When I was a little girl, my
Grandfather (Adolph Meissner) told me that my great-great-grandfather was
Dr. William Brey, the son of a red-haired Irishman and an Indian squaw.
(Another family story says that she was one-quarter Indian.) Grandchildren,
aunts, uncles, and cousins have been intrigued by this story. Who were
William Brey’s parents, this ruddy Irish fellow and this Indian maiden?
Where did they come from?
descendants of William Brey, are beginning to find a few of the answers. The
story that is slowly emerging is a sad one — of American Indians at the
mercy of the White Man; of half-breeds scorned both by Indians and by
whites. Yet it is also a story of determination, and of the triumph of a
human spirit — the story of William’s half-breed mother. We, her
descendants, are testimony to her dreams.
most important source of information is William Brey’s family Bible, which
is now in the possession of Mrs. Perle Brey of Sparta, Wisconsin. The Bible
does not give the names of William’s parents , but from the list of his half
brothers and sisters — five children with four different surnames, born over
a period of 14 years — we can already deduce something of the life of
William Brey’s mother:
“Anthony Johnson, born
William Bray, born 1819,Towanda PA
Mary Ann Clark, born 1822
Elizabeth Clark, born 1823
John Robinson, born 1828”
William was born in Towanda PA: that was a clue worth pursuing. I found the
people of Towanda, even at the Historical Society, reluctant to talk about
the half-breed tribe that has lived for many years on the outskirts of their
town. But they didn’t mind directing me to a library in a town some miles
away, where I found a pamphlet describing the history of the tribe. [The
Pool Tribe of Bradford County, by George Lasco, 400 Main, Athens PA
These people, although despised by town
society, were themselves mostly descendants of two European aristocrats and
of several high-born women from the Mohawk Indian tribe. The pamphlet
confirms that among their Indian ancestors were some beautiful and
intelligent women, as well as a chief of the Mohawks.
The story begins in 1735.
Sir William Johnson, of the English gentry who had
settled in Ireland, was sent by his uncle to develop lands along the Mohawk
River in New York. There he made his home and established the town of
Johnstown. He began trading with the Mohawk Indians and became influential
and rich. Molly Brant, sister of Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant, became his wife
and bore him several children. He also brought to his estate many of the
young Mohawk women, who bore him altogether more than 100 children. Johnson
was firmly loyal to the English throne, which made him a thorn to the
settlers of the valley in those times just before the American Revolution.
He was rich, proud, antagonistic, and self-willed. Alas, he died in 1774 at
the age of 66 (?).
His son and heir, Sir John
Johnson, came to America, took over the estate, and expelled all of the
Indians. They did not return to the tribe; instead, they set up their own
camps on the rivers to the west and south.
look at a map of New York reveals several river valleys that link the Mohawk
river in New York with the Susquehanna farther south. Along these arteries
the outcasts made their way to Towanda, Pennsylvania. Molly Brant’s
beautiful daughter Elizabeth joined the others there, along with her
children and her Dutch husband Anthony Vanderpool who had been forced to
leave his aristocratic family when he married Elizabeth. Also joining the
colony were various frontiersmen with their Indian wives and children. These
became the “Pools,” a clan of half-breeds on the fringe of the town and of
A maid named Ellen was born into the
clan a few years before 1800. We can never be sure, but she was likely the
granddaughter of Sir William Johnson. (Intermarriage was common within the
clan, and they kept few records. But most of the older tribe members were
Sir William’s sons and daughters, so almost any child born into the tribe in
those years would have been his grandchild.)
first name on the list