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  • James Coburn (1928-2002): A Genealogical Tribute

    David Curtis Dearborn

    Published Date : December 6, 2002

    It is said that there is a little bit of New England in all of us, so when I learned of the recent death of the Hollywood actor James Coburn on November 18, I wondered if his family was connected to the well-known Coburn-Colburn family of New England. [1]

    Though never in the front rank of Hollywood actors, Coburn’s career in television and motion pictures spanned nearly fifty years. He usually appeared in westerns and in action pictures. His lean physique and angular looks led him to be typecast as a tough guy or villain, but his often-sly humor won him a steady following. His breakout role was as Britt, the silent knife-fighter in The Magnificent Seven (1960), which also starred Yul Brynner and Charles Bronson. Coburn made other noteworthy appearances as the sinister villain in Charade (1963), and as a shrink on the run in the screwball comedy The President’s Analyst (1967). He reached the peak of his fame in Our Man Flint (1966) and its sequel, In Like Flint (1967), both silly parodies of the James Bond films. His career waned over the next several decades, in part because of a long bout with severe rheumatoid arthritis, and he appeared mostly in supporting roles and television commercials. But in 1999 he received an Academy Award as best supporting actor for his role as Nick Nolte’s alcoholic, abusive father in Affliction. Despite the ups and downs of his career, to a whole generation of moviegoers, Coburn was the epitome of “cool.”

    With the release of the 1930 U.S. Census and the widespread availability of this and the earlier censuses, both on microfilm and online via such commercial Internet websites as Ancestry.com, it is now possible to find genealogical information on millions of ordinary Americans who lived during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

    James Coburn was born in Laurel, Cedar County, Nebraska in 1928. It was an easy matter to locate him, as a young child, with his parents in the 1930 U.S. Census. His father and Coburn grandparents and great-grandparents were located with little difficulty in the 1920, 1910 and 1900 censuses, at Laurel. With a population of under a thousand, Laurel’s population schedules could be searched with ease, and the Coburn pedigree for several generations could be traced with confidence. The actor’s parents and paternal grandfather moved to Compton, California, during the Depression, and their death dates were located in the online California Death Index, confirming and adding to the information already gathered from the censuses. Other sources consulted are referred to in the notes.

    The actor’s ancestors are charted by using the Ahnentafel, or “Ancestor Table” method of numbering, in which the Subject is numbered 1, his father 2, mother 3, paternal grandfather 4, paternal grandmother 5, maternal grandfather 6, maternal grandmother 7, paternal grandfather’s father 8, etc.

    FIRST GENERATION

    1        James H[arrison] Coburn, born Laurel, Cedar County, Nebraska, August 31, 1928; [2] died Los Angeles, California November 18, 2002. [3]

    SECOND GENERATION

    2        James H[arrison] Coburn, born [?Laurel, Cedar Co.?] Neb., October 6, 1902; [4] died Orange County, Calif., December 24, 1975. [5] He appears as head of household at Laurel, Cedar County, Neb. in the 1930 Census as James H. Coburn, garage mechanic. [6] He married about 1925, [7]

    3        Mylet S. Johnson, born Neb., November 15, 1901; [8] died Orange County, Calif., February 20, 1984. [9] She appears as James’ wife in the 1930 Census; married five years.

    THIRD GENERATION

    4        Daniel D. Coburn, born Wisconsin, May 31, 1868; [10] died Los Angeles County, Calif., November 12, 1946, age seventy-eight. [11] He and his wife Altha were living at Laurel, Cedar County, Nebraska in the 1900 Census; he was described as a stockman. [12] In 1910 he was at Laurel, described as a merchant–implements, living with wife Altha, seven-year-old son Harrison, and other children. He and his wife are described as married 12 years and she as the mother of 4 living children, all listed. [13] He was living at Laurel in the 1920 Census, a widower, occupation merchant–automobiles. His son is listed in this census as “Harrison,” age seventeen. [14] He married at Lancaster County, Neb., November 10, 1898, [15]

    5        Altha Ann Johnson, born Crawford County, Iowa, about December 1876; [16] living Laurel, Neb., 1910; died by 1920.

