledging

commission of Brevet Major, U.S. Volunteers, November 3, 1866.

Source: National Archived and Records
Administration, NARA M1064, Roll 250.

Coffin was an active participant in several community organizations soon after arriving in Porter County. He was a charter member of Calumet Lodge No. 379 of the Free and Accepted Masons (F. & A.M.) at Calumet - Calumet later to be renamed Chesterton - which was established March 9, 1868, and still exists.

The 1870 Federal Census reveals that Coffin, his wife, and five children - Martha, Jerome, Nora, Samuel, and Edwin - were residing in Chesterton. The enumeration of his close neighbors in the census record strongly suggests that he was living near or along Valparaiso Street (now North Calumet Road) north of present day County Road 1100 North (Township Line). Fred's occupation is listed in this census as farmer.

In 1870, Fred served as the teacher of the Porter School that was located at present day 100 Francis Street in the community of Porter - where the Hageman Library now stands. One of his daughters, Martha, would serve as the teacher of the City West School located at Tremont in 1876 and 1877. 

He was elected to serve as the Porter County treasurer, a position he held from 1871 to 1875.

Extant records from 1874 also indicate that Coffin was a member of the Center Township Grange No. 8, formally known as the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, an advocacy group for American agriculture.

Apparently, there was some doubt as to Major Coffin's political affiliation. In a letter to the editors of the South Bend Daily Tribune dated July 3, 1874, Coffin states that he considered himself a Republican and that he was announcing himself as a candidate for the Republican nomination for the United States Congress.

Fred was also a founding member of Valparaiso Commandery No. 28, Knights Templar, established on May 11, 1876; Coffin served as this organization's first prelate.

News item concerning F. F. B. Coffin's service
at the last battle of the Civil War.
Source: Porter County Vidette, March 29, 1877.

On June 28th, 1880, the Coffin family was allegedly residing in Chesterton according to 1880 Federal Census records. Two children had passed away in the intervening years between the 1870 and 1880 census enumerations, Edwin (or Edmond) in 1873 and Samuel in 1874, but two other children had entered the family home in that time span, Arthur and Emma. Fred's occupation in this census is still listed as farmer.

Coffin sold through auction his real estate in Liberty and Westchester Townships, as well as some of his personal property, on Friday, March 21, 1879, with the intention of moving to the frontier west. However, he must have remained in the Chesterton area since he was appointed as a viewer in December 1879 for the establishment of one mile of road that eventually became the one mile of present day Indian Boundary Road located east of Indiana State Highway 49. The three viewers - Coffin, Henry Hageman, and Daniel P. Ingraham - were ordered by the county board to meet on February 9, 1880, to establish the route.

By 1890, Coffin's adjoining Liberty Township and Westchester Township property had been purchased by Colonel Isaac C. B. Suman. The house on the old "Coffin Farm" was destroyed by fire on February 1, 1890, when a defective chimney caused the roof to ignite in flame. At the time, John Johnson was residing on the property and "lost nearly all his household goods" to the fire.

News of the destruction of the house by fire on the coffin farm.
Source: The Tribune, February 6, 1890.

In December 1890, Suman sold the former Coffin property to Father Heinrich Joseph Kroll, the pastor of the St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church in Chesterton. A news item published in the January 8, 1891, issue of The Tribune mentions that Kroll had purchased the 160 acres of land to provide a future source for a charitable fund devoted to Catholic purposes within the Chesterton congregation.

The purpose of Father Heinrich Joseph Kroll's purchase of the Coffin farm.
Source: The Tribune, January 8, 1891.

At this particular time, Chesterton and Porter were experiencing a "boom," which included a massive expansion of the brickyards at Porter and the establishment of several new manufacturing facilities in Chesterton. Kroll had obviously purchased the land speculating that it would substantially increase in value as many new homes were being constructed to house the large influx of workers moving to Chesterton. Unfortunately, the severe national financial "Panic of 1893" and its resulting four year depression deflated Kroll's speculation balloon.

