In 1966, the Town of Hammonton, co-founded by Richard Byrnes and Charles K. Landis, celebrated the centennial of its incorporation. The events and festivities were accompanied on May 9 by a special edition of the Hammonton News that featured a series of articles on the town’s history, including several pieces on what is now referred to as Old Hammonton, which grew from the businesses established in the area by William Coffin.
Through a series of transactions, ownership of the tracts of land that became Hammonton fell into the hands of John R. Coates in 1808. It is usually reported in historical accounts of the town that Coffin, whose family hailed from Nantucket, Massachusetts, entered into an agreement with Coates to establish and operate a sawmill on the property, arriving in the area in 1812.
According to the Hammonton News, that is only partly true. Coffin, who had previously been living in Burlington County, did move to the Hammonton area in 1812 to set up a sawmill, but it was not his first time living in this part of South Jersey. Citing an 1886 history of Camden County written by George R. Prowell, the Hammonton News reports that this account “chronicles an early arrival of the Coffin family in the area” in “about 1880 or so” when “Coffin moved his family from Philadelphia.”
The newspaper identifies an inn/tavern in the Hammonton region called the Sailor Boy, “one of the main stopping places for stagecoaches on the run to Leeds Point and other shore points.” This is where Coffin and his family apparently lived for a time, but it’s not known exactly how long they stayed.
“Some accounts claim that Sailor Boy tavern at this time may have been run by a Bodine,” the Hammonton News explains. Coffin’s wife’s maiden name was Bodine, “thus the proprietor may well have been an in-law.”
In another account cited by the newspaper, Charles S. Boyer’s Old Inns and Taverns of West Jersey, it is said that Coffin “was one of the first landlords of the [Sailor Boy] and sold the place to Isaac Bolton in 1805.” Whether or not Coffin owned or was related to the owner of the inn may not matter. What’s important is that various accounts place him in the area of Hammonton before he set up a sawmill and a glass factory to provide the basis of a settlement that served as the earliest version of the town. His first encounter with the area may have decided his return when he was approached by Coates.
In another article in the newspaper’s centennial edition, J.G. Wilson attempts to debunk the notion that Hammonton was christened from the middle name of John Hammond Coffin and was known as Hammondton, a variation of Hammondtown. His sleuthing turned up some information that makes his argument plausible.
Beginning with a range of dates from 1816, the year of John’s birth, to 1827, the “first official note of this town by name, insofar as this writer has been able to ascertain,” Wilson researched the National Archives in Washington, D.C. and was told by Jerome Finster, acting chief of the Social and Economic Branch Office of Civil Archives, that records do not show that the town’s post office, established in 1827, “was previously named Hammondton.”
An inquiry into the Cartographic Branch of the National Archives resulted in a response from its head, A.P. Muntz, who told Wilson that “an examination of early maps of New Jersey…revealed no maps showing Hammonton spelled with a ‘D.’”
Returning to the range of dates, Wilson asks, “is it conceivable that the name ‘Hammondton’ changed suddenly and was never again noted in the records after 1827?” He concludes that “legends can draw the cloak of the past around them pretty tightly sometimes.”