A History of the Breese Family
A Pastorale by Kathryn Grace Breese
John Brees married Dorothy Riggs. Young and happy they both were. Much work and very little play was their portion in life. They were bound to the soil and being colonists they thought much of their old home, and along English lines, and were not at all Americans in our sense of the word. They counted their money in pounds, shillings and pence and they bowed down to nobility in the person of Lord Stirling who was a vast land owner in their midst and who lived for many years among them.
No doubt they wrote long letters from time to time which they sent across the ocean; watched for ships to bring them news of father or mother, with a longing that only homesick people know; regretted the distance which had cut them off forever from a place they stilled loved, never dreaming that a time was approaching when they would find this new home their real one and the old one only a sham.
Now John set to work to clear away the forests on his land. There were giant trees to fell first and then the roots had to be removed from the ground before he could hope to draw from his possessions any of the promised results for himself and his family. It was no slight task. First the branches had to be removed and then a long wait ensued when the sap must die away rendering the wood brittle and easier to cut. Next season the trunks were hewn down and lastly the roots remained to be removed, though they were some times left to rot and enrich the earth. At any rate, we conclude that it took some years before the sun shone down on John's fields and on a little log cabin which must have been his home. It is a melancholy fact to be recorded here, that among the different strains of blood forming the brawn and sinew of this settlement, they were not all equally endowed with that thrift which some of them brought from across the ocean. Moreover, these characteristics are plainly discernible today, after two centuries, leading us to believe that such virtues are born and not otherwise acquired.
While the element from beyond the Rhine, who began coming to these shores at the time of which we write, were occupied in constructing solid homes, many of them in stone with good old locks and bolts, thick walls and heavy doors and windows, and coupling their farm life with a trade such as the tanning of hides or milling of grain, that augmented their income not inconsiderably, the Scotch and Welsh people were satisfied with the most primitive abodes. The result is that nothing remains today of their early homes (perhaps it is just as well that such poor structures should perish), while many a landmark of German handicraft is still standing on solid ground just as it was built.
Another source of regret is the fact that the story of the lives of these lighter hearted people has slipped away from posterity, like the sands of the ocean beach under the ever-flowing waves, leaving only here and there slight conjectures as to their hopes and aspirations, whereas, from the homes of the more solid builders come evidences which enable us to form a very tangible picture of their existence. Old strong boxes filled with papers of every kind lying undisturbed for scores of years, pertaining to their activities, telling their own story, while we cry in vain for a written word of the people we so desire to follow.
The lack of comfort, too, in these rude cabins must have been indescribable as may be seen by the journal of the traveller Pehr Kahn, a Swede, as he writes of the New Jersey winter of 1749, and of which we give a copy here below.
Children came to John and Dorothy, and many of them. There were John and Mary and Azariah and Esther and Anna and Henry and Sarah and Stephen and Samuel. And John and Dorothy were still young at the birth of the last child - both forty-five years of age.
Rearing children in this rude environment was no easy task. What could parents do for education and instruction whose hands were filled to overflowing with the endless task of subduing the land? Teachers there were none, for no man could stop to teach who had come out in pursuit of gain himself. Books formed no part of these lives; no time was left to read them. There was one, however, which from first to lads helped them to overcome in some measure this immense difficulty. It was the Bible. It served the child as a primer; it served young lads and lasses as reader and in the end it served the philosopher. And the school was the Church.
So the forming of the minds was a slow process. We think during that period that the minds of the children developed on a plane inferior to those of their parents. They had had better advantages at home and were not so close to the earth. But luckily, by a kind Providence, though minds are born and must be trained, certain ones train and form themselves and it is exactly on such a sterile field that this phenomenon is often produced.
Who cannot point to countless men and women who have instructed themselves with practically no outside aid: We think it is just these very ones who develop broader ideas, more gentle and contemplative natures, less biased in their opinions, free from prejudice and fanaticism, in short, they appear in the world with a greater love for mankind and in consequence are a real help in the progress of things. There must have been no lack of these people among the forefathers of our country, for results show it before, during, and after the Revolutionary War.
This little family grew up then, as best it could. We do not use the word "little" in regard to numbers, but only in regard to condition, and while we are on the subject of numbers it will not be amiss to observe that in spite of these nine children who had, in their turn, from ten to twelve children each, many of which we shall have to record, the fatality reigning among these people that no matter how many sons are born, only one leaves issue.
It will be seen that John Brees and his wife Dorothy had five boys and four girls. In time these children became a real help in the business of farming. There was much to do and there was not much safety in those wild regions. Fear of Indians was always with them, although in that vicinity there was less danger from them than elsewhere for they were supposed to be friendly tribes. But poor Dorothy must have often spent anxious moments for the fate of her little ones, since it was well known that children had been spirited away by the red man and compelled to remain in captivity for years, if not killed and scalped on the spot. We shall relate how this actually happened in another place in this history.
