A History of the Breese Family
A Pastorale by Kathryn Grace Breese
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 the 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 man stood alone on his merits. That, 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 outdo 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 and 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 own proxy existence which everyone likes from time to time to do.
It is just a piece of land divided into farms in the heart of New Jersey in Somerset County - how those names smack of Old England - and a village that grew by the side of a hard working community.
Quaint and picturesque is Banking 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 one of the blessings of its climate. Birds soar above it often singing joyously; bees hum in a drowsy fashion over its hollyhocks and daises. A little church peeps out between the branches of great trees. There is a repose abut the place, to us who see it only in its past, that fills the soul with a 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 comes a swift twilight and then begins the flicker of lamps shining through the windows of these homes. Tiny lights suggesting fairyland greet one on all sides for no heavy shutters bar out the sight. No need for such seclusion. Here we have one big family and neighbors for the most part are friends.
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.
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 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, ever as of old, sunning itself in the light of tradition, proudly proclaiming 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 mind's eye a picture of the lives some of them led, with only such slender guides as a date here, a fragment of folklore there, an old letter from some neglected attic, an army coat or a rusty musket, a tombstone and such things? Let us see.
Two hundred years ago - for America that is a long time - the sun shone here the same as it does today, the seasons also came and went, the hills, the valley, the blue 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 rounds, where haughty chiefs stalked about in gaudy paint and feathers, slipping through the underbrush in silent moccasins where a tread could not be heard by the sharpest ears and where scarce a twig was bent or broken. They still roamed about it at the time of which we speak, but they owned the land no longer for it was already in the hands of the white man and destined to become a part of a country great indeed.
Now about this time there came into this queer little corner, a few, a very few men and women. Some were Scotch people from Scotland and some were Scotch people from Ulster, Ireland; some came from Holland and some from Wales. So we have at once a little colony of Scotch, Scotch-Irish, Welsh and Dutch immigrants. They had all come from their far-off homes for various reasons. Some to escape political persecution, others to escape religious persecution, but most of them came prepared to brave the hardships of a frontier life in order to better their condition. Life in the old country held out no hope for a rise and advancement for them, while life in the new filled their dreams with unlimited possibilities.
We wonder at their courage, yet perhaps it was in this as is often the case, that we all go through life ignorant of what is before us and that our strength and courage grow only with our difficulties.
So this little bank of hopeful men and women at length found themselves upon the fair shores of New Jersey and halted a last among the hills and no doubt sat down to rest. There was a beauty and fertility to be seen about them, and the undulating hills that greeted their eyes must have reminded them strongly of the lost homes of their childhood. And we think that here where they paused there was something in particular that attracted them and caused for a moment a general mighty admiration! This was the sight of an oak tree. But an oak tree is not extraordinary. An oak tree can be seen almost anywhere. Aye, but not one like this! They say it much 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 that 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 that this 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 and 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 into the sun, and so they called their new home Basking Ridge.
There is the year 1710 mentioned in the annals of this community and Colonel John Brees, a subsequent inhabitant, is said to have observed a grave stone with the date 1719 cut on it and also a Cornelius Brees is found here in 1720, but it is in the year 1725 that it really became a settlement and took the foregoing name.
Our reminiscences, however, begin ten years later. It is in 1735 that our interest centers on a young man of twenty-two who appears here upon that date. Just how or when he arrived is not clear. It is said that he went first to another place in Jersey and that he had two brothers with hi,. That a fourth brother appeared later and that together they founded the town of Shrewsbury, New Jersey, in memory of their old English home. At all events we know that this young man came from in or near Shrewsbury, Wales, and that fact alone would lend color to the American Shrewsbury tale. His name was John Brees and his supposed brothers were Cornelius, Henry and Sidney. This name Brees took on in course of time a final "e" and became Breese, but at that time it was spelled as above. Here we deem it wise to say a few words in regard to these supposed brothers and we use the word "supposed" advisedly since we have been unable to prove that John Brees really had brothers.
All records point toward Cornelius Brees and Henry, or rather Hendrick Brees as having been in this country long before John. They are found repeatedly in the records of the Dutch Reformed Church, in Staten Island first, and later in the Dutch Reformed Church of Raritan, New Jersey. All the entries regarding them are recorded in the Dutch language. They are found there in the list of the baptized together with their wives who bear distinctly Dutch names. We know, too, that the name Brees is also a Dutch name often found in Holland and Belgium today and we are inclined to think that for these reasons the Dutch Brees family and the English Brees family have in this country become confounded and mixed, when in reality they were not related other than having had perhaps a parent stock in France during the Huguenot troubles, which dispersed them to different lands.
However this may be, it is a fact that Cornelius Brees and Henry Brees are found with John in Jersey and Sidney Brees, too. As far as Sidney is concerned he was indeed an Englishman and came also from in or near Shrewsbury (Salop County) and his family chart has been carefully compiled by his descendants and preserved in the Salisbury Memorials of American Families in which it is claimed that he is the "only son" of his father. We find, however, in this record the name of John and though a common name to all families, it's quite possible it may have been a family name here. These two men may have and probably did have a common ancestor though as to this as yet nothing is positively known. Among the descendants of Sidney are found the illustrious Samuel Finley Breese Morse. The inventor of the telegraph, who began life as a portrait painter, studying under Benjamin West in London, but gave it up for scientific work, succeeding far beyond his wildest dreams. Also, Judge Sidney Breese of the Supreme Court of the State of Illinois, who shed much glory upon the name during his lifetime.