    6        ––– Johnson, born Sweden; emigrated to Nebraska.

    7        ––– Johnson, born Sweden; emigrated to Nebraska. [17]

    FOURTH GENERATION

    8        James H. Coburn, born Vermont, January 1837; [18] living at Laurel, Neb., 1920, a widower, no occupation. [19] His birth record has not been found in the Vermont vital records. He appears not to have served in the Civil War from either Vermont or Wisconsin. In the 1880 census he was living in District 171, Yorkville, Racine County, Wis. (listed as “James H. Coboun”), described as age forty-five, birthplace Vt., dealer in grains. [20] He and his wife Jane were living at Laurel, Neb. in the 1900 Census, in which he is described as proprietor of a general store. [21] In 1910 he was living at Laurel with his wife Jane and two grandchildren. [22] He married, probably in Wisconsin, about 1864,

    9        Jane Mathews, born Ohio, January 1846 (of English-born parents); living at Laurel, 1910; died by 1920. Her maiden name is learned from her son Daniel’s listing in the California Death Index.

    10  Noah V. Johnson, born Clay County, Missouri, October 22, 1833; died Milford Township, Crawford County, Iowa, March 1912; [23] farmer and member of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; [24] at Milford Twp. in 1860-1910 censuses; married at Crawford County October 12, 1853, [25]

    11  Sarah Jane Mason, born Illinois, June 1835; [26] living with husband 1880 (described in census as forty-four, born Iowa; parents born  Ky., Ind.); living with husband 1900, 1910. [27]

    12-15 Unknown.

    FIFTH GENERATION

    16-19 Unknown.

    20  Noah Johnson, born Randolph County, Indiana, October 12, 1804; died Zions Camp, Clay County, Missouri, June 24, 1834, supposedly during a cholera epidemic; [28] married at Randolph County, Indiana, June 18, 1829,

    21  Catherine Burkett, born Fairfield, Greene County, Ohio, December 4, 1810; died 1846-49. She married (2) Levi Lewis Skinner. [29]

    22  Jesse Mason, born Garrett County, Kentucky, May 15, 1813; died Lamoni, Decatur County, Iowa, October 25, 1891; [30] married Hancock County, Illinois, 1832, [31]

    23  Malinda Edwards, born ----; died Lee County, Iowa. [32]

    24-31 Unknown.

    SIXTH GENERATION

    32-41 Unknown.

    42  George Burkett, born Bedford, Bedford County, Pennsylvania, October 18, 1788; died Eden, Weber County, Utah, March 15, 1871; married (1) at Lancaster, Fairfield County, Ohio, January 16, 1810,

    43  Sarah Jane Smith, born Taneytown, Carroll County, Maryland, January 5, 1789; died Augusta, Des Moines County, Iowa, 1846.

    44-63 Unknown.

    SEVENTH GENERATION

    64-83 Unknown.

    84  George Burkett, born Pike Twp., Berks County, Pennsylvania, August 16, 1755; died Penn. about 1795; married 1779,

    85  Catherine Swoveland, born Germany 1758; died Penn., before 1840.

    86  John Smith, born Taneytown, Carroll County, Md., 1760; died ---; married Md., 1786,

    87  Katherine Best, born Md. 1760; died ---.

    88-127 Unknown.

    EIGHTH GENERATION

    128-167 Unknown.

    168Israel Burkett, born Germany; died Stony Creek Twp., Somerset County, Penn., about 1805; married Germany, about 1745,

    169Anna Marie Barbara.

    170Peter Swoveland.

    171 Unknown.

    172Francis Smith.


    [1] The best treatment of the New England Coburn-Colburn family is George A. Gordon and Silas R. Coburn, Genealogy of the Descendants of Edward Colburn/Coburn (1913).

