Were Mother’s Day celebrated in 17th century Massachusetts the way it’s celebrated today, Judith Coffin would have had quite a party.
When she died in Newbury, Mass., in 1705, she had 177 children and grandchildren.
Large families were typical of early New England, but the mortality rate among Puritan children was high. As many as 25 percent of Puritan children under 21 died, and they were especially vulnerable in infancy. In Salem, Mass., 10 percent to 30 percent of infants didn’t survive their first year. To have 177 offspring survive was extraordinary.
Judith Coffin was born in Ipswich, England, on Sept. 2, 1625, the daughter of Edmund Greenleaf and Sarah Moore. She emigrated to Massachusetts with her family in 1634 during the Great Migration of Puritans. Her father, a silk dyer and tavern keeper, was one of the founders of Newbury.
In 1644, at the age of 18 or 19, Judith married Henry Somerby, a tailor. They had three children who survived: Sarah, Elizabeth and Daniel. A fourth child died in infancy.
Henry Somerby died in October 1652, only 40 years old. Five months later Judith married Tristram Coffin, who, like Henry Somerby, worked as a tailor. He was also a Puritan, an English immigrant and an active and respected citizen. He served as a lieutenant in the militia, a representative to the General Court and a deacon of the church. Judge Samuel Sewall lists him as one of the pallbearers at his father’s funeral.
Tristram and Judith Coffin had 10 children. Judith delivered her namesake almost nine months to the day after her marriage. Then came Deborah, Mary, James, John, Lydia, Enoch, Stephen, Peter and, finally, Nathaniel, in 1669. Judith was 43 when her youngest was born. She already had six grandchildren.
At least one grandchild was born during each of the 28 years from 1677 to 1705. Thirty-eight were born during the decade from 1686 to 1696. There were 10 Judiths and nearly as many Tristrams.
Daniel Somerby, Judith’s son by her first husband, died at 25 fighting King Philip’s War in 1675. That same year Enoch Coffin died at the age of 12. John Coffin followed his half-brother Daniel to the Indian wars and was killed at the age of 16 in 1677.
After those terrible three years when three of her sons died, Tristram Coffin began to build his wife a new house. It was a simple wooden structure of two or three rooms. The house was expanded by Tristram Coffin’s sons after he died, and was occupied by the family until 1929, when it was sold to Historic New England. The house still stands at 14 High St. in Newbury, and is open to the public on the first and third Saturday of the month from June through October
Judith Coffin died in 1705 at the age of 80, the year after her husband died. They are buried in the First Parish Burying Ground. Her epitaph reads:
To the memory of Mrs. Judith,
late virtuous wife of Deacon Tristram Coffin, Esq.,
who having lived to see one hundred and seventy-seven
of her children and children’s children to the third generation,
died 13 Dec. 1705, age 80.
Grave, sober, faithful, fruitful vine was she,
A rare example of true piety;
Widowed awhile she waited, wished for rest,
With her dear husband in her Saviour’s breast.
This story about Judith Coffin was updated in 2022.