The property successively owned by Coffin, Suman, and Kroll would sell again in March 1905 largely based on speculation. The Carlsbad Mineral Springs were being developed as a health resort immediately north of the intersection of present day Park Avenue and 16th Street in Chesterton. A syndicate related to the mineral springs property purchased the old Coffin property with the purpose of establishing a horse racing track. Chicago crowds would be carried to the track by rail, presumably on the Wabash Railroad line that abutted the southern portion of the property. A race track, however, was never constructed on this parcel.

Coffin farm purchased by a syndicate for the
purpose of establishing a horse racing track.
Source: The Chesterton Tribune, March 30, 1905.

Wabash Railroad lays side track into former
Coffin farm for new horse racing track
Source: The Chesterton Tribune, March 30, 1905.

Interestingly, Coffin was at Huron, Beadle County, Dakota Territory, on July 4, 1880, a few days after his census enumeration in Chesterton. A history of Huron published in 1883 notes that Coffin arrived in that community in May 1880, which questions why he was enumerated in the 1880 Federal Census as residing in Chesterton.

News item concerning the auction of F. F. B. Coffin's real
and personal property in Liberty and Westchester Townships.
Source: Porter County Vidette, March 13, 1879.
News item concerning F. F. B. Coffin's service as a
viewer for the potential establishment of a new county road
Source: Porter County Vidette, December 11, 1879.

News concerning F. F. B. Coffin's wife and two children
removing from Chesterton to Dakota Territory via Minnesota.

Source: Porter County Vidette, August 19, 1880.

At Huron, Fred served as the principal speaker for the community's 1880 Independence Day celebration. Why Fred relocated to Huron will likely be forever lost to history, but the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad had passed the first train through Huron about one month after his arrival (June 26, 1880). It is possible that Coffin saw an opportunity to invest in real estate in the area, which is supported by the fact that he built the first house in Huron.

The editor of the Porter County Vidette, Charles R. Talcott, published a letter that he received from Fred in the July 15, 1880, issue, which provides insight into Coffin's promotion of the Huron area for settlement. His letter has been transcribed below.

A Letter From Dakota.
HURON, DAKOTA TERR., July 3, 1880.

EDITOR VIDETTE.: -- The last time I was in Valparaiso, I promised you that I would write an article for your valuable paper as soon as I reached my destination, and became sufficiently familiar with the country to write intelligently and truthfully about the resources, capabilities and prospects of the locality where I would stop. I also promised a large number of your readers that I would communicate to them through your columns. After some investigation, observation and inquiry I now attempt to perform that task.

