In St. Joseph County, the first formal burial ground was the White Pigeon Township Cemetery, which was laid out by Jacob W. Coffinberry, in or about the year 1831. Two men, surnames Chidister and Day, deceased that same year, are thought to be the earliest burials there.
Despite the striking correlation of this ‘undertaking’ and his surname, Mr. Coffinberry was not otherwise affiliated with the business of death, in fact, quite the opposite was true. As a Justice of the Peace, a fair amount of his trade dealt with beginnings, rather than endings, as he was frequently the officiant of marriages in the county. For example, he had the honor of performing the nuptial services of the well-known Patrick Marantette and Frances Moutan, of Mendon, on November 23rd, 1835.
Over the next decade, the Coffinberry family resided in several different villages within St. Joseph County. After a few years in White Pigeon, they relocated to Centerville, where in 1837, Coffinberry served as a trustee for the village. The census of 1840 lists them as residents in the township of Nottawa, where he and his wife lived with their five children. An unusual fact found in that census was that their household included a ‘free colored male’ between the ages of 10 and 15.
In 1849, the family moved to Richland City, Wisconsin. Here Coffinberry was the first county judge elected. He held this office until 1852.
He and Sally had a fondness for names beginning with the letter ‘C’. Their children were named Crayton Chipman, Charilla Centrilla, Cyron Chipman, Crosby Canton, Corwin Camden, Cordelia Campo and Carter Clay. There would be other name-related curiosities for this family in the future, as you will see.
When his tenure as judge expired, Coffinberry became an innkeeper of the Union House. Rates at the inn were advertised as ‘Board by the day, $1, single meals 37 ½ cents, lodging .25 cents, board by the week, $3. Horse and hay overnight .25.” His main competitor boasted lower rates, but as a rule, wouldn’t abide by swearing or gambling on the premises; this gave Coffinberry a bit of an edge, because he had no such qualms.
There came a day when Coffinberry did something that would have folks whispering for years to come. In 1856, he had his name legally changed by the board of supervisors to ‘C. Bre.” Says one source, “It was always a mystery why he took this step. The only reason he offered the board for the change was, that the sound of the name ‘Coffinberry’ when simmered down was really nothing more than ‘C. Bre’”.
Not long before the Civil War started, the family left for a new home in Nebraska. The 1860 census lists C. Bre, farmer, as the head of household, and his wife and children were all listed with the surname ‘Coffinbre’.
It’s hard not to have fun with the Coffinberry name and the irresistible puns; perhaps this is what lead to his desire to change it. Like many things, it could have been worse: on the 1830 census of White Pigeon was a man by the name of Jacob Bonesmasher…now there’s a name that might be hard to live with!