University of Rochester Library Bulletin: A Century of Family History, the Breese-Stevens Papers

Volume XI · Autumn 1955 · Number 1
A Century of Family History: the Breese-Stevens Papers

The Library has been fortunate in receiving valuable gifts from Dr. Mary Holmes Stevens Hayes and the late Miss Caroline Harris Stevens. The first of these, presented in 1951, is the original manuscript of the "Journal" of Major John Burrowes in his expedition under General Sullivan against the Indians. Major Burrowes kept a record of his life in the army from August 23 to October 13, 1779. His account of these three months is vivid and descriptive. It reveals the destruction, brutality, and waste of war, as well as the enervating boredom, the monotony, and miserable discomfort.

Major General Sullivan had been ordered to lay waste the Indian country and rout the Loyalists and Indians. The march through the Finger Lakes region of New York left the land ravaged, burned, and desolate. An early entry in the "Journal" shows Burrowes' concern over inadequate supplies and his fear that the march might not be completed before the cold weather set in.

Wednesday Tioga 25 Augt

Turn out this morning & get things ready to depart from this. the morning looks like rain, at 8 oclock it began to rain & continued the whole day, which puts a stop to our march this day.


Hurrying our march is highly necessary, and with all dispatch possible on several acco[un]ts. we have now but twenty seven days provisions for the army -- and have to march one hundred & twenty miles farther in an Enemy's Country -- horses growing poor as there is nothing but Indian grass and that very old. the season of the year is advancing when we should begin to think of Winter quarters -- as the men are poorly cloathed and not above one in twelve have a blanket and nights here are already very cool.

We leave at this place all the sick & a garrison of two hundred & fifty men -- with some pieces of artillary for the block houses--

The march continued over difficult terrain, through narrow mountain passes, swamps, and across rivers.

27 Augt 1779 Friday

. . . . the Country Continues Mountanious. & the road very Disagreeable. the sight of Carriges in this part of the world is very odd as there is nothing but a foot path--we get this night at a large flat three miles distance from Shemong where Corn grows, such as Cant be eaqual'd in Jersey. the field Contains about one hundred acres -- beans, Cucumbers, Simblens, [i.e. simnel or squash] Watermillions, & Punckens [pumpkins] in such quantities (were it represented in the manner that it should be) would be almost Incredible to a Civilized people--we set up untill between one and two oclock feasting on those rarities.

Shemong 28th Augt 1779

The army dont move untill two oclock this afternoon, the Detention was occationed by the Badness of the Defile we cross'd the day before. Genl Clinton with his Brigade, Pack horses & Cattle. could not pass it untill this morning, we arrive at this place at sunsett. the pack horses being in the rear made it after dark before we get our tents pitch'd. the badness of two Defiles, we had to cross took us the whole afternoon to get three miles. we cross'd the Cayuga twice. the river had risen three feet & the rapid Very strong. it swep[t] a Number of our pack horses down the river. --


Directly after we crossed the Cayuga the second time Genl Hand sent Genl Sulivan word there were a party of Indians coming down the mountain Just by us. the men was Immediately paraded. & in readiness to give them a reception. but soon after we found it to be Genl. Clinton's advanced Gaurd--

 The biggest encounter of the march took place on a Sunday.


Middletown 29 Augt Sunday

The guns was fired for their usual signals. the army marched at half after 10 oclock. we had marched about three and a half miles when we heard some fireing in front and soon was Informed that Coll Butler who Commanded the advanced gaurd had received some shott from a party of Indians who soon as gave the fire ran with a View of drawing our men after them in their works. when the advanced gaurd had march'd a half mile farther they were met (near a very bad pass) by a Number of Indians thought to be between two & three hundred. they also gave a few fires and ran. our men persued untill they got over the defile when they perceived their works. they halted and some of the rifflemen got behind trees where they fired in their lines, which was returtn'd, after their fireing at each other for some time a few single shots, the rear of the army had got up.

