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A History of the Breese Family

A Pastorale by Kathryn Grace Breese

Chapter IV

An Indian Tale

Again the years rolled on. Now indeed there was work for Stephen. The ever increasing wants of his family held him to his task early and late and his only helper was the one son. The girls could cook and wash, spin the flax and weave the wool, milk the cows and make the butter, but the plowing and the seed sowing and the harvest gathering surely this was no work for women's hands.

Among the sprinkling of slaves in the vicinity, none is mentioned in the Brees family and as no serving class was at hand there, we are amazed how they managed. We think, too, for this reason things did not prosper, that the farm deteriorated and that early hopes and expectations were further away than ever from realization.

Old John had long ago outlived his working days. His fire of ambition was burnt out. We should like to observe here that it is a regrettable fact in life that it is not always the hardest worker who is rewarded in the end. Fickle fortune is often apt to bestow her greatest treasures upon some who make no effort to succeed. And it is almost without exception that we find in examining the ways and means of those who have "arrived", as the French saying goes, that they have never lacked the right help at the right moment, which lifted them out of obscurity in spite of the talents they undoubtedly possessed. This man who was old now must have sat quietly at the corner of the chimney, many an evening, watching the dying embers of the big log fire, dreaming of the past and reflecting upon lost opportunities; talking of the good old days, as people well along in life always do, wondering how things were going on in Salop county, Wales; and remembering with indignation the time he sailed away from that then famous seaport Bristol, how he found men on board who had been kidnapped by greedy merchants, going out to the colonies against their will because they had been sold to enrich the pockets of the unscrupulous. He knew abut that dishonorable trade which the men of Bristol carried on then to their great advantage, and it must have been a source of satisfaction to him to know that this new country was at last free, and he no doubt was a great advocate of Washington's policy against foreign entanglements. He had lived too close to the old political machine and feared it. In his day there would have been no stampeding of free America into any foreign war. That would only be accomplished after he was long forgotten and the isolation of his descendants into the fifth generation so complete, that none of them know what it really meant.

Dorothy now sat with him and with trembling fingers knitted the stockings for the children. Perhaps the Bible lay open upon her knees and she read aloud to John through her spectacles. Nancy kept them company when she could, but her busy days left little time for idle moments.

Let us pause for a moment and look at her. Let us try to find out if possible just what king of a person she really was. But it must be with a lens that recedes rather than approaches, for our information in regard to her life is very meagre. We can see her only in the broader conception. Details must be dispensed with, but we are of the opinion that a study of her character can be made through those of her daughters, most of whom lived very long lives which reach up to a time where we can look back and almost touch upon.

Nancy, the very name suggests mirth and gaiety. She was little (none of her children having been tall) and jolly and sprightly. Her generation was a new one that had emerged from the old order of things. She belonged to modern times. She was a real American. The old country had no influence upon her; she was thinking for herself. During the years she lived with her parents-in-law on the old farm, we think that while she respected their pious opinions she was rather inclined to take the church as only a part of her duty. She went to church when she had time. Anyway, during some of her life the parish was poor and upset and the church's chancel was vacant for a number of years. Old Dr. Kennedy who served the combined offices of vicar and indifferent physician had preached to them for thirty-six years, but he had died in 1787 and no one had been found to fill his place.

A curious circumstance about the pastors of those days is that they were obliged to take a course in medicine at the same time they were fitting themselves as ministers of the Gospel. They came out to the Colonies not alone to administer to the soul, but to cure the body where possible. Their knowledge in both senses was very mediocre and so their methods in both were weak. Their parish registers were generally as full of prescriptions of pills and medical advice as they were of church duties and were considered mostly as their own private property, often removed with them when they changed to other places. Dr. Kennedy left his when he died in Basking Ridge, but it was found in such disorder that the records are very obscure and little is to be gleaned from them, which is a matter of regret.

The minister who performed Nancy's marriage ceremony was a visiting one and came only from time to time. When Dr. Finley came in 1795 as a young man of twenty-four, filled with the earnestness of his calling, she liked him well enough without believing all he said. But when he founded, in a modest way, a school for boys, she sent her Bailey to him and what schooling he had, he received at the hands of this worthy gentleman who had it in his heart to make good men of his pupils. He is known to have said at this time, when parish duties weighed heavily upon him and his friends thought he should take up no extra work, "it will prove no waste of time or strength, if these boys make the sort of men that, by God's grace, I mean they shall." It was, in the end, a good work that he undertook, for some eminent men emerged later from it and the community was very thankful to him for it.