Before I reached this place I was informed that the soil was thin and light, particularly where Huron was situated. This town is on the west bank of the Jim river, back about three-quarters of a mile. I have measured the soil where cellars have been dug and found two and a half feet of black loam. In some other places perhaps not so deep. There is sod corn near hear [sic] that was planted May 15th, that is now over knee high taking the field over. That does not look much like thin, poor land. A few miles from here is wheat and oats that Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota farmers tell me is as nice as they ever saw grow. And from what I can see and learn I believe this is going to be an excellent agricultural country. I was also told that I would not like it because the wind blew so bad. The most I can say about the wind is, that it is no worse than in any other prairie countries. The old settlers think it is freer from storms. Since I have been here we have not had a storm, we have had some windy days and a great deal of nice weather. I was also told that it was too dry here, that there was not sufficient rain to make crops. I asked the old settlers about it. Some of them who had been in the territory ten years said it was not true; that there was plenty rain to make crops. But in the fall when crops were matured there was but little rain, giving the farmers a good chance to do up their threshing and fall work, and ordinarily but little snow in winter. Since I have been here there has been an abundance of rain. They they said the water was not good. All a man has to do is to go to some good well and get a drink of as cold, clear, good water as he ever drank. We have such wells in this vicinity, ranging in depth from eleven to twenty feet. They they said there was alkali land here. I have been unable to find any alkali land in this country, or see a man that can tell me where there is any. Then they said it was so stony out here. Well there is some stone here, loose boulders, I have seen no ledges of rock. I a man wants to claim with just about enough such stone to underpin his house and barn and wall his cellar and well, he can get it. If he wants one without any stone he can get it. So he can pay his money and take his choice. There is no timber here. Building material and fuel will, for the present, have to be shipped in here. But it is shipped in so cheaply that it is not a substantial objection to the country. This is beyond doubt a very healthy country. No body questions that. It is neither too high or too low. I have talked with men who have come here with catarrh and bronchitis, and they tell me the change is magical. All that anyone has to do to be satisfied about the healthfulness of this country is to come and see it. Now, as to our location and market facilities. Heretofore emigration has been directed along the line of the Northern Pacific and the Union & Central Pacific and tributaries, filling up Wisconsin, Minnesota and Northern Dakota on the one hand and Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska on the other, leaving a central point consisting of Southwestern Minnesota and Southern Dakota almost entirely overlooked and just as good a country as any. And yet here is a country almost if not quite as large as the state of Iowa with scarcely more inhabitants than there are in Porter county. The Northwestern Railroad Company are extending the Winona & St. Peter westward through the center of this country and on to Deadwood in the Black Hills. The cars are running to this place and the tracker layers are going on toward the Missouri river, where they expect to be this fall. Next season the road will be completed to the Black Hills. The company are now grading a road running north from here up the Jim river across Maple river and I suppose to Bismarck. This branch is through some of the finest land in the territory, on the the northwest. I am informed by Mr. Nichols that the iron on the road will be laid next spring. There is also a road approaching this place from the south that I understand is controlled by the Northwestern; should that road reach this place, which is unquestionable, it will make this a big "cross roads." In addition to these roads, the Milwaukee, Chicago & St. Paul folks are building a rival road west from Ortonville at the south end of Big Stone Lake in western Minnesota, crossing the Jim about 50 or 60 miles north of here. Mr. P. H. Tousley, who is connected with the road, says that as soon as they cross the Jim they will then first run up the river to Jamestown on the Northern Pacific to which place they expect to have the track laid sometime during this fall. Then they will run down the Jim by this place to Mitchel [sic], forty miles south of this, to which point the cars are now running. That will give us two roads running north and south and one east and west. This place is the end of a division, and the Northwestern road workmen are now putting up the company buildings which will consist of a passenger depot 22x80, a freight house 22x96, machine shop 60x148, blacksmith shop 42x77, a round house of ten stalls, and a number of smaller buildings. Mr. Nichols informs me that these building are all to be put up in a good substantial style. You can readily see the importance of this place. Remember that these are not land-grant railroads; that every section of land is open for settlement this spring. There are plenty of chances of getting a claim close to a railroad station. There will be quite an emigration after harvest of men coming and selecting their claims so as to move in next spring. The man that comes out this summer and secures his homestead is a fortunate man. After this country is taken the creak of the northwest is gone. This place being a railroad center and centrally situated in the country will almost inevitably be the capital of a new state. You understand that this territory will probable be divided east and west on the 46th parallel. If any of your readers contemplate going west they had better see this country soon. Choice lands of the west are beginning to be limited. First come, first served. Little colonies could come out here, take their little claims this winter, all return early next spring, and in two years' time they could have each a half-section of land, a good farm, and a good home. How many will take this land that the government is willing to give them. Come to Huron and see this country. If you don't like it you are not compelled to stay.


On Tuesday, August 17, 1880, Susanna Coffin and her two young children, presumably Arthur and Emma, permanently removed from Chesterton to South Dakota by way of Minnesota after Fred had completed the construction a new home in Huron.

As was his nature in Porter County, Coffin quickly became active in the county of his new residence. He was the first acting sheriff of Beadle County and also served as the first commander of Huron's Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) post.

By June 1886, Coffin had received a land patent for 160 acres situated in Beadle County, Dakota Territory comprising the northwest quarter of Section 21, Township 109 North, Range 60 West.

Fred F. B. Coffin's land
patent dated June 1, 1886.
Source: U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of
Land Management, General Land Office Records, SD2190.165.

On Tuesday, December 15, 1885, Coffin was sworn into the House of Representatives of the Dakota Territory and was appointed to the Public Printing and the Ways and Means committees. During the constitutional convention of the Dakota Territory in 1885 Coffin arose among his colleagues and moved:

That the motto of the state of Dakota be 'Under God the people rule.'

The president of the convention, John Edgerton, seemingly ignored Coffin's motion and instead referred it to committee; the committee would soon after adopt Fred's motto. "Under God the people rule" remains the South Dakota state motto.

Photograph of Fred F. B. Coffin.
Source: Coffin, circa 1901.

