A History of the Breese Family
A Pastorale by Kathryn Grace Breese
We have now covered a period of one hundred and six years. In the short life of this country it is a decade that counts. In our endeavor to make only in a small way our characters live again, we hope that we have in some measure succeeded. We have shown them in their surroundings, we have seen to some extent their occupations and pursuits and we have with such scanty and dispersed material as we had at hand, been able to throw some light on the life they led. It will be seen at once that it was a very different life from that which we lead today. These people, if by some magic process, could be set down in the midst, could not even recognize their own fields, not to mention their modest dwellings which, for the most part, have entirely disappeared. Our dress, our manners, our opinions, all would be strange to them, yet it is they we have to thank for helping to prepare this wonderful America for us. Their spades and their rude ploughs first turned the soil which was to become one of the richest places of the world. Their handiwork was the precursor of the mighty wheels and engines that hum today throughout the broad land. Is it fair to forget them as we unconsciously take the places which their frugality has handed down to us and which we occupy as a matter of course, spending lavishly with little thought the resources which had, in their time, to be husbanded with so much care?
We think that, in comparison, the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, that we have perceptibly damaged their unborn riches which we received from them as our natural birthright. We revel in comforts and ease and demand them as a matter of course to a degree that those simple souls of the eighteenth century and part of the nineteenth would have found almost sacrilegious. And we believe it is only too true that in mounting the wheel of fortune which this land of plenty has built for us, we must of a necessity at some time come to the top, and logic shows us that this very wheel has as well a downward trend which it would behoove us to observe with a closer and more critical eye.
But our task is not to dilate upon the question of evolution. We are not fitted in any respect to grapple with its magnitude and we hasten to beat a retreat almost in fear at the mere thought, and return to our humble crossroads in the middle west where we left our wayfarers while we branched off for a moment in soliloquy. We wish to follow them a few years longer before bidding them adieu. We find this difficult; in fact, we feel a pang at parting with our shadowy kith and kin whom we have grown to love in these pages.
When at length Bailey was settled at the crossroads and had somewhat recovered from the loss of his life's partner, he turned with a will to the cultivation of his newly acquired possessions. He was, by force, in an Indian country, for alas, where was a spot in those times that was not an Indian country. But, they were not hostile tribes in fact and though there were massacres from time to time, there was one good old chief by the name of Shabonaw, of the Black Hawks, who grew to like the whites and often was found slipping noiselessly from door to door warning the population when there were any indications of uprisings or warlike preparations on the part of the savages. The sight of children being seized by the feet and having their brains dashed out against the trunk of a tree was too much for the goodhearted old red man and he always did what he could to avoid it.
Here bailey and his friends came across a new and curious kind of a fruit. It is difficult to describe for we have never seen it, and we think it had little value as compared with the fruits we know, because it never became marketable and was used entirely as a food. Nevertheless it is said to resemble in a way the banana and to taste somewhat the same. It was called by the Indians in their language the paw-paw, and this fruit being associated with the new settlement, the new community took it for its name. So the village became Paw-Paw.
It soon developed into quite an animated center for it stood on the direct path from the westernmost part of the State of Illinois to the then coming town of Chicago and great hopes were held for its future which, as we shall state later, were never realized. All day long teams of strong sturdy horses, harnessed to huge overland wagons laden with grain passed Bailey's house on the way to and from the market. People stopped off there for a night's rest and found hospitality in a trim little cottage, painted white with green shutters and covered with climbing roses, situated on the corner where the best of food and beds were to be obtained. News of the outer world was conveyed to the community through these channels and a surprising activity sprung up in this little out of the way place. People followed the first settlers in numbers to be counted actually by the hundreds. It is said that the place contained at one time during its early life, four thousand souls.
The click of the scythe sharpener in the sunshine played constantly a little tune of its own; the plaintive call of the ploughman to his horses was heard across the fields; the lowing of cattle in the meadows joined the incessant hum. All was bustle and enthusiasm in this free and open air life. In the homes was the din and clang of household duties; the pounding of the churn, the clatter of tins receiving their brightest polish from deft fingers and in the barnyards the call of the chanticleer keeping up a constant colloquy with his next door neighbor, while his companion never tired of announcing that fresh eggs were to be had. And, through the open windows near the rosebuds, the sweetest sound of all was a gentle melody, homely tunes from the lips of maidens as they sat at their spinning wheels diligently turning them the live-long day.