John had, of course, horses and cattle and sheep, if not in great numbers at least enough for the uses of farm life. As conveyances were rare and difficult to use in a place where roads were still unheard of, every man rode a horse and his errands to the base of supplies were made on horseback. We can picture John mounting his favorite animal on a fine summer morning and waving his wife a good-bye after receiving her orders for coffee, sugar, a piece of velvet ribbon or cotton cloth which he was to bring home with him, as he turned to ride many miles through a path in the woods until he should come to the center of communication which was in those days Perth Amboy, a town near the sea border. Here he had to go to mail his letter to relatives in Wales and to ask if one had arrived for him. Here is where he made his modest purchases for the needs of his household and here is where he listened to the gossip of the outside world. He rode for hours through shaded woods so thick that the sun scarcely shone through. He came from time to time upon an open area where a few straggling houses formed a little village. He saw many traces of wolves and bears and perhaps reached for his gun more than once to shoot them as they roamed fearlessly about before and behind him. He met many a Delaware Indian on his way to and from his home, but as a rule they did not molest him, as he, himself, was a quiet man, not very intense in his feelings, a good father, sober and gentle and taking things without much excitement as they came along. He, no doubt, went religiously to church by the side of his wife, for she would miss no meeting. But we cannot picture him in those curious moments of physical emotion, where tears, agitation and turbulence played such a striking role in those Scotch-Irish weekly reunions. He must have respected the church and loved it in his way, but he does not appear to have been over enthusiastic. Also, he never has been recorded as having held nay active position connected with it, notwithstanding the fact that he was there from the first and that his services were sorely needed. He evidently could not make up his mind to affect any outward demonstration of what was really in his heart, preferring to follow his own thoughts rather than to elaborate upon the rules handed down by those hard task-masters and elucidators of the Gospel. He accepted them, yes, but he would not enlarge upon them and he left Dorothy to do as she liked in these matters, a fine proof of his absolute tolerance.
Sunday mornings would see the family marshalled together at the door of the homestead, ready for church. They did not have far to go as their farm was only a quarter of a mile away to the west of the village. Dorothy, grave and sedate, the girls with a ribbon or two for finery, the boys in homemade pantaloons, father bringing up the rear with his Sunday suite cut after the English fashion. Down the hill they went, the younger ones in high spirits, laughing and joking on the way. They knew that at the door of the church they must leave all fun aside and attend strictly to religious matters.
Dorothy had them well in hand and they followed her pious example. She must have been a woman of strong convictions. She thought a lot about her salvation. She must have spoken with a Scotch accent. She was eager to succeed both in things spiritual and things temporal. She was anxious to acquire for the sake of her children the only valuable thing she knew, and that was land - as much as possible. L380 would then buy 2000 acres. Here it would seem as if she were disappointed. Her enthusiasm was not shared by her husband. He probably feared the taxes which were then growing very heavy (a fact that finally led to grave consequences), and saw so little cash money that when he had it he liked to keep it, and so he missed making his fortune.
Above all she was surely very pious. She had lived her young life in Ireland but surrounded by her own countrymen who had already emigrated once before. They had nothing much in Scotland in her day but church. It was only after her people left that Scotland rose as a country to any extend. Industry, art and literature began to thrive there only after she was gone and settled far away in the wilds of a new and rude land. While she lived with her parents the gloom of the middle ages was upon her. One has only to turn to Buckle's History of Civilization to get an idea of the sad and benighted condition of the Scotch Kirk which guided her tender years. As it is indeed a true saying that "distance lends enchantment", thus Dorothy forgot everything about it but the bright side and loved the old memories accordingly. Albeit, she brought with her those narrow opinions common to all those of her surroundings. We imagine her to have been austere. We think she took her life very seriously, that she did not ask much affection and so received little. She, too, was glad of a Sunday morning and when she reached the meeting house she gathered her little brood about her and all knelt down in silent prayer. Then came the hymns which she must have sung in a sweet voice with great fervor, for her heart was in it.
Settling back she prepared to listen, with that intense desire characteristic of her people, to some Scotch divine. She imagined that he was endowed with a light withheld from her, and the longer he talked and the louder he shouted, the more he gesticulated and sweated, the better she liked it.
We can be sure she never allowed one of hers to absent himself from the service. Was it not a fact that home in Scotland, the elders were divided into districts and officially allotted to take special notice of absentees? Woe to him who was tried in the balance and found wanting.
We look back today with horror at the tragedies brought about by these strange ideas. It was sickening to think that at that time Scotland produced a type of people so fanatic that their hearts seemed dried up. It was no unusual thing for mothers to cast out their offspring and help in the work of destruction of the child of their bosoms if he dared gainsay this preposterous nonsense which was preached about from morning 'til night under the guise of religion. A doctrine which resulted in an attempt to destroy the affections and to sever the holiest ties of love. Dorothy did not forget this, but being far away from its direct influence she was able to keep her heart gentle and filled with the milk of human kindness she naturally possessed
We think she did not seek amusement in the broader sense of the word; had not much joy in her laughter; reared her children in the fear of God and sent them into the world with a feeling that she had done her duty by them.
Copyright © 1999 by John Breese McKenzie. All rights reserved