Genl Poor & Genl. Clinton were sent of[f] to gain their left flank, which was very dificult as their lines were a half a mile long, their right secured by the river & their left by a very high mountain which Genl Poor & Clinton had to go over.--after they had march'd some time Col.l Proctor was sent with three pieces of artilary in front to amuse them while we were gaining their left. their  centry, on the mountain dis[c]over'd our troops trying to get round them. they Immediately gave their whoop for signal--the body Instantly left their lines. they retreated to the mountain where our troops fell in with them and gave them a fire, and ran up. it was return'd from them & they ran & our men persu'd. we killed & scalpt took one tory prisoner, the army march'd on untill we arrive at the town about a mile and a half within their works where we encamp. and Genl. Poor & Clinton join & take their posts and encamp also... they [the Indians] were much terrified at our artilary and hasten'd their retreat greatly.

The army continued its march, devastating the countryside as it advanced, and plundering the forsaken Indian villages.

31st Augt 1779 Tuesday

Our march Commences this morning at 11 oclock and Continues untill sunsett. . . . Burnt all the houses on our road. Newtown shar'd the same fate. Coll. l Daytons Regt was sent farther up the Cayuga & on his way Destroy'd some large fields of corn & Burnt a Number of houses..


The country mountanious makes our marches very tiresome. the men find a deal of plunder of different kinds at every town or settlement we come to, all of which the Indians had taken from the Inhabitants on our Frontier. The savage Villans continue flying before us and Generally leave their towns a few hours before we enter them.

However "savage" these Indians may have been, theirs was the bitter task of leaving their neat homes, the soil they had cultivated, their cattle and horses to the mercy of the ravaging army. The women gathered the children about them as they all fled for their lives. A pitiful but hopeless attempt of the women to retain their homes amid the disorder and terror is described.

French Catherines 2 Septr 1779 Thursday

One of the soldiers found at this place this morning an old Squa. in a bunch of bushes. she not being able to go of[f] with them was hid there to be safe. she is the greatest picture of old age I ever see. the General sent for her. she was carried to his Marque the poor old Creature was Just ready to die with fear thinking she was to be killed, she Inform'd the General that there was a great debate between the warriors, their Squas & children. the Squas had a mind to stay at home with their children. it was carried to such a length that the warriors were oblig'd to threaten to Scalp them if they did not go. they sent them of[f] about the middle of the afternoon the warriors Stay'd till sunsett the evening we got in. This place gets its name from a french woman that married an Indian and settled the place She also flew with her children. she has two very handsome daughters.

The "Journal" continues the story of the relentless march. There were many villages to burn. Sometimes a stray child would be found and taken care of. Both sides were guilty of terrible atrocities. Burrowes tells of finding the bodies of an officer and one of his men in a condition "too terrible to describe," which indeed it was, although he goes into great detail. Finally the expedition was considered finished and the men were ordered to ready themselves for the return march to Tioga. Any details of destruction that had been omitted the first time they went through were attended to on the return journey. The "Journal" ends abruptly with a brief entry dated October 13, 1779, from Sunbury, in which Burrowes describes the town.

There is such a wealth of detail crammed into the short "Journal" that it is possible to touch only lightly upon a few of the many interesting entries. It is written with such direct simplicity and naturalness that one achieves a sense of immediacy. Without sentiment or emotionalism the account presents scenes of horror, describes the complete exhaustion of the men, and the suffering of the soldiers and innocent civilians. Perhaps the answer to the timeless question lies in Burrowes entry for September 1, 1779:

We never had so bad a days march since we set off, but what will not men go through who are determined to be free.

More recently Dr. Hayes has given us a collection of papers which relate to the activities of the family for a period of well over a century. The earliest of the manuscripts is dated 1718 and the latest 1888. They fill seven manuscript boxes and include, beside family and business correspondence, many legal documents, business papers, and records of real-estate transactions.