In the fall of 1889, Coffin was among the leadership of the quasi-political Farmers' Alliance where he served as chairman of the party's Irrigation Committee; the nationwide Farmers' Alliance organization is often thought of as the precursor of the United States Populist Party. When South Dakota gained statehood on November 2, 1889, Coffin would continue serving as a state congressman in South Dakota until March 1890.

In April 1890, Coffin was appointed the first State Engineer of Irrigation in South Dakota, though it is believed he had no training in the field of engineering. In this position he worked diligently to investigate the potential for crop irrigation in the state. Some of his work is presented in a technical article published in July 1896 in The Irrigation Age concerning a geological study of South Dakota's artesian basin.

On December 10, 1894, Fred received a timber culture patent for 160 acres situated immediately east of the 160 acres for which he received a land patent in 1886; in other words, Fred now owned 320 contiguous acres representing the entire northern one-half of Section 21, Township 109 North, Range 60 West. Timber culture patents were granted to homesteaders "to encourage the growth of timber on the Western Prairies."

Fred F. B. Coffin's timber culture
patent dated December 10, 1894.
Source: U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of

Land Management, General Land Office Records, TC-0159-338.

In 1895, Coffin appears in the South Dakota State Census residing in Beadle County's Pearl Creek Township southeast of Huron, but the Federal Census of 1900 shows that Fred, his wife, two daughters, and a granddaughter had returned back Huron to live. It is possible that Coffin had a farm located in Pearl Creek Township.

Several interesting events in Fred's life took place in 1902. Probably the oddest event was the 260 page book he published through The Abbey Press, titled The Unknown Made Known Or An Explanation of the Design and Purpose of Creation. In this book about metaphysics, Coffin explained several features of reality existing beyond our immediate senses and the physical world. The introduction of the book contains this interesting passage:

While living in northwestern Indiana, our nearest neighbor was a Swedish family. One day one of the little boys came to me and said that his parents, sometime before that, had put two five dollar bills in the till of the chest, and that the mice had cut them all up into bits, and wanted to know if there was any way to get the money back. I told him to bring all the little bits he could find to me, and I would see what could be done. This he did. I took the little bunch of bits of paper, that were absolutely meaningless in their present shape and sent them to the Treasury Department at Washington, with a statement of the facts. These meaningless bits of paper were placed in the hands of an expert who was familiar with the engravings of national currency. He took two pieces of tissue paper the size of the bill and pasted these bits of paper where they belonged. Although about half of the bills had been destroyed, there was enough left, so that when properly arranged, by looking across the face of the bill it could be read, and the bank to which it belonged could be told. One was on a bank in the state of New York, and the other on a bank in Pennsylvania. The necessary affidavits with the fragmentary bills were sent and redemption came.

That little incident has been a great benefit to the writer in many ways. There are many little facts that seem to be insignificant, yet they are a part of a whole that has taken wisdom ad intelligence to contrive, and systematic effort to execute. Sometimes a comparatively insignificant incident will attract our attention, and when we attempt to trace out its associations we find we have a key to the solution of important problems that had hitherto baffled our skill. When we discovered that we could make a knife swing [on a strong] by an effort of the will, it let in a flood of light on many hitherto dark problems. The fact that thought had force raised the inquiry: whence force? We began to trace back to find original, initial force and found no stopping place till we got to the Supreme Being.

In his book chapter on the soul and spirit of man, Coffin mentions that on October 7, 1871, while living in Porter County, Indiana, he was stricken with paralysis, stating that his:

... entire left side was without feeling or motion, my left eye was nearly blind, my left ear was nearly deaf. The left lobe of my brain was paralyzed.... My left side was so completely paralyzed that I could not realize that it was there.

He then ties his experience with man's ability to think and reason, physical manifestations, and the "power to do a thing" with one's mind. Other than his book, extensive research has failed to uncover how or when Coffin became interested in and affiliated with metaphysics. Perhaps as Coffin was approaching his seventies he spent time deeply contemplating his life and attempted to reduce certain events to a metaphysical world of explanation.

Title page of The Unknown Made Known or An Explanation
f the Design and Purpose of Creation written by Fred F. B. Coffin.
Source: Coffin, 1902.

