Robert Coleman (1748-1825)

Robert Coleman (1748-1825)

Born November 4, 1748 in Castle Finn, near Strabane in County Donegal, Ireland, Robert Coleman was one of eight children from his father Thomas Coleman's two marriages. Persuaded by a clergyman, he followed his brother's lead and left Ireland for America in 1764. He arrived in Philadelphia, he went to work for a merchant named Mark Biddle who was amazed by Coleman's impeccable penmanship. Also impressed by Coleman's legible writing and attention to detail, Curtis and Peter Grubb, two of Pennsylvania's most prominent iron masters, hired the young bookkeeper to oversee the records at their Hopewell Forge furnace. As an employee of the Grubbs, Coleman soon learned the daily activities of an iron master.

After only six months at Hopewell, he took the position of clerk at James Old’s Quittapahilla Forge furnace. On October 4, 1773, Coleman married Ann Old, the daughter of his employer, and soon after, he began leasing Salford Furnace near Norristown. With the outbreak of the American Revolution, Salford Furnace began manufacturing munitions for the Continental Army, and through the use of Hessian prisoners as laborers, Coleman turned a struggling ironworks into a profitable business. Even after the war, profits from Salford continued to grow thanks to Coleman's careful management and wise investment, and before long, he became a millionaire, reputedly Pennsylvania's first.

A staunch Federalist, Coleman spent more than three decades serving the citizens of Pennsylvania. His career in government began when he attended the Pennsylvania State Constitutional Convention in 1776. Additionally, he served in the Pennsylvania legislature in 1783, attended the Pennsylvania convention to ratify the United States Constitution in 1787, was chosen as a Presidential elector in both 1792 and 1796, and held the position of Associate Judge from 1791 to 1811. In 1795, Coleman achieved his lone military accomplishment when, as Captain of the Lancaster Troop of Light Horse, he led a company of thirty-five cavalrymen to Western Pennsylvania to assist in the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion.

In 1802, Coleman became a trustee of Dickinson, a position he held for twenty-three years. In 1809, the Coleman family moved to Lancaster where Coleman's daughter Ann met a young lawyer and Dickinson graduate named James Buchanan. Shortly after meeting, the two began courting, but in December of 1819, after a mysterious quarrel, Ann went to Philadelphia, where she died less than a week later. Though never implicated in Ann's death, the Coleman family apparently never forgave Buchanan.

On August 14, 1825, at age seventy-seven, Coleman died in Lancaster. At the time of his death, Coleman was widely recognized as one of the wealthiest and most respected men in Pennsylvania. In his will, Coleman left fifty shares in the Carlisle Bank (valued at $1000) along with dividends amounting to $140 to Dickinson in the hope that the funds would be used to endow a professorship. Through interest on the original donation as well as the generous contributions of Coleman's descendants, the Robert Coleman Endowment Fund continued to grow. In 1948, $50,000 from the Fund was set aside for the reestablishment of the professorship, and it was subsequently assigned to the history department. First endowed in 1827, the Robert Coleman Chair of History remains one of the oldest American endowed professorships.

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Dickinson College Archives
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