It was after the death of Major Burrowes that his daughter, Helen, married Samuel Sidney Breese at Aurora in 1801. Breese was a lawyer and a colleague of Aaron Burr. Together they settled the estate of Breese's father after he died. Helen and Samuel Sidney Breese finally settled in Sconondoa in Oneida County and reared five children:  Samuel, Sidney J., Margaret, Elizabeth, and Catherine N. Elizabeth made a copy of her grandfather Burrowes' "Journal" with slight changes in grammar and punctuation. It was not her copy, however, but the original manuscript that was presented to the Library. Elizabeth Breese married Augustus Stevens and had four children. The collection consists mainly of letters which various members of the Breese and Stevens families wrote to each other.

There is, however, a small group of letters and a document written by Aaron Burr concerning an incident which illustrates the accuracy of his reputation for being "more remarkable for dexterity than sound judgment or logic." His larger schemes and unsound ventures are amply covered in histories. A less significant, but extremely interesting example of Burr's shortsightedness is pointedly illustrated by these papers. Burr's mistaken judgment, in retrospect, appears humorous though ironic.

In 1793 Burr was serving his term as United States senator. Several years previous to this he had had a brilliant and lucrative law practice in New York. Governor Clinton had appointed him attorney general in 1789, and in 1791 he entered the U. S. Senate. Despite his preoccupation with politics, he found time to dabble in real-estate speculation. His income from these sources was large, but he loved to live lavishly, and in July of 1793 he was hard pressed to meet financial obligations brought on by a lawsuit against him. Consequently, he wrote to his own attorney, Samuel Sidney Breese, advising him to sell some of his real estate. Of all the pieces of property he owned, Burr now decided to get rid of what would prove to be the most valuable piece of property he would ever own. The following letter to Samuel Sidney Breese was written and signed by Aaron Burr and is trenchant evidence of his lack of vision.

N York 8 July 1793

Dear Sir,

A suit has been brought by the Executors of Elizth Livingston ag.t me as Exr of Mr. Bayard upon a sealed note executed by him, -- In order to meet this and some other Demands I think it would be best to sell the Real Estate in this City, particularly the Lotts in Broadway & Smith Street -- they would now sell well and are not in situations which promise a great Increase in value -- Indeed without any view to the Payment of Debts, I think it would be benef[ic]ial to the Estate to dispose of them. The Interest of the purchase money will undoubtedly far exceed any rent which may be expected -- If you should concur with me in this Opinion, be pleased to specify it by a Line --

I am Dr Sir
Very respectfully

S.  Breese Esq

The sale of the property was to be held at public auction. Burr was notified by a letter from his attorney, and he replied, giving his approval.

5 Jan 95

Dear Sir,

I have this morning the pleasure to receive your letter of the 3 inst.
The proposed sale of the Broadway Lot at auction, meets my entire approbation. I thank you for the notice you have given me of this intention,  and am respectfully


Your friend & Obt st


The details of the matter were yet to be arranged. In a postscript of a letter to Breese, Burr wrote:

You have mentioned the time of sale of the b.dWay lot, but not the Terms of pay.t from which I presume that the whole Cash will be expected --

No doubt, Burr felt he was concluding a judicious piece of business.

Several years later Burr evidently acquired some land in Manhattan and again decided to sell. His opinion regarding its future value had not changed. The Library has the actual contract that was drawn up by Burr and Johannes Marston to whom he sold the land.

…Johannes Marston shall and will pay or cause to be paid unto the said Aaron Burr, his executors, administrators or assigns the sum of one hundred & seventy five dollars in one year and a half from the date hereof with interest And the said Aaron Burr, by Samuel Sidney Breese his attorney, duly appointed…shall and will seal and deliver to the said Johannes Marston, his heirs or assigns, a good and lawful executors DEED, for all that equal undivided eighth part or proportion of a certain tract of land situate in the town of Manhattan of which said lot of land is lot Number forty-five in the first division of the Minisink patent -- and the said Aaron Burr further agrees that he will allow five dollars towards the expense of surveying the said lots…

Were the shade of Aaron Burr to walk the streets of Manhattan in 1955, he would probably beat his ghostly breast in remorse. No doubt the recollection of his glib disposal of his Manhattan property still haunts him.