Also in 1902, an audit of the Porter County Treasurer's Office uncovered a shortage of $16,000 that was traceable directly to Coffin's term as county treasurer thirty years earlier. In September, his eleven bondsmen, including Nelson Barnard, Miller Baum, Jacob Link, Colonel Isaac C. B. Suman, Milliken Williams, and the estates of Lafayette Massey, Henry R. McDonald, and Henry Parshall made good on the deficiency as required by law at that time. In mid-September, however, Fred arrived in Valparaiso from South Dakota and reimbursed his bondsmen the full amount.

News item concerning F. F. B. Coffin and
a shortage in the Porter County Treasurer's Office.
Source: The Chesterton Tribune, September 19, 1902.

On March 2, 1902, Coffin saw his military pension increase to $30 a month by the following act of the U.S. Congress:

CHAP. 166. -- An Act Granting in increase of pension to Fred F. B. Coffin.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the Secretary of the Interior be, and he is hereby, authorized and directed to place on the pension roll, subject to the provisions and limitations of the pension laws, the name of Fred F. B. Coffin, late captain of Company K, Sixty-second Regiment United States Colored Volunteer Infantry, and pay him a pension at a rate of thirty dollars per month in lieu of that he is now receiving.
        Approved, March 10, 1902.

Fred continued to reside in Huron, South Dakota, and his wife, Susanna, passed away on October 8, 1904, in that community. By 1910, Fred had moved into the household of his daughter, Martha, wife of Otis E. Wilson, in Tipton, Cedar County Iowa. Now in his late 70s, it is believed that he was becoming frail with age and required additional care. He would soon be placed in the Iowa Soldier's Home located at Marshalltown in Marshall County, Iowa.

Fred passed away on March 26, 1913, at the Iowa Soldiers' Home; his remains were interred at Riverside Cemetery in Huron, South Dakota. Fred's death notice indicates that he was a resident of Tipton, Cedar County, Iowa, the home of his daughter Martha.

Frederic and Susanna had at least eight children, these included:

  • Elizabeth Josephine Coffin - born 1856 in Nicollet County, Minnesota; died circa 1859 in Nicollet County, Minnesota. Burial location unknown.
  • Martha Ellen (Coffin) Wilson - born 1858 in Nicollet County, Minnesota; died in 1948 in Cedar County, Iowa. Married Otis Ewing Wilson in 1887. Martha and Otis are buried at Masonic Cemetery in Tipton, Cedar County, Iowa.
  • Jerome Bartlett Coffin - born 1859 in Nicollet, Nicollet County, Minnesota; died July 9, 1913, in Springfield, Sangamon County, Illinois. Married Mary A. Turner in 1890. Jerome and Mary are buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield.
  • Nora Belle (Coffin) Gault - born September 1862 in Indiana; died on January 4, 1901, in South Dakota. Married Ulysses Grant Gault between 1880 and 1889. Nora and Ulysses are buried in Riverside Cemetery in Huron, Beadle County, South Dakota.
  • Samuel Hiram Coffin - born December 19, 1866, in Indiana; died September 3, 1874, in Valparaiso, Porter County, Indiana. No Porter County, Indiana, burial records list Samuel. It is believed, however, that Samuel is interred in Valparaiso's Union Street Cemetery, also known as Old City Cemetery.
  • Edwin (or Edmond) Coffin - born circa 1869 in Porter County, Indiana; died circa 1873 in Porter County, Indiana. Burial location unknown.
  • Arthur T. Coffin - born April 22, 1871, in Chesterton, Porter County, Indiana; died June 11, 1959, in Milwaukee, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin. Married Edith B. Woods on February 23, 1898, in Center Township, Cedar County, Iowa. Arthur is buried in Waterloo Memorial Park Cemetery in Waterloo, Black Hawk County, Iowa.
  • Emma May (Coffin) Miner - born October 13, 1878, in Westchester Township, Porter County, Indiana; died November 16, 1979, in Huron, Beadle County, South Dakota. Married Nelson Peter Miner on July 12, 1906, in Tipton, Cedar County, Iowa. Emma and Nelson are buried in Riverside Cemetery in Huron, Beadle County, South Dakota.

Death notice for Samuel Hiram Coffin,
son of Frederic and Susanna Coffin.

