The Medway Historical Society, Medway, MA
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The Medway Historical Society


Medway Historical Society
223 Main Street, Medway, MA 02053


MEDWAY, Mass., April 22– Descendants from as far away as Washington DC returned to Medway last week to hear a talk on Revolutionary War soldier, Ishmael Coffee. The talk presented by the Medway Historical Society was given by professional genealogist, Marian Pierre-Louis of Fieldstone Historic Research.

After almost two years of in-depth research, Pierre-Louis revealed her findings about the life of
Ishmael Coffee who is reputed to be of African American and Native American ancestry. Prior to the presentation little had been known about the life of one of Medway’s earliest veterans.

Born in Needham in 1741, Ishmael Coffee moved to Medway in the 1760s. When he first arrived he was “warned out of town”. This common practice was used by towns to reduce their liability should newcomers stay in town, fall on hard times and become financially dependent on the town. Many newcomers, like Coffee, remained in their new town despite the warning.

In 1768, Coffee married Hannah Gay, a white woman from Wrentham. They remained in Medway for the rest of their lives and raised their 17 children, not all of home survived to adulthood.

As the years passed, the burden of poverty and a large family took a toll on the Coffee family. They increasingly became more dependent on the town of Medway. During the difficult financial times it became necessary for the town of Medway to try to recoup the cost of their care. In 1819, Medway sued the town of Needham claiming that was his legal place of settlement. Needham, countered however, saying that the marriage was invalid as interracial marriages were illegal in Massachusetts.

Surprisingly the judge decided in favor of Medway. Ishmael Coffee and his wife were actually married in Rhode Island where interracial marriages were “not unlawful”. The judge demonstrated, that based on precedent, it was necessary and important to uphold the laws of other governments.

By carefully searching through town record books and original cash books from the early 1800s, Pierre-Louis was able to determine that Ishmael Coffee and his wife died sometime after 1821. That means that Coffee lived a long life, surviving at least to age 80. More than sixty of those years were spent in Medway.

Fran Donovan, in the Early Medway Settlers & Land Records, explains that “when our streets were named in 1869, one of the most sensible choices was to name Coffee Street in his honor, as he was a responsible citizen, and served with distinction in the Revolutionary War.” Today, the Ishmael Coffee Estates are also named in his honor.

The lecture became an impromptu family reunion for the Coffee descendants. After the talk the family members discussed oral history about Ishmael Coffee with Pierre-Louis that had been passed down through their family. Both Pierre-Louis and the descendants were buoyed and encouraged by the event to continue with their research into the life of this early Medway resident.

More information about Marian Pierre-Louis and Fieldstone Historic Research is available at Information about upcoming programs at the Medway Historical Society can be accessed at



Medway Historical Society, 223 Main Street, Medway, MA 02053 (508) 533-7222