STRONG WOMEN!

THE COIT SISTERS OF PLAINFIELD, CT and PLAINFIELD, NH

In 1761, Widow Martha Coit Smith was the only female among the 56 original proprietors of our town. A woman proprietor was extremely rare, and she had voting privileges. Her husband (Lemuel) Samuel Smith had sold his extensive properties in Plainfield, CT in preparation for a move to NH, but died suddenly at 49 in the fall of 1759, leaving Martha with 11 surviving children. Her five oldest sons were in their late teens and early 20s, with a significant inheritance from their father, so the family decided to move forward with the investment in NH land. Sons Francis and Joseph were also original proprietors and their three younger brothers also initially settled here. By 1770, the Smith family owned most of the northwest corner of Plainfield from the Lebanon border to 2 miles down River Road.

Martha Smith took advantage of an offer of a free additional 100 acres to any proprietors who would come in the summer of 1763 to improve their land. She came with her sons Francis, Isaac and Lemuel.  In the fall of 1763 Martha returned to CT and remarried, in what turned out to be an unfortunate marriage. In 1764 she sold her original proprietor’s share to her son Lemuel. Her new husband, who by law had full rights to any property she owned, took advantage of her. Her niece wrote “she discovered too late that she had fallen into bad hands. Her property was all wasted and she in later days depended on her sons for support. She was a pious, excellent woman.”  Martha apparently left her second husband in the 1770s and came to live with her oldest son Francis, who was by then the wealthiest man in Plainfield and owned most of the lots along the CT river (now McNamara farm). She died here in 1779, her burial site unknown, but likely in the River Road cemetery.

Martha’s sister Experience Coit Stevens was the wife of John Stevens, who is considered the founder of Plainfield. He was chosen in 1762 to go to Portsmouth to petition Governor Wentworth for a grant of land. John Stevens owned lots on the southern end of River Road where the Earle property is today.  Experience’s death in 1767 was the first recorded death in Plainfield. However, she actually died in Charlestown, NH en route back to her home in Plainfield at age 41. In 1925 her slate headstone was found in a Charlestown field. Whether the stone was then brought to Plainfield to be put next to her husband’s we don’t know. The beautifully carved headstones of Experience and John Stevens are now in the Plainfield Cemetery, just to the right side as you enter the gate.

We recently discovered that a third Coit sister, Abigail, married Thomas Gates, also a prominent early settler and selectmen 1765-1768. Martha Smith sold her “second 100” acre grant to her brother in law Thomas. Abigail Coit Gates outlived both of her sisters, dying in 1799.

 For sisters Experience and Abigail, leaving their comfortable lives in CT to follow their husbands to NH must have been extremely difficult. Between them they had at least ten minor children who needed care in primitive conditions. Eunice, the wife of their nephew Francis Smith reportedly was “terribly homesick and said she would not stay in the wilderness.” But she did, and as other longtime CT friends and neighbors joined in the new settlement, the network of support among the women settlers grew quickly. The population of Plainfield grew quickly from 112 in 1767 to 275 in 1773.

 These three Coit sisters were the daughters of Reverend Joseph Coit and Experience Wheeler, both from prominent families. Experience’s mother Martha Wheeler 1646-1717 was an astute businesswoman in an era when this was highly unusual, and she was the wealthiest woman in eastern CT when she died. Reverend Coit graduated from Harvard and in 1697 received a master’s degree from Yale. He was the minister of the First Congregational Church in Plainfield, CT for 43 years. “He used to pray with great simplicity that his ‘descendants might be the children of God as long as grass should grow and the brooks should run.’” He died in 1750 and his wife in 1759.

 Of note: In his 1750 will Reverend Coit leaves 4 slaves to his children. He gives his “negro Patience equally to my daughters Martha and Experience, and to his daughters Mary and Abigail he leaves Racliab. To his son Daniel he leaves “my old Negro Marme “to take good care of her and provide well for her out of my estate.” His widow left Hager to Martha in her 1759 will.

 When Lemuel Samuel Smith died in 1759, his executors distributed to his widow Martha her three female slaves Patience, Hagar, and Dorcas. Whether any of these family slaves came to NH with either of the three Coit sisters is unknown but now seems likely. Southeastern CT had the largest concentration of slaves (African and Indian) of any place in New England. Many wealthy CT families owned slaves, so it is not surprising that many of the founders of Plainfield, NH who had the means to purchase lands here, came from slave owning families. Slavery was abolished in NH in 1789, and the 1790 census records former slaves as “free people of color”. There were over 100 people of color enumerated in 1790 in the Upper Valley area. Just as Dartmouth is now talking about the many slaves Eleazer Wheelock brought to Hanover, other Upper Valley towns settled by CT families may want to research who their founding town fathers and mothers may have brought with them. Town histories are generally silent on this issue.

 Reverend and Mrs. Coit had at least 20 grandchildren who lived in Plainfield, NH in the 18th and 19th centuries and there are likely still some of their descendants in town.  

Jane Stephenson