Source: Porter County Vidette, September 10, 1874.
Death notice for Nora B. (Coffin) Gault,
daughter of Frederic and Susanna Coffin.

Source: The Chesterton Tribune, February 15, 1901.
Death Notice for Frederic F. B. Coffin.
Source: Evening Times-Republican, March 27, 1913.

Source Material


The Board of Commissioners. 1891. Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars, 1861-1865. Second Edition. St. Paul, Minnesota: The Pioneer Press Company. 884 p. [see pp. 437, 444, 731-732]

Bryant, Charles S., and Abel B. Murch. 1864. A History of the Great Massacre by the Sioux Indians, In Minnesota, Including the Personal Narrative of Many Who Escaped. Cincinnati, Ohio: Rickey & Carroll. 504 p. [see p. 165]

Campbell, Charles N. 1883. Huron City Directory. Huron, Dakota Territory: Huronite Auxiliary Publishing House. 14 p. [see p. 9]

Coffin, Fred. F. B. 1902. The Unknown Made Known or An Explanation of the Design and Purpose of Creation. New York, New York: The Abbey Press. 260 p. 

Goodspeed, Weston A., and Charles Blanchard. 1882. Counties of Lake and Porter, Indiana: Historical and Biographical. Chicago, Illinois: F. A. Battey & Company. 771 p. [see pp. 26, 157, 158]

Gresham, William G. 1916. History of Nicollet and LeSueur Counties, Minnesota: Their People, Industries and Institutions. Volume I Indianapolis, Indiana: B. F. Bowen & Company. 544 p. [see pp. 175, 222, 234]

Hardesty, A. G. 1876. Illustrated Historical Atlas of Porter County, Indiana. Valparaiso, Indiana: A. G. Hardesty. 90 p. [see pp. 32, 73, 85]

Hunt, Jeffrey William. 2002. The Last Battle of the Civil War: Palmetto Ranch. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. 217 p. [see pp. 91, 115, 118, 119, 169]

National Archives and Records Administration. 1864-1866. Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served in the United States Colored Troops: 56th-138th USCT Infantry, 1864-1866. NARA Record Group 94. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration.

National Archives and Records Administration. 1866. Letters and Their Enclosures Received by the Commission Branch of the Adjutant General's Office, 1863-1870. NARA M1064, Record Group 94, Rolls 242, 250. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration.

Coffin, Fred F. B. 1896. The South Dakota Artesian Basin: A Geological Study. The Irrigation Age 10(1):71-73.

Newspapers (listed by date of publication)
South Bend Daily Tribune, South Bend, St. Joseph County, Indiana; July 6, 1874; Volume 3, Number 342, Page 2, Column 2. Column titled "Major Coffin's Reply."

Porter County Vidette, Valparaiso, Porter County, Indiana; July 23, 1874; Volume 18, Number 30, Page 3, Column 7. Column titled "Resolutions of Condolence."

Porter County Vidette, Valparaiso, Porter County, Indiana; September 10, 1874; Volume 18, Number 37, Page 3, Column 7. Column titled "Died."

Porter County Vidette, Valparaiso, Porter County, Indiana; March 29, 1877; Volume 21, Number 13, Page 3, Column 2. Column titled "Local."

Porter County Vidette, Valparaiso, Porter County, Indiana; October 17, 1878; Volume 22, Number 42, Page 3, Column 7. Column titled "Chesterton."

Porter County Vidette, Valparaiso, Porter County, Indiana; March 13, 1879; Volume 23, Number 1, Page 3, Column 4. Column titled "Public Auction."

Porter County Vidette, Valparaiso, Porter County, Indiana; December 11, 1879; Volume 23, Number 50, Page 2, Column 6. Column titled "County Board Orders."

Porter County Vidette, Valparaiso, Porter County, Indiana; July 15, 1880; Volume 24, Number 29, Page 3, Columns 4-5. Column titled "A Letter from Dakota."

Porter County Vidette, Valparaiso, Porter County, Indiana; August 19, 1880; Volume 24, Number 34, Page 3, Column 5. Column titled "The County. Chesterton." 