A large, closely knit family, such as the Breese family, engenders much letter writing. Out of the many personal and homely letters emerges a picture of an American family against a nineteenth-century background. Though the letters are noteworthy for their purely human interest, they contain much material of value to the social historian. Customs, mores, incidents revealing day-to-day life provide an illuminating contrast to the temper of our own age. The wild stagecoach ride about to be described was taken from a letter written by Breese J. Stevens to Elizabeth Stevens. He had taken the stagecoach from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, to Sheboygan, a distance of forty miles, when the event occurred.

Madison Wis. Jany 14th, 1866

My dear good mother:

…Mr. Ryan Mr. Gillet & I took the stage at Fond Du Lac at five o'clock in the morning…We were tightly fastened in. It was two or three hours before day and the weather cold. The roads were very rough except where the wheels had worn out the ruts. At the first mail station the driver got down from his seat & carried the mail into the station house. While our coach was waiting, the coach behind passed ours. A few minutes later our coach started, but Without a driver. We soon ascertained though at first did not know that the horses were running away. On one side the curtain was partly loose. Out of that Mr. Gillet in an effort to reach the lines fell. I could not unfasten the curtain on my side, nor kick it through. It was suffocatingly close inside. On the side where the curtain was partly loose we could see by the moonlight tree stumps stones & trees as we passed them or over them. Bouncing pitching rattling we flew along. At times close up to a stone wall, then along a rail fence, over boulders & frozen ground. We expected the coach in front would stop us -- but so great was the noise and the shaking we without knowing it, passed the other coach, turning it over, breaking one of its axles and carrying it to the front of the horses so that the turned over coach was fronting Fond Du Lac.--On we went down hills, over bridges, through ditches, between rocks & trees, so near as to scrape them, turning corners and escaping death fifty times, as in such a vehicle & on such roads a turnover was death. At last I climbed out under the loose curtain and over the wheel on to the box seized the reins & stopped the horses. We had gone one mile by actual measurement. Mr. Gillet fell upon the only clump of hazel brush we passed & was not hurt, nor were any of us…

The hazards of nineteenth-century travel are only one of the aspects of the time that is depicted. Although one realizes that the numerous services and conveniences taken for granted today were not readily available, if at all, one wonders how the difficulties, frustrations, and obstacles could so cheerfully be taken in stride by even the very young. In a letter from Sidney B. Roby, who was going to a "gymnasium" in Brockport, to his uncle is an example of that young man's philosophical acceptance of mishaps.

Feb. 7. 1844

Dear Uncle

…I should send you a Brockport Sentinal this week but an accident happened to the printers they went to move the press and it fell over some way and spilt all the letters in a heap so that I cannot send you a paper this week but I will try to next week…

Sidney Breese Roby also had his share of long rides by stagecoach. Returning to school at Brockport from Sconondoa was an exciting though exhausting experience for him. In a letter to his grandfather, Samuel Sidney Breese, he told of the trip.

Brockport Friday Dec 12th 45

Dear Dear Grand Father

I arrived here last evening about 6 oclock and should have writen, but I was very tired as I had to ride on the out side of the stage from Rochester because there were so many passengers. I got along very well in comeing, we got to Syracuse later than usual that evening because at Canastota or a mile or two beyond we met the Freight Train and so we had to go back to Canastota and wait there until the other train came along which belated us an half an hour. There we stoped and got something to eat, then we went on and got to Auburn about 1/2 Past 9 oclock, we had super and went to bed about 11 oclock, we had breakfast, and Paid one dollar for Super, breakfast, and loging. The next morning we took the cars for Rochester (when I say we, I mean all the Passengers for I went entirely alone this time.) I Had to pay full prise this time from Auburn but to Auburn I paid half price, They charged me 3.00 from there to Rochester. I took the stage to Clarkson, as the one to Brockport did not leave till morning. I paid my fare and took my plase on the inside, but they soon told me there were so many persons who had spoken before me, I told them that I would rather if I could ride with the driver, he soon came to me again and told me to set up on the stage I would not do that but stood on the side until we got out of the City I then got on behind with the baggage,…and then I began to think I had pretty bad luck, I got up from behind the stage then, and I soon had to set down again because he was going pretty fast and the wind cut like every thing, I then thought of the driver and those with him, who I saw with out any ear laps rubbing their ears and I thought I was not the worst off after all and I dreaded comeing here so much that I could stand it there very well. When I got to Clarkson I pulled off my boot and it took me about half an hour to warm my heel I then gave a man 2 shillings to fetch me here It is now 1/2 past 11 oclock, I must put this in the Office at one oclock…so that it shall go in this mail…Good bye Grand Father give my love to all the folks, and write as soon as you receive this for I shall be pretty home sick by Sunday

