Copeland was born probably in London late in the 1640s or early in the 1650s. His father, Thomas Copeland, was a London spectacle-maker. It is possible but not certain that he was the Joseph Copeland, a son of Thomas Copeland and Anne Copeland, who was born in the parish of Saint Gregory by Saint Paul’s on February 15, 1649, and baptized at Saint Augustine Watling Street, in London, on February 18 of that year. According to records of the Worshipful Company of Pewterers, on May 17, 1666, Copeland was apprenticed to John Mann for seven years. There is no record that Copeland took his freedom in the company, action required of those wishing to practice the craft in England. He may have sailed for Virginia, where he could work without restriction, soon after completing his apprenticeship in 1673. Copeland had settled in the colony in Isle of Wight County by 1675. He may have been a nephew or other close relation of John Copeland, an emigrant from Yorkshire who was a landowner in Isle of Wight County and a prominent member of the Chuckatuck Friends Meeting.
Copeland was the first documented practicing pewtersmith in Virginia. (An earlier pewterer, John Lathbury, died in 1655 shortly after arriving in the colony and is not known to have practiced his trade there.) A soft alloy mostly of tin and lead, pewter was a mark of gentility in colonial America that could be reused and refashioned into newer forms. During excavation of the site of Jamestown in the mid-1930s, archaeologists recovered in the area of Structure 21, a frame cottage with brick foundation, a spoon bowl and a trifid spoon handle with Copeland’s touchmark, reading “Ioseph Copeland / 1675 / Chuckatuck.” That inscription makes the spoon handle the earliest datable surviving piece of Virginia-made pewter. As a result of the discovery, similar examples found in the vicinity are often designated Copeland or Chuckatuck spoons. The estate of Nicholas Smith, of Isle of Wight County, inventoried on June 5, 1696, included “6 doz: of Virginia pewter spoons,” a tantalizing hint that perhaps Copeland filled orders for patrons.
On an unrecorded date Copeland married a woman named Mary, maiden name unknown, whose death on May 27, 1678, the Chuckatuck Friends Meeting recorded. On January 18, 1685, “Joseph Copeland Pewterer,” of Isle of Wight County, purchased 150 acres in Surry County for £50 sterling. Among the witnesses to the deed, recorded on May 4, 1686, was Thomas Taberer, whose daughter Elizabeth Taberer became Copeland’s second wife, although the date of their marriage is not known. They had several children, at least one of them a son. Copeland may also have owned land in James City County; a land patent dated April 21, 1690, describes property in that county granted to William Edwards as bounded from “Joseph Copelands Great Gum on James river side.” On May 12, 1688, the House of Burgesses entrusted “the Severall utensills & Ornaments belonging to this house” to Copeland for cleaning and safekeeping. He submitted a petition on April 22, 1691, seeking payment for his work as custodian.
There is no record of Joseph Copeland, pewterer, after April 22, 1691. Most likely he died between that date and January 14, 1692, when his father-in-law wrote a will that bequeathed property to Copeland’s minor namesake son but allowed the child’s uncle free use of the estate until he came of age. When Copeland’s namesake son died in 1726, the inventory of his Isle of Wight County estate included a pair of “old Spoon Molds” and thirty-eight and a half pounds of pewter, perhaps remnants of his father’s craft.