The Dakota Huronite, Huron, Beadle County, South Dakota; December 31, 1885; Volume 5, Number 32, Page 4, Columns 1-6. Column titled "Dakota House of Representatives. Abstract of Proceedings -- Rules of the House."

The Tribune, Chesterton, Porter County, Indiana; February 6, 1890; Volume 6, Number 43, Page 4, Column 3. Column titled "Local Items."

The Daily Huronite, Huron, Beadle County, South Dakota; May 30, 1890; Volume 5, Number 105, Page 1, Column 6. Column titled "The Best Man."

The Tribune, Chesterton, Porter County, Indiana; December 18, 1890; Volume 7, Number 36, Page 5, Column 1. Column titled "News of the Week."

The Tribune, Chesterton, Porter County, Indiana; January 8, 1897; Volume 7, Number 39, Page 1, Column 2. column titled "That Valuable Land."

St. Paul Sunday Globe, St. Paul, Ramsey, County, Minnesota; August 23, 1891; Volume 13, Number 235, Page 1, Columns 1-8 and Page 3, Columns 1-4. Column title "Defenders of New Ulm."

The Chesterton Tribune, Chesterton, Porter County, Indiana; February 15, 1901; Volume 17, Number 45, Page 5, Column 5.

The Indianapolis Journal, Indianapolis, Marion County, Indiana; September 16, 1902; Volume 52, Number 259, Page 6, Column 3. Column titled "His Bondsmen Will Settle."

The Bremen Enquirer, Bremen, Marshall County, Indiana; September 19, 1902; Volume 17, Number 38, Page 4, Column 1.

The Chesterton Tribune, Chesterton, Porter County, Indiana; September 19, 1902; Volume 19, Number 24, Page 5, Column 4. Column titled "Chesterton Chips."

The Chesterton Tribune, Chesterton, Porter County, Indiana; September 26, 1902; Volume 19, Number 25, Page 5, Column 5. Column titled "Chesterton Chips."

The Daily Argus-Leader, Sioux Falls, South Dakota; May 4, 1903; Page 4, Column 3. Column titled "Was the Last Man Shot At. Major Coffin's Book Recalls Interesting Incident of Civil War."

The Inter Ocean Magazine, Chicago, Cook County, Illinois; May 24, 1903; Volume 32, Number 61, Page 2, Columns 6-7. Column titled Last Target in Civil War."

Iron County Register, Ironton, Iron County, Missouri; July 16, 1903. Volume 37, Number 4, Page 1, Column 7.

Custer Weekly Chronicle, Custer City, Custer County, South Dakota; October 15, 1904; Volume 25, Number 9, Page 2, Column 2. Column titled "Death of Mrs. Coffin."

The Chesterton Tribune, Chesterton, Porter County, Indiana; March 30, 1905; Volume 12, Number 52, Page 1, Column 5. Column titled "Porter Pointers."

The Chesterton Tribune, Chesterton, Porter County, Indiana; March 30, 1905; Volume 12, Number 52, Page 4, Column 6. Column titled "Chesterton Items."

Evening Times-Republican, Marshalltown, Marshall County, Iowa; March 27, 1913; Volume 39, Number 76, Page 8, Column 4. Column titled "Two Dead at Soldiers' Home."

The Davenport Democrat and Leader, Davenport, Scott County, Iowa; March 30, 1913; Volume 58, Number 145, Page 3, Column 6. Column titled "Tipton Veteran Dies at Soldiers' Home."

The Evening Huronite, Huron, Beadle County, South Dakota; March 31, 1928; Volume 42, Number 257, Page 4, Column 6. Column titled "Do You Know."

Evening Huronite, Huron, Beadle County, South Dakota; June 24, 1930; Volume 44, Page 4, Columns 3 and 4.

The Vidette-Messenger, Valparaiso, Porter County, Indiana; August 18, 1936; Volume 10, Section 3, Page 18. Column titled "Templar Unit Dates Back to May 11, 1876."

The Rapid City Daily Journal, Rapid City, Pennington County, South Dakota; June 22, 1939; Number 17520, Page 2, Column 4. Column titled "Names Originator of State's Motto," by Doane Robinson.

Huron Daily Plainsman, Huron, Beadle County, South Dakota; November 18, 1979. Page 10, Column 2. Column titled "Mrs. Emma Miner".

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