Sunday, October 23, 2011

Jabez Coney, Who Are You?

The Eliot School of Jamaica Plain was founded in 1676, and financed by money and in-kind donations, and by donations of land to provide long-term income. Most notably, John Eliot gave 75 acres to provide for the school. This was probably in multiple parcels, perhaps salt marsh for hay, an upland woodlot for fuel and/or land to be leased for farming. By the end of the 18th Century, the trustees of the school saw that they might better serve the institution by selling off plots of land and investing the capital. This required a trip to the state legislature for permission to amend the will of John Eliot. And so, around the year 1800, Eliot street was laid out between the road to Dedham (now Centre street) and Jamaica Pond.

At the time, there were few roads in the community. The Highway or Main road ran from Roxbury south to Dedham and beyond to Providence. Also relevant to the Eliot property, Pond street served as the Road to Newton. From the Dedham road, it ran to the pond, turned south along the water (now the Jamaicaway) and continued towards Brookline as it still does today. In May of 1834, Mr Jabez Coney became one of the first to buy an Eliot street plot and build a house.

Plan of Eliot street properties, 1849, showing the northwest half of Eliot street. Coney property at corner of Eliot and Pond streets.

Above we see a property plan from 1849, drawn for John C. Gore, who had purchased and divided the properties to the left. By this time, Coney had divided his property (marked in red above) and sold the smaller plot to an Elisha James. The house that James would build still stands on the property.

So far, we have a name, a date, and a property plan. But who was the man? What kind of person was building a house overlooking Jamaica Pond on the new Eliot street? Confusion over this question is what has kept this entry on the back burner for so long. A Jabez Coney shows up in historical documents as the owner of a major machine shop and foundry in South Boston in the first half of the 19th Century. There is also mention of a Jabez Coney of Dedham, housebuilder. So who was Eliot street's Jabez Coney?

It took some time to sort this question out, and I'm reasonably confident that I've got the answer now. A Jabez Coney was born in Dedham in 1774. In 1800, he married Irene Gay. The two would go on to have four children: Sally, Jabez, Irene and Hannah, all born in Dedham. In 1834, Jabez Coney buys three quarters of an acre land from the Trustees of the Eliot School.

But wait... in October of 1827, Jabez Jr. had married Mary Whiting of Dedham. So who bought the land in Jamaica Plain, father or son? State records show that Jabez Coney of Roxbury died in May of 1841 at 67 years old. That's Jabez senior, so we know that he had, indeed, moved from Dedham to Jamaica Plain (then part of Roxbury). So old Jabez only had seven years at most in Jamaica Plain, and his disappears from the story. What about the son?

Now we have to leave Jamaica Plain. Jabez Jr. shows up in the 1850 census, age 45, living in South Boston with his three children, aged 10 t0 21, his mother Irene, age 72, and 18 year old Mary Burns of Ireland. This raises two questions: what happened to Mary Coney, his wife, and who was living on Eliot street? Mary Coney disappears from Massachusetts records - I find no evidence of her death. The second question will be examined later.

Location of Coney machine shop, South Boston.

Close-up of Coney shop.

Although Jabez Jr's life was not in Jamaica Plain, we've gone this far, so let's discuss him. He opened his machine shop in South Boston in 1837 (shown above, circa 1850), and for a time it was one of the largest in the nation. In 1843, he began work on the iron-hulled steamer the McLean for the United States. In 1848, Coney was building locomotives - there is reference online to two built for the Old Colony line. In 1850, Coney's shop provided the machinery for the war steamer Saranac. That same year, he was confined to his home by a 'paralytic condition' (stroke?), and the company would close down.

In spite of his paralysis and the loss of his company, Jabez the younger apparently was able to keep active. An online search reveals that Jabez Coney submitted patent applications for several inventions. At the time, he was listed as a 'consulting engineer.' And there is one reference to him being associated with South Boston's Globe Locomotive Works as well. He would die in 1872 at a Silver street address, within walking distance of his old shop.

To close out the Jamaica Plain aspect of the story, the property was sold by son Jabez Jr. and his older sister Sally Hersey in February of 1870 to George H. and Irene Williams. And as it happens, George and his brother John, owners of a harness shop on Centre street, and both land developers/speculators in Jamaica Plain for many years, had married the two remaining Coney siblings, Hannah and Irene. So the property actually stayed in Coney hands - Irene Coney Williams, widow of John E. Williams, ended up with it. By 1884, the house was in the hands of an F.H. Downs, and the Coneys would be gone from the corner of Eliot and Pond streets. Irene did, however, remain on Eliot street, in a mansion on the corner of Eliot and Dane street that still stands. Irene would survive until 1895.

I started out this effort a few years ago when I noticed the Coney machine works in South Boston. At the time, I didn't have a sure connection between the Jamaica Plain and South Boston Jabez Coney.

So let's summarize what we've learned. No, the South Boston Jabez Coney was not the Jamaica Plain Jabez Coney, so Jamaica plain doesn't get credit for one of the leading manufacturers of the era. However, they were father and son. Also, we now know that all three Coney daughters came to Jamaica Plain, and married there. Hannah and Irene married into the Williams brothers and their Jamaica Plain real estate empire, and Sally married a Charles Hersey, and stayed at least for a time in the community. And when the property was finally sold,it was purchased by daughter Irene, and held by her for at least a few years more. And that's more than you ever imagined you'd want to know about the Coneys of Eliot street.


  1. Interesting posting. Thanks. Sally Gay Coney was my great great grandmother and according to our family records, the property described was owned by Jabez Coney senior. You seem to have the story spot on except Irene Coney was admitted to the Third Church of Roxbury (Jamaica Plain Church) in 1804, indicating that the family had moved there before then rather than in 1834. - Jabez Sr. was a carpenter and traveled widely for his work and was probably on a project when he died in Malden in 1841. -- Jabez Jr's wife Mary Whiting Coney died in Cambridge in 20 Feb. 1847. -- Sally Gay Coney married Charles Sherwood Hersey and their sons Charles Henry Hersey and Francis Coney Hersey were both manufacturers in South Boston, like Jabez Coney Jr., but, as far as I know continued to reside in Roxbury/JP. I'd be interested to find out anything you might know about the Herseys.

    1. Incidentally, the Coneys are an old Massachusetts family. Going backwards we have Jabez Coney Jr. & Mary Whiting; Jabez Coney Sr. & Irene Gay; William Coney & Rebecca Bullard; Nathaniel Coney & Sarah Morse; Nathaniel Coney & Elizabeth Greenland; John Coney & Elizabeth Nash. John Coney immigrated to America 1632 at age 6 with his mother Elizabeth Hawkredd Coney Mellows and her husband Oliver Mellows. John's son John (brother of Nathaniel listed above) was a famous goldsmith in Boston.

  2. Nino - thanks for the great info. I'll see if I can learn anything about the Herseys.