But to return to Nancy. She was always busy with her boy and her girls and her babies. Still she found time to devote to her husband's parents. As if this were not enough there was also another who occupied some of her thoughts and demanded some of her attention. It was her own grandmother, Ann Lewis. She was very aged at this period and was destined to outlive the century and die at 103 years. All these things kept this energetic woman infinitely occupied, which taxed her strength to the utmost. She seems, nevertheless, to have been happy and her thousand and one tasks were disposed of by a constant application which she thought down in her heart was as good as praying. Yet, she had a sorrow during this period, which lasted five years. It was this:

She had a cousin, Mary Lewis, of whom she was very fond. The two girls had grown up side by side, had played and planned and dreamed together, Mary, a child of Zepaniah Lewis and Ann Doty, was born in 1763, and Nancy, daughter of Platt Bayles and Phebe Lewis, was born in 1764. These little girls were inseparable friends and they had married not far apart, through Mary married first.

It seems ridiculous these days to record seriously the marriage of a girl of fifteen, but a hundred and fifty years ago this was not unusual. Mary actually did marry at that age, a young man of the name of Joseph Kinnan. He was the age of our Stephen, born and brought up with him. Was, no doubt, his friend, for they served in the army together.

When Mary and Nancy were accomplished women and mothers of growing families, the same spirit of adventure which touched them all from time to time, took strong hold of Joseph Kinnan. New lands, new home, new surroundings; these were the burdens of his song. So, he and his family departed, to be seen no more among the friends of their childhood. Swallowed up, as it were, in the vastnesses of this insatiable land.

It was somewhere in Virginia, only a year later, that a tragedy befell them. On a fine summer day as the evening was closing in, they were attacked in their own home by the ever-pending danger-the savage red man. There was no escape and no chance to put up a fight, for in the twinkling of an eye Mary saw her husband shot down and killed. She say one of her curly-headed boys killed and scalped. In desperation she seized one of her smaller children and reached for a gun near at hand and so rushed out into the open. She tossed the baby lightly over a rude fence into some bushes and entreated it to remain quietly in hiding, but the child was too young to understand the danger and immediately joined her, in its frightened state. At this moment the savages came out of the house in pursuit of her and the other men in the family having disappeared, the horror-stricken woman stood face to face with them alone. One of them approached her with diabolical cunning in his eye, when with a sort of superhuman strength and as a last resort, she raised the butt end of the gun over her head and with one stroke felled the monster at her feet. The others seemed struck with admiration at the courage of this lone woman and as time always pressed in these murderous sallies, they held a hurried parley among themselves and decided to abduct her, take her with them into captivity and make her a white squaw. What became of the child at this moment is not quite clear, but the mother disappeared into the forest to be seen no more for many a long day.

Her brother, who happened to be with them at this time and who had escaped the onslaught, returned to the house when all was quiet to behold in the calm of the summer evening, death and destruction and the loss of his sister. Sick at heart and disgusted beyond words at this hopeless state of affairs and stung to the quick at the thought of not having stood by his sister, come what may, he turned his back on the place and wandered home in the hope of obtaining the help of someone who would return with him again, if only for the sake of the harvest which would be a total loss if unattended in the approaching months. But he found, after relating this harrowing experience, no one willing to take the risk and he was obliged to retrace his steps and finally reached the hated spot alone. He wound up his dead brother-in-law's affairs and found himself in a few short months again among the scenes of his childhood. Much time was spent by the home people and anxious relatives in endeavoring to trace the unfortunate Mary and old John Brees, no doubt for Nancy's sake as well as his own, bent every effort in this direction, all to no purpose.

The cunning of the Indians in these matters always outwitted the whites and for five years nothing was ever heard of this poor soul. Nancy grieved with the others and her gentle heart went out to she motherless children who had been so suddenly bereft.

It was in 1795 that a letter came in a roundabout way to the Lewis family, in which it was stated that Mary Lewis Kinnan was a captive with a tribe of Delaware Indians somewhere in Michigan, not far from Detroit. The letter had been written by a trader who had come back from a post near that point, to Philadelphia; had died of yellow fever and his effects had been buried for fear of contagion. After a year they were unearthed and this letter had been found among them, so with this delay it finally had reached its destination. Jacob, the brother, had never ceased mourning and he hailed with delight the opportunity of extricating his sister, if possible. He started off on his journey determined to leave nothing undone which would liberate her. He succeeded and brought the fugitive home, but only after a year of careful planning and strategy. He had to work always under cover and through hidden channels for the slightest indication to the Indians that Mary's whereabouts were known would have sealed her fate. Yet, she finally returned and we can well imagine with what joy she was greeted.

She told them her story. She said that the night she had been taken she was compelled to go many miles on foot through the forest; that on the second day out she saw her captors partake of a cold roast chicken which was one she had prepared for her husband's evening meal; that they offered her none of it, although she was faint with hunger; that on the third day the Chief shot a wild turkey and that her portion was part of the intestines which he showed her how to fasten on a stick and cook before the fire. That they respected her and did not illtreat her (this seems to have been generally so among the white women spirited away in this fashion). That when she gave way to paroxysms of grief at her desolate plight, the Chief took from his belt the scalp of her child and waved the curls in front of her, not in derision but, as he imagined, as a comfort to her.

