The Breese Family
In New Jersey
1735 to 1814
There is a place in this country touching the Atlantic Ocean
which is called New Jersey. It is one of the garden spots of the
land, filled with busy cities, criss-crossed by endless miles of
railroad and furnishing a huge population with every facility for
their livelihood. There was a time however when this particular
place was only a wilderness. Early settlers found here ground
under tangled forests that had been fed by falling leaves of
centuries which in the hands of the first cultivators, blossomed
like a rose. The people who first came there were indeed all free
and equal. Very little social distinction marked the standing of
the newcomers. They all did the same kind of work and each men
stood alone on his own merits. 2hat, however, was only a temporary
existence and changed with time, like all else.
It is a pleasure in these busy days to look back, away
from our present rush where each and every man must out do the
other in order to succeed, into a time when the old saying
"Live and let live" was indeed a true one; when wits
were not so sharp and people needed each other for aid and
friendship; when they worked, hoped and prayed together and when a
man's neighbor was indeed his brother. It was a time that is gone from us forever like a life that
comes m passes on to be seen no more.
We are going to select a part of this primeval forest and
allow our fancy to follow its simple people for a decade or two or
three and to speculate upon their coming and going like a dream
that pleases us, forgetting for a moment our prosy existence which
everyone likes from time to time to do.
It is Just a piece of land divided up into farms in the
heart of Somerset County, New Jersey--how those names smack of 01d
England-an a village that grew by the side of a hardworking
community. Quaint and picturesque is Basking Ridge. Pleasantly it
stands beneath an American sky among green and brown rolling hills
fanned sometimes by the hot western winds, sometimes by the fresh
ocean breezes, bathed in a flood of sunshine which is a blessing
of its climate. Birds soared above it often singing Joyously; bees
hum in drowsy fashion over its hollyhocks and daisies. A little
church peeps out between the branches of great trees. There is
repose about the place to us, who see it only in its past, that
fills the soul with gentle melancholy.
Trim little cottages set back from the street; green lawns
cool and inviting; great over-hanging trees that spread their
branches hospitably -- happiness and contentment seem to prevail.
In the evening after sunset a swift twilight and then
begins the flicker of lamps shining thorough the windows of these
homes. Tiny lights suggesting fairy land greet one on all sides for
no heavy shutters bar out the sight. No need for seclusion. Here
we have one big family and neighbors for the most part are
For two hundred years has this little place existed and well it may boast of having seen the passing of not a few
generations. The very fact that it was a village in the beginning
and remains a village in the end, adds greatly to the spell it
casts upon one. Mighty doings have gone on round it this long
time, but Basking Ridge remains unruffled, unchanged, so to speak,
refusing to catch the spirit of modern life as it grew up about
Her people have come and gone, their children's children have
come and gone and their very names have disappeared forever but
the little place itself always retains the aspect of early times.
Today the surrounding country is flushed with a dignity and
pride which is high and lofty indeed. Homes of prosperous
merchants dot the hillsides. The masters of giant industries come
here to rest away from the jar and turmoil of huge factories which
have sprung up so thick and fast in this resourceful land. But the
village is only among them, not of them. It seems not to care. It
goes on, over as of old, sunning itself in the light of tradition,
proudly proclaim in its link with the past, leaving the outside
world to go its way, provided she herself is left undisturbed.
In the old days many points centered about this spot. The
population however was sparse. People were scattered far away, in
the woods, on the hills, in the fields and meadows, but here is
where they met and here is where they congregated.
It is of those old times that we wish to speak. We find in
the thought of bygone days something to gladden the heart;
something about the people whose lips are closed to us forever and
who can speak to us no more, that catches our fancy. Can we form
in the minds eye a picture of the lives some of them led, with
only such slender guides as a date here, a fragment of folk-lore
there, an old letter from some neglected attic, an army coat or a
rusty musket a tomb stone- and such things?
Let us see.
Two hundred years ago--for America that is a long time-- the
sun shone here as it does today, the seasons came and went, the
hills, the valley, the sky, in a word all things not made by man
were then in Basking Ridge as they are now. Originally it had been
the home of Indians; their happy hunting grounds, where haughty
chiefs stalked in gaudy paint and feathers, slipping through the
underbrush in their silent moccasins where a tread could not be
heard by the sharpest ear and where scarce a twig was bent or
broken. They still roamed about at the time of which we speak, it
was already in the hands of the white man, destined to become part
of a country great indeed.
Now about this time there came into this little corner a very
few man and women. Some were Scotch from Scotland and some
Scotch from Ulster, Ireland. Some came from Holland and some from
Wales. It was a little colony of Scotch, Scotch-Irish, Welsh and
Dutch. They had all come from far off homes for various reasons.
Some to escape political persecution, others to escape religious
persecution. Most of them came to brave the hardships of a
frontier life in order to better their condition. Life in the old
country held no hope, life in the new filled their dreams with
We wonder at their courage, yet perhaps it was in this as is
often the sase, we 8o through life ignorant of what is before us,
our strength and courage grow with our difficulties.
This little group of hopeful men and women found themselves
upon the shores of New Jersey and halted at last among its hills.
There was beauty and fertility. Here where they paused there was
something in particular that attracted them and caused for a
moment a mighty admirations. This was the sight of an oak tree.
