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The Breese Family

In New Jersey

1735 to 1814


" The Breese Family In New Jersey 1735-1814 A PASTORAL "Stop and Consider: llfe is but a day A fragile dewdrop on its perilous way."

 Chapter I.


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 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 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 unlimited possibilities.

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 acquaintance.

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 mind.

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 autumn.

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.


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