The origin of some surnames is obvious. Baker, Smith, Fowler and Brewer, for example, are family names that must have originated because of occupations.
On the other hand, there are family names with spellings that offer no clues to their origin. In Riverside Cemetery at Hantsport, for instance, is a headstone marking the resting place of Esther and Mary Coalfleet, mother and daughter, who died during a shipwreck along the coast of Nova Scotia. The couple froze to death when on January 3, 1881, the Hantsport barque Happy Home, captained by Hiram Coalfleet, capsized after striking a ledge in a storm 14 miles off Yarmouth.
Coalfleet is an unusual surname and it is unique to Nova Scotia and Hantsport in particular where it is believed to have originated in the 18th century. Captain Hiram Coalfleet was the grandson of Peter Coalfleet, who is said to be the first person to carry this name. The story of Peter has been passed from generation to generation and while some of the details are unclear, it appears he was orphaned when a small fleet of coal barges from England were wrecked during a winter gale on the coast of Cape Breton.
The story goes that after the gale subsided, Micmacs discovered baby Peter strapped to his dead mother in wreckage that was floating off shore. Word of the coal fleet disaster and the succor of baby Peter by the Micmacs spread, reaching the authorities in Halifax who had the boy removed to this city. Here is how Hattie Chittick described Peter’s rescue and the origin of his unusual surname in “Hantsport on Avon,” her 1964 history of the town:
“Many years ago a fleet of coal-barges, from Newcastle-on-Tyne, England, was wrecked off Nova Scotia, near Chebucto, in a heavy gale. A piece of wreckage was seen by some Indians from shore, who put out and got it. They found to their surprise it was part of the boat’s house and in it was a woman with a tiny child bound to her chest. This woman was dead and after her burial …. they took the child and cared for him until one Edward Barker, who had heard of the tragedy, went to Halifax and brought the child to Half-Way River (now Hantsport), giving him the name Peter Coalfleet, the last part of the name having been suggested by the circumstances.”
Thus began the Coalfleet line, a family that for several generations played various roles in Hantsport’s history and its connection with the era of sailing ships. While Peter apparently never went to sea, his sons and grandsons became master mariners. In Chittick’s book is a list of Hantsport master mariners and there are eight Coalfleets. Several of these were the sons of Peter, the balance grandsons or great grandsons. One of those named in the list was Hiram, Captain of the Happy Home, and he is known to be a grandson of Peter.
Another grandson, Abel, who was Hiram’s brother and sailed with him for a while as mate, is included in Chittick’s list of master mariners. Abel was sailing with Hiram on the Providence when the latter pulled off a spectacular sea rescue, receiving recognition for his feat in 1869 by the Governor General of Canada.
While preparing this column I did a quick search of the telephone book, looking for the Coalfleet surname. I was unable to find it.
St. Clair (Joe) Patterson of Hantsport has been researching the Coalfleet family for years; Patterson tells me the last of the Coalfleets died in Hantsport in the 1960s and the surname is no longer carried. Hopefully Patterson’s work on this illustrious and unusual family name will one day be published.