Anyway, while John was in Basking Ridge, Sidney was in the small town of Shrewsbury, and Cornelius fifteen years before (1720) had purchased land in Somerset County near the Dead River, from James Alexander, so they were at least neighbors all bearing the same name. They perhaps knew themselves their exact relationship, but they have left us no knowledge in this matter.
Setting aside all speculation we know that Basking Ridge became John Brees' home in the year 1735, as already stated, and that henceforth he is closely identified with the place. He became one of its colonists; he purchased land, so he must have had a little money; he got to know his neighbors; indeed, it is more than possible that he know many of these people before he came and came because of that fact.
In his old home in Wales he no doubt belonged to the peasant class; he was a Presbyterian, as most of the people from those parts were, and it is quite probable that there were Welsh preachers in his family because we have found not a few Reverends bearing his name in and about his old home 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 son of Charles II, the sufferings his people underwent as a result for the part they took in the political and religious struggles of those times must have been deeply impressed upon his mind. No Welshman at the time nor for generations after could have been ignorant of the Bloody Assizes which the Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys conducted in that part of England for his lord and master, King James the II, in putting down an uprising which endangered his throne.
Our john must have been brought up and nourished on those hideous tales, only too true, about what was done to his people as a punishment for the fear they entertained as to the overthrow of their religious opinions by a despotic tyrant who finally ended his exalted career by kicking his crown away from him and dying in exile as a just retribution for his stupid obstinacy.
Yet, as if human nature were incapable of drawing natural conclusions and throe better upon harsh than kind treatment, we find among these Welshmen many who were imbued with the doctrine known as the divine right of kings, which seemed a part of their very flesh and bone and it is recorded that men of the name of Brees still remained staunch Jacobites as late as 1745, who adhered to the cause in the second fruitless attempt by a grandson of this worthless potentate to win back the prize his forefathers had not known how to esteem or cherish.
So John must have brought away from the old country a mixed feeling for the home of his ancestors and its government, and upon the whole he must have been glad to leave the place for newer and richer lands, free from the torture 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 world for which he was bound. He must have found it pleasant to leave a land that, as far as he was concerned, was not created for him; a land that gave him only shelter while it lavished upon his neighbor, who happened to be highborn, every blessing heaven could bestow.
When finally the deep ocean was between him and all he had known before and he had landed in little Basking Ridge, he met among these good and pious people a young Scotch girl whose name was Dorothy Riggs. She seems to have come out to the Colonies before him and to have been there with her two brothers, Thomas and Joseph Riggs. The Riggs became good friends to John. Thomas was twelve years older than his sister and Joseph was some seven years her senior. They were all three infused with their early religious training, so much so, that to them a life without a church was no life at all. In this they were no exception to the general run of mankind, for in all ages as far back as we have any knowledge, man has always felt the need of spiritual guidance, and religion which is born with him, whatever form it has taken, has always worked for good as long as it has remained pure.
In times when communications were slow or one might say almost at a standstill; when books were unknown; when recreation was 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 very hope. How much more was such an institution needed and welcomed by the struggling pioneer, living isolated and unheeded, away from civilization with scarcely more than the broad heavens as a roof over his head.
Thus the Riggs family and John and others of these lonely immigrants who had flown the tyranny of ages, got together to form in the midst of their agricultural center, a spiritual center at the same time, and after careful consideration it was decided that no better spot could be chosen for the Meeting House than by the side of the majestic oak which had arrested their attention upon their arrival. It would be here that they would gather. God had been there before them and had prepared a place for them, as could easily be seen under these friendly branches which seemed to beckon them to worship. They had often listened to the music of soft breezes through its leaves in gentle weather and had heard the moaning of the winds across its naked branches in the winter, calling them, as it were, "Come to me, I am a church. I will protect you while you live and I will guard your dead for you when they are gone." This was indeed a temple not made by hands, a sort of ark to these people upon the waters of troubled times, and so the little meeting house came to be erected by the side of this wonderful old tree.
One can without difficulty imagine even through this distance of time, the earnestness with which these people gathered here. Their fervent prayers; their literal interpretation of the Bible after the manner of all followers of Luther, Calvin and Swingley. Fierce preachings, 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 they had set themselves to effect, safeguarded them from too much fanaticism and kept them from thinking too much upon a subject which, in those days, was but too imperfectly understood by the shepherds themselves who were designated to lead their flocks. The life was hard and monotonous and nothing happened much aside from Sunday morning meeting. Surely it came as a respite. What joy to mingle with our friends, if only for an hour or two, after the heavy labors of the week. No homestead was too distant and no weather too severe for the members of this little flock as they wended their way toward their beloved church though the deep winter snow, over the pungent turf in springtime, under the burning rays of the summer sun, or in the quiet cool of the autumn, as the case might be. Here men met their friends and talked of their crops and their prospects; here young lovers mingled and exchanged happy greetings. A thousand pleasant thoughts were given and taken, that this little meeting house made possible. Is it any wonder that they loved their church? With a foundation like this in the hearts of these people, nothing could shake their faith, so the church grew, changed, of course, as time went on, but always there in the same place where it still stands today, pointing unbidden backward to its birth with significance.
Copyright © 1999 by John Breese McKenzie. All rights reserved