These happy young girls added greatly to the charm of this life among the endless rolling plains. They were simple in thought and demeanor, with their shining hair parted in the middle and drawn down in puffs over the ears, often enhanced by a high comb in the back, after the Spanish fashion. Their dress was of calico in brilliant hues, a texture then much in use and highly priced, for it took a dollar to buy a yard.
Furthermore, they learned to their cost that green spots in the material were to be strictly avoided since the grasshoppers, so prodigious in numbers, often misunderstood them for sustenance and it is a positive fact that one of these damsels so attired returned from church with every green spot eaten away from her finery by these insatiable insects.
But work was not all that went on for them. They also found time for gaiety as well. Dancing in the autumn under the harvest moon was a favorite pastime for the younger ones. Here comes to us a snatch of song we heard in a childhood which we can never forget, though even at the time we heard it, it was already relegated to the shadowy past. We regret our inability to reproduce the plaintive tune, for without it more than half the charm is lost, but here are the words though they are nought with the music. "Paw Paw girls are a' coming out to-night,
"Paw Paw girls are a' coming out to-night,
are a' coming out to-night,
are a' coming out to-night,
Paw Paw girls are a' coming out to-night,
To dance by the light of the moon."
Simple and poor in construction as this may be, many a pretty girl folded her work and laid it aside and tripped lightly forth to the strain of this local jingle to join her comrades as the sun went down.
Often these children of the open, spurning a bridle or saddle, sprang up onto a horse's back and rode away with baskets on their arms to gather huckleberries or wild strawberries which were a part of the evening meal. Sometimes too, the horse stepped into a hornets' nest and then there was a wild scramble to save perhaps both from death. In the winter the tinkling of sleigh-bells was audible as the light cutter skimmed swiftly over the frozen ground and the crunching of the soft dry snow was a pleasant sound when hurried footsteps approached, eager to reach the fireside after evening chores were finished.
Happy youth, happy season, all too short, for soon those frail shoulders must broaden and steady themselves to bear the burden of a life that held little ease in the days in store for them. No luxury or sloth, only self-denial.
Bailey's girls were among this motley crowd of merrymakers and so were his boys. But for him, sorrow kept pace with joys. One of his widowed daughters who had remarried here, was suddenly called away and so was reunited with her mother under the sod in the new churchyard, at the early age of thirty-four. Others of his girls were now married too, but as far as the boys were concerned, they were all at home with their father.
James Harris, in 1844, was a goodlooking young stripling in his twenty-third year. He was rather small in stature, had a fine straight nose, and curly brown hair. Possessed a gentle disposition, was fond of his sisters, but undemonstrative to a fault, suppressing his feelings to quite an unnecessary degree. In this he showed the characteristic of the Breese family of at least this branch, which had often before and often since interfered with friendly intercourse and has served as a stumbling block to what might otherwise have been turned to better advantage.
For some time he had been casting eyes over the line of his father's property into that of his neighbor, who happened to possess a bevy of charming daughters. There was one among them who was tall and strong, not quite so pretty as her sisters, but in general a very fine girl with a health marvelous to behold. She was born in Ohio and had both Scotch-Irish and German blood in her veins. She had come to the crossroads with her family when a child of eleven years and had grown into blooming womanhood by the side of this young man during the years that his father had been occupied in founding his new home. Her name was Rebecca. She was active and lithe and filled with a healthy ambition and was always occupied doing her share of the big work of the far. She had sat at her mother's know when only old enough to hold the needle and had learned to help in the manufacture of snowy linen shirts of which great quantities were needed for her father and numerous brothers. "Take up two threads, fount four; take up two again, count four." Thus she gather the sleeve. What precision! Where can we find it today?
She sang in church on Sundays (for the church had been erected near Phebe's grave), by the side of her mother. Both had pretty voices and she had been, strange to say, baptized over and over again at the edge of rivers in the primitive forests of her early home. She had received a pious training and had seen her mother read and heard her expound the teachings of the Bible from beginning to end, each year. We think, perhaps, she had too much of the Bible at a time when she was too young to comprehend it. That for this reason she, in later years, gave up many of its precepts and allowed her own children to choose the right and wrong for themselves.