She related that after weeks they finally reached the Great Lakes and there they camped. That she did cooking and other home duties for them and learned, of necessity the Indian language.

She often saw white men there as traders, but she had no opportunity to speak to them, fearing consequences. At last one day she had managed to whisper her story to a trader who promised to help her and it was two years after this that she recognized her brother through the open door of the tent and knew that the honest man kept his word. That she had the presence of mind not to cry out, nor rush into Jacob's arms, but contented herself with saying in English "Lord, have mercy on my soul", that Jacob, recognizing her voice, understood, and passed on as if nothing had happened and she being occupied with some sewing, deliberately pricked her finger with the needle to account for her sudden outburst to those around her. She told in minute detail all of her daily duties, coupled with the endless longing she had for her old home and family.

She was always, after this, a sort of village wonder and she was made to rehearse her sufferings to such an extent that it finally wore upon her mind; made her act queer and look weird and talk incoherently, twisting and turning the tale 'til it got to more of a subject for jest than the sad reality it was.

She subsequently attained a great age, and in later years became silent when asked repeatedly by the young and the thoughtless to relate her life with the Indians. At such moments she would show signs of irritation and she slowly developed a kind of mania which gave her the feeling of pursuit and would back up instinctively to the first tree in sight, when accosted in the open. She was known to the younger generations as "old Aunt Polly Kinnan" and served as a butt for many a joke on their part.

Here we should like to insert a letter she dictated at the time of her captivity, for a double purpose, since having no writing of Nancy we like to fancy this as a specimen of what Nancy might have written, under similar circumstances and also show just how these people understood the art of correspondence.

Miamies River

29th July 1793


Dear Brother:

This is the only opportunity I have embraced since I have been taken by the savages, to acquaint you of my situation which be well assured is very miserable. However, I hope after you hear from me that your generosity will in some measure to relieve me from my present miserable situation.

I would have written you sooner but knowing of no safe opportunity til this present one, or you may depend I would have acquainted you of my case before now, which I hope you will take into consideration and feel for me which if you do depend shall always be remembered by me. If you undertake to come or send for me, which I sincerely wish you would, the way I advise you to take for your safety will be the route that commissioners from the States come, which comes through Genesee County to Niagara, and from thence you can come to Detroit with safety and enquire there of a Mr. Robert Abbott where you will get intelligence where I am.

I have another request of you, which is you was at the house where I was taken to endeavor to take my children in your care which I left behind as I am afraid they are left destitute, of the (not legible) which that and other things depress me very much.

In case you should mistrust that this letter is not from me or that perhaps my long absence from home should any way intice you to imagine that I am not your sister, I shall inform more clearly that I am the wife of Joseph Kinnan.

Dear brother, I would write you more full of the hardships I have undergone since I have been taken but my situation depresses me so much that I cannot explain myself in as satisfactory a manner as I could wish. I have been this long time expecting that peace would take place in expectation of getting home but the times are so precarious that I am quite discouraged.

You will observe that I have lived at Tigert Valley in Randolph County in Virginia. Therefore that I hope will convince fully who I am. I am in as good health as my situation can afford. Hoping you are so likewise which is the

Sincere wish of your

Loving sister

Mary Kinnan


Dear Brother, give my compliments to my father and mother and all the family.


Yours sincerely,
Mary Kinnan.
William Hinman's Hand,
Detroit, Michigan.

A sad appeal is this letter which reaches the point in a very roundabout way and we rejoice at this length of time that it was finally answered. In the last years of her life she was inscribed on the pension roll of New Jersey and a certificate for the same was granted her on February 21, 1838 for ninety dollars per annum to commence on the fourth of March 1831.

Arrears to the 4th Sept. 1837


Semi annual allowance to March 1838




She was then seventy-five years old and the money must have been welcome indeed. Mary Lewis outlived her cousin Nancy eight years and her grave stone bears this inscription:

In Memory of
Wife of
Joseph Kinnan
Who departed this life
March 13, 1848
In the 85th year of her age.

My Lord hath called and I obey

To meet and with Him dwell
The last and greatest debt I've paid

And bid this world farewell

Nothing glorious, nothing sublime in this indifferent tribute to an unknown and obscure life outside of this little community, but in these simple lines we find a pathos which touches a tender chord as we sum up the character of Nancy.

Mary lies under the old oak which had promised so much years and years ago and which had kept those promises so faithfully. Honest old oak! Thy steadfastness should serve as a lesson to wavering mankind. Thou hast played no favorites; thou hast borne no hatred. Thy very silence and strength stand as homage to that almighty force which we all never weary of seeking but which we fail so miserable in finding.

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