This is from your aff Boy

The life of a housewife from accounts in the letters appears busy and exhausting. The amount of work and the thoroughness of housecleaning is staggering. With all the modern appliances at her disposal the homemaker today would, nevertheless, be appalled at the task that faced Mrs. Stevens. In a letter written to her sister, Elizabeth describes the ritual of spring housecleaning.

Sconondoa April 7th /65

My own dear Sister,

Your welcome letter came to day & found me deep in the delightful job of house cleaning -- Helen and Mr Sanford left here Wednesday evening for New York to be gone a few days -- so Mrs Brown and I thought we would even take advantage of their absence and commence housecleaning--so as garrets & closets were done before we took hold of the bedrooms in front of the house & yesterday we clean'd all the bedrooms in front of the house & regulated all but the long room -- today we cleaned both Parlours & regulated them taking up all the heavy brussels carpets. I thought I must take them up and shake them well for fear of the moths -- the two halls upper & lower are yet to regulate -- tomorrow Mrs. Brown says we must take hold of the dining room & my bedroom then we have only the kitchen & entry and back bed rooms & cellar -- and then we shall be done. …I am so tired to night I can scarcely sit up -- so I am laying partly on the lounge and trying to write you

Yet without the routine of housework and chores, she would have been at a loss, for she concluded her letter by writing:

Were it not for work I should feel very lonely now, but work is a blessing in disguise -- we do not know how much good it does us.

It is interesting to note the reaction of the women to some of the inventions which had been made during the period. The sewing machine had been invented in 1846. By 1858 a few families possessed them. Evidently some friends of the Stevens' who lived in Syracuse were quite popular because of their sewing machine.

New York Sept 9th 1858

Dear Mrs. Stevens

Have you been to Syracuse to finish your work on the sewing machine Dont you think of that invention every time you sit down to sew a plain seam I am now finishing my garments commenced in Syracuse. We had a pleasant time did we not?

The Atlantic Cable had been laid in 1857 and through the year there had been a succession of failures and splicings. In August of 1858 President Buchanan and Queen Victoria exchanged greetings, but the cable failed because of too high voltage. In the same letter quoted above there is expressed a rather resigned sentiment for its future success.

…They had a great time here last week over the cable celebration. Sunday we were in church with Lord Napier and his sister Mr. Field and Peter Cooper  and strange to say they looked very much like other poor mortals. Every thing has subsided now except some fears that the cable may after all be a failure…

As most families were larger then, they formed a complete unit within themselves. The wide dispersion of interests and activities that beset today's family did not affect the nineteenth-century family. The close interdependence existing in the family group is apparent in the letters. Filial obedience was expected and received. Very noticeable is the great influence of the mother and the deep devotion which is either expressed or implicit in letters to her. When Helen Breese married and moved away she wrote the following letter:

Syracuse 1861

My own dear Mother

…You don't know how very lonely I was without you my dear darling mother--I do really think you ought to be with me. I told George when he married me he must marry two instead [of] one…

What George replied to that is not stated.

These few letters, quoted from the Breese-Stevens collection, can only suggest the wealth of intimate detail one can garner from reading them. Though they are sometimes amusing, often full of light chatter, they are always revealing and indicative of the changing panorama of American life.


Additional resources:

  • The register of the Breese-Stevens-Roby Family Papers