One of her daily tasks was to keep in order the sleeping rooms of her home, which was the little inn we have mentioned and she did this to the entire satisfaction of the rare travelers who stayed there sometimes overnight.
One morning as she entered the state chamber, if we may term it so, she found in it a strange gentleman. A very strange gentleman for her indeed, for he spoke little English and was in fact a Spaniard. He was sitting near the window before a table. He watched her dexterous fingers, as she dusted the few articles, for some time and attempted to engage her in conversation but with little success since they spoke not in the same tongue. Suddenly, as if undisturbed by her presence, the stranger pulled from his belt a buckskin bag and emptied its contents, with a sly look at her, onto the table. Rebecca stood amazed, a mass of gold pieces dazzled her eyes. She ceased her occupation and drew near. The Spaniard began to lay the pieces in piles, counting in his native language, as he went. "Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis, siete, ocho, nueve, diez." Always up to ten. Each piece was a Spanish doubloon, and when finished he had the equivalent of nine hundred dollars.
Rebecca was fascinated and could not take her eyes from the shining gold. The old man laughingly packed them away back into the wallet and into his belt. But Rebecca had learned something during this little scene which she remembered for the rest of her life-it was to count in Spanish up to ten. Though she never knew another word of Spanish and scarcely another word of any language but her own, she was known at the age of eighty to repeat perfectly in that tongue the numbers one to ten, for the amusement of her grandchildren.
She went down to her mother and told what she had seen and the incident caused much talk among the neighbors, although it was a common event for men to carry their fortunes with them. Banks and clearing houses in those wild times did not appeal to the public and transactions were generally made in cash.
In a day or so the gentleman left and was almost forgotten as time passed by until rumors reached them that somewhere, somehow a great robbery had been committed and that a certain Spaniard was implicated and had, on his deathbed, confessed to having received part of the loot and, in order to conceal it and await safer times, had buried it on the crossroads from Chicago to Galena on a farm belonging to a family, Breese by name. He had chosen a place along the fence on the inside of the field near a certain post, about twenty rods from the corner, and had marked the post, cutting three notches. This aroused great excitement and the interested parties arrived in due time and prepared to inspect the designated spot, that they might recover their belongings. Unfortunately for them, however, no digging or delving ever brought to light the wallet nor the gold, and after weakening every post on poor Bailey's holdings they went away much dejected. Then the village folk tried a hand at a possible chance of discovery, all to no purpose, but there wasn't a post within a radius of ten miles which was not uprooted in the hope of enriching the searcher. So the Spaniard and his nine hundred dollars became a myth and a joke and was thought of no more.
Though women did not work in the fields at the crossroads as a general rule, they sometimes were found raking the hay when the men were behind with the work and bad weather was threatening. This gave James Harris an opportunity to converse with Rebecca over the rustic fence which divided them. He was very much taken with her figure and the strength with which she wielded the rake. A something came over hi, which well in keeping with his reticent character, he did not stop to define, but went to his couch at night with her name on his lips, and while he took council with no one, not even with himself, he knew he had love for her in his heart, and that he could win her.
As a consequence of these meetings the day arrived when a little wedding was celebrated at the cottage on the corner and thus the line in John-Dorothy, Stephen-Nancy, Bailey-Phebe, was begun in the name of James Harris-Rebecca.· A little house and a piece of ground was given the young couple by the kind old fathers and a new farmer and his family came into being.
Now it was becoming clear to all that while farming in these pioneer regions was, in a way, lucrative, there was not much in it outside of one's daily needs. There was food in abundance and much to spare, for the land was lavishly productive. There were clothes enough for their modest wants and plenty of wood for winter fires. But, money was scarce, leaving no chance for branching out. It is to be regretted that cash is to be accumulated only where cash is found and that it is in moneyed centers, certainly not out on the lonely prairies and rolling hills. If a farmer today leaves to his heirs and the modest sum of thirty thousand dollars, he is called very successful indeed. Divided among eight or ten children, it is readily seen that it brings no riches in our modern sense of the word. The man on the frontier those days who really did amass a fortune was not the landowner, at least not so in the beginning though later he owned nearly all of it. He was something else and he was here among them, ostensible to lend them, as it were, a helping hand over bad years and poor crops. He always had a little money which he was willing for very good security to give out at a rate of interest, which at the time was prohibitive, to the supposed lucky ones who had his favor and were momentarily in sore distress. But, woe to the borrower on pay day, if by chance he was not ready with his cash! No delay was allowed, no entreaties were heard, no quarter whatever was given. This was the very moment the sly old fax was waiting for the he waxed rich at the expense of these struggling debtors; lived in the finest house in town and always got more for his money than anyone else. Commanded the utmost respect as moneyed men do all times and in all places.
Our young couple experienced in their turn the fangs of these sharpers when they were bold enough to accept a moderately small sum. They found that after paying in interest the amount twice over, they still had the original debt to discharge, which cost them a great effort.
Hence, for Harris and Rebecca, the prospects were not bright. Their house was poo9rly built and contained only meagre appointments. Chills and fever from the freshly turned earth made no exception of them.
Crops were as often bad as good and the winters were so long and so intensely cold. Among other annoyances, for a long time there was a pest of rats which swarmed about the corn cribs, roamed fearlessly around in the day time and disturbed the sleepers at night. Nothing daunted, however; these children of nature went daily about their tasks and kept up a hope for the future that strengthened their hearts and helped them to live down and ignore what time only would change. We, to whom their lives lie open as a book, from beginning to end, shudder at the privations they had to endure. Yet, with all, our lives are filled with perplexity in other fields as theirs were and we, too, are sustained by hope, that great attribute which pilots us over the sticks and stones that strew the paths of everyone.
Rebecca was always very much attached to the house of her elders and she always found time to run to her mother for a chat or an advice or a comfort of some sort. She used, in the afternoons of summer days, to lay her first-born on the bed to sleep, then open the windows wide and leave him for a half hour to visit with her mother. She knew he was safe, for nothing happed in this little corner of the earth which was not under the eye of every inhabitant. The work of these people was done in a sort of concert fashion. They helped each other and bore little ill-will, so why should not a baby lie in peace alone in a farm house: Fear and danger, accompanied by bolted doors, come when inequality grinds half the world down to make soft places for a part of the people who attempt to construct an isolated existence of their own.
As the old money lender passed up the street, if street it could be called with its few straggling houses, he spied Rebecca in her mother's garden and called out to her in a bantering tone, "Becky, I just saw a little curly-headed boy asleep on your bed! I'm going to steal hi, one of these days!" Becky laughed, she knew he was only joking.
Suddenly, something happened to the people at the crossroads. Something so important that it not only stirred them to their depths, but sent a thrill through every man, woman and child of the whole country. Even the outside world became violently agitated. Gold had been discovered in California in 1849! Here were riches indeed to be had by crossing the continent. No Paltry sum of Spanish doubloons supposed to be rotting in a leather wallet near a post with three notches. That was a hoax anyway, but in California gold lay buried in earnest among the rocks, for the man with a pick-axe over his shoulder and the courage in his make-up, to dig it out.
Men began to have the wildest dreams of shoveling up the precious metal in incalculable amounts, as if only they could contrive to get to the spot. Young people, full of life and eagerness, were in fever of suspense and the old ones who could no longer hope to brave the hardships of such an undertaking, urged them on.
James Harris was caught up in the whirlwind of emotion and rushed over to his father to discuss ways and means. What should he do? With a wife and two children already, and a farm that could hardly be left indefinitely, he was not free to make the venture which promised so much. Bailey, far too old now to think of going himself, but enthused like all the rest, would see no obstacle. He said to his son, "Harris, this the opportunity of your life! To let it slip would not only be stupid, but doing your family a great wrong. We'll look after Becky and the children. She can come to us or go to her own people while you are 'striking it rich'. Close up the old farm, which isn't bringing in any money anyway, it can stand idle. Settle out there and send for your family and turn your back on this hand-to-mouth existence. Rich, black Illinois earth is all right as far as it goes, but you go after something infinitely richer and that is California gold. What was farming anyway? Drudgery, that's all."