But an oak tree is not extraordinary. An oak tree can be seen
almost any where. Aye but not one like this: They saw it mush as
we see it today for indeed it was already an old tree, yes, and a
flourishing tree when Christopher Columbus was yet undreamed of.
We think it is not too much to say when William the Conqueror and
the ancestors of many of these ancestors were subduing England,
that this hoary old oak was at least a stripling and had its roots
already firmly planted in the ground beneath it. This then was
cause for reflection. Who knows but this very tree had much to do
with the formation of this little colony. Certain it is that later
they laid their dead at its feet and continued to do so for
generations to come.
The place was a sort of a ridge in between the hills smd
there were moments in the day when the fox, the woodchuck, the
porcupine and many wild birds came out of the forest onto it to
bask in the sun and so they called their new home Basking Ridge.
1710 is mentioned in the annals of this community. Col.
John Brees, a subsequent iinhabitant is said to have seen a grave
stone with the date 1719 on it and also a Cornelius Breese is
found here in 1720 but it is in the year 1725 that it really
became a settlement and took its name of Basking Ridge.
Our reminiscences begin ten years later. In 1735 a young man
of twenty-two, appears here. Just how or when he arrived is not
clear. It is said he went first to another place in New Jersey and
that he had two brothers with him. That a fourth brother appeared
later and that together they founded the town of Shrewsbury, New
Jersey, in memory of their old English home. We know that this
young man came from or near Shrewsbury, Wales, and that fact alone
would lend color to the American Shrewsbury tale. His name was
John Brees, his supposed brother were Cornelius, Henry and Sidney.
In the course of time their name took on a final "e" and
Brees became Breese.
While John was in Basking Ridge Sidney was in Shrewsbury and
Cornelius (1720) had purchased land in Somerset county near Dead
River from James Alexander. So they were at least neighbors and
all of the same name. They perhaps knew their exact relationship
but they left us no knowledge in this matter.
We do know that Basking Ridge became the home of John Brees
in 1735 and that from then he was closely identified with the
place. He was one of its colonists, he purchased land so he must
have had some money. It is possible that he knew many other of its
colonists before he came and perhaps he came because of such
In his old Wales home he probably belonged to the peasant
class was a Presbyterian as most people from those parts were, It
is probable there were Welsh preachers in his family because we
have found not a few Reverends bearing his name at that time.
Although he was born some thirty years after the so called Western
Rebellion, when the Duke of Monmouth laid claim to the English
throne as a son of ~Charles II, the sufferings his people
underwent as a result of their part in the political and religious
struggles of those times must have been deeply impressed upon his
John Brees must have brought from the old country mixed
feeling: for the home of his ancestors and its government. Upon
the whole he must have been glad to leave the place for newer and
richer lands free from the tortures of mind and body and as yet
untouched by the curse of the gallows and the stake, at least in
that little corner of the new world for which he was bound. He was
leaving a land not created for him; where he could get only
shelter while his highborn neighbor had lavished upon him every
blessing that could be bestowed.
When finally the deep ocean was between him and all he had
known before and he had arrived in Basking Ridge, he met among the
good pious people a young Scotch girl named Dorothy Riggs. She
seems to have comes to the Colonies before him and to have been
there with her two brothers, Thomas and Joseph. The Riggs became
good friends of John Brees. Thomas was twelve years older than his
sister Dorothy and Joseph was some seven years her senior. All
were so infused with religious training that, to them, a life
without a church was no life at all. In this they were no
exception to their neighbors.
In those times when communication was slow, almost at a standstill,
books almost unknown, recreation practically unobtainable, when
social intercourse was rare, it was the Church which supplied
these deficiencies and served as a common ground upon which people
built their every hope. The Church was needed and welcomed by the
struggling pioneer, living isolated and away from civilization
with scarcely more than the broad heavens as a roof over his head.
Thus the Riggs family and John Brees and the others of those
lonely pioneers who had flown the tyranny of ages, got together to
forms spiritual center at the same time, after careful
consideration it was decided that no better spot could be chosen
for the Meeting House than by the side of That Majestic Oak. God
had been there before them and had prepared a place for them, as
could be seen under these friendly branches which seemed to beacon
them to worship. The soft breezes in its leaves, the moaning winds
through its naked branches, seemed to say; I will protect you
while you live and guard your dead for you when they are gone.
This was a temple not made with hands. The little meeting house
was erected by the side of this Old Tree.
One can imagine even through this distance of time, the
earnestness with which these pioneers gathered here. Their fervent
prayers, their literal interpretation of the Bible after the
manner of all followers of Luther, Calvin and Swingley. Fierce
preaching, solemn beliefs in hell and damnation and the vengeance
of God. All this must have rendered them a little sad and gloomy
only they seemed not to be aware of it and the holy work of
clearing away the wilderness safeguarded them from too much
fanaticism and kept them from thinking to much upon a subject
which in those days was too imperfectly understood by the
shepherds desisted to lead their flocks. No homestead was too
distant and no weather too severe for the members of this little
flock as they wended their way to their beloved Church through the
deep winter snow, over the pungent turf in spring time, under the
burning rays of the summer sun, or in the quiet cool of the
At The Church men met their friends and talked of their stops
and their prospects; here young lovers mingled and exchanged happy
greetings. A thousand pleasant thoughts were here exchanged.
Copyright © 1999 by John Breese McKenzie. All rights reserved