    [2] Who’s Who in America (2000 ed.), 893.

    [3] New York Times, Wed., 20 November 2002, A-21; Boston Globe, Wed, 20 November 2002, C3.

    [4] Date from California Death Index [http://userdb.rootsweb.com/ca/death/search.cgi].

    [5] Ibid.

    [6] 1930 US Census, T626-1268, ED 14-29, Sheet 2A, Line 21.

    [7] This marriage is not recorded in Cedar County, Nebraska. Thanks to Neil D. Thompson, FASG of Salt Lake City for checking the Cedar County marriage index.

    [8] See note 4.

    [9] Ibid.

    [10] Ibid.

    [11] Ibid. This source gives his mother’s maiden name as Mathews.

    [12] 1900 US Census, T623-919, ED 38, Sheet 5, Line 10.

    [13] 1910 US Census, T624-840, ED 43, Sheet 14B, Line 85.

    [14] 1920 US Census, T625-983, ED 48, Sheet 1A, Line 19.

    [15] International Genealogical Index (IGI).

    [16] Birthdate from 1900 US Census.

    [17] Their surnames are learned from daughter Mylet’s entry in the Calif. Death Index; their places of birth from Mylet’s entry in the 1930 Census.

    [18] S. Coburn posted a notice on the Coburn GenForum [http://genforum.genealogy.com/coburn] on 31 January 2001 in regard to the ancestry of the actor James Coburn, stating that James H. Coburn had an older brother, Edward Coburn (born 1833). The two brothers left Vermont, spent some time in Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa, before homesteading in Nebraska. The writer speculates that the brothers may have had a connection with Coburns who lived in Cabot, Vermont.  As a follow-up to this clue, it should be noted that Gordon and Coburn’s Genealogy of the Descendants of Edward Colburn/Coburn (pp. 241-42) lists a Nathaniel Coburn (1803-1865), a lifelong resident of Cabot who had a son, Harrison Coburn (1847-1864); and a brother, Clement Edward Coburn (1818- ), also of Cabot, who had a son, Henry Harrison Coburn (1864- ). There may or may not be a connection between this family and that of the actor, in which Harrison was passed down as a middle name.

    [19] 1920 US Census, T625-983, ED 48, Sheet 8B, Line 95.

    [20] 1880 US Census, T9-1443, p. 549B. His parents were listed as birthplace Ohio and Vt. respectively. Also in the household were his wife Jane, 34, Ohio England England, and three children including son Daniel D., 14, Wis Vt Ohio.

    [21] 1900 US Census, T623-919, ED 38, Sheet 3, Line 71. It is this source that gives the month and year of his and his wife’s birth. They are stated to have been married 36 years. Jane was the mother of three children; two living.

    [22] 1910 US Census, T624-840, ED 43, Sheet 12B, Line 91.

    [23] Kiron Kountry 200206 Data Base [http://homepages.rootsweb.com/~gwgustaf/library/Base/d380.htm].

    [24] Biographical History of Crawford, Ida and Sac Counties, Iowa (Chicago: Lewis Pub. Co., 1893), 350, which gives a full biographical sketch.

    [25] The Crawford County, Iowa GenWeb Project. Early Deloit History from 1850 [http://www.rootsweb.com/~iacrewfo/deloithist.html].

    [26] Birthdate and place from 1900 US Census, Milford Twp., Crawford Co., Iowa, T623-427, ED 66, Sheet 5, Line 76.

    [27] 1910 US Census, Milford Twp., Crawford County, Iowa, T624-399, ED 73, Sheet 4, Line 69.

    [28] See note 24. The date is probably a typo, and 1833 is meant; Ronald L. Grames Website [http://gramesfamily.servemp3.com/Grames/3/76180.htm].

    [29] Ibid. All the information on Catherine’s ancestors comes from this unverified Internet source.

    [30] See note 25; Susan Easton Black, Early Members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1993), 4:254.

    [31] See note 25.

    [32] See note 24.

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