This is how the air was charged with expectations when a little party was finally organized for the long and tedious voyage. There would be rivers to ford, mountains to climb, deserts to traverse and last but not least, the wily Indian to fight, and danger hemmed them in on all sides. Just how many went from the crossroads we have been unable to find out, but Harris was one and a sister of Rebecca one, also five brothers of hers and many others. They would go in colonies, link up with other caravans as they met. They would camp at night with their guns under their heads and their pistols in their belts and they would sleep in a sort of corral, with the horses and wagons forming a circle on the outside.
Some of them would watch for the dangerous savage during the long hours of darkness and they would take turns at it. Never mind the difficulties; gold would be their reward. No more ploughing and sowing and harvesting, watching for rain when it's needed and does not come, going through the lean years with next to nothing, always depending upon the weather, which was so undependable, and over which there was no control. What nonsense to stop at home in want, when riches lay waiting at the other end in such abundance.
The morning of departure arrived and the whole village turned out for the event. There was, however, one man who stood on the corner apparently unconcerned, who had no intention of going so far in search of what he found within easy reach. "Good-bye, old money-lender!" rang out from the covered wagon. "Come out west, we'll lend you all the money you want at 12%!" He took off his hat and made a polite bow, stuck his tongue into his cheek and went home to eat white bread dipped in stewed tomatoes, and to nap away the afternoon hours with no worry for the future upon his mind.
Now that Paw-Paw was not behind in this great adventure, things began to settle down again. Life went on as usual. There was no use looking for early tidings of the travelers, because no one was coming back. All were bound for one direction. Letters were rare, anyway, and the people were satisfied without immediate news since they knew their loved ones were on the road to fortune. That thought was enough and their curiosity was never piqued as our is by the telegraph and the wireless of today.
The spring winds blew and the hot summer days ripened the corn; autumn and winter came and went and Rebecca, with one letter from her husband in which his early enthusiasm was entirely absent, had now been without him for two years. She got on as best she could, always awaiting glad tidings which failed to come. Little by little her high hopes were dashed to the ground. She saw, to her disappointment, that Harris was not a frontier man in the real sense of the word. He was not ready nor prepared to cope with the hardships necessary to win success. Added to this, he had his mother's longing for home. He could not brook adversity long enough to complete the undertaking and the sight of the wild life out there, where everybody carried knives in their belts and boots, and made their own laws, turned him sick at heart.
So he set out for home. An opportunity was offered hi, to return by water down the west coast to Panama and he was not slow in seizing this chance which would bring him back to the good old crossroads, with wife and children awaiting him. Others might stick it out, he would not.
A Sixty-ton schooner took him down the coast and after twenty-eight days, he landed at a place called Realjo, on the Pacific side, eighty miles from Lake Nicaragua in Central America. Here he and his party took horses to ride to the Lake. At the end of the first day on horseback, they reached Leon which is the capital of Nicaragua, and which Harris later described as a town of about fifteen hundred inhabitants. He said he found it a dilapidated old place with moss growing on the north side of the walls of the houses, which were built of adobe. From here, he said, they crossed the mounts to Granada, which is at the head of the lake. That at Granada they were obliged to remain six weeks before an eight ton schooner came up the river. This they boarded and crossed the lake. From here they descended the river in canoes for ninety miles, connecting finally with a steamer bound for Havana. After coaling there, they set sail for New Orleans and then took the Mississippi River boat for St. Louis, from which point they set out across the state, reaching home on the second of January, 1851.
Thus in slow and not always easy stages he finally reached home, with none of his dreams realized and no richer than he was when he went away. It had been whispered to Rebecca that he was on his way, but she could not of course tell when he would arrive. She found him, at length, at an evening gathering which her friends had planned for her as a surprise, and while she was overjoyed at having him home again, safe and sound, she never quite forgave him for what she thought was lack of courage. A life with thieves, vagabonds and murders which her husband had to lead while away, she did not quite comprehend.
Such was the state of affairs after his long absence, when he and his wife proceeded to gather up the old threads where they had been so hastily dropped and to return to the old system which neither of them liked.
Copyright © 1999 by John Breese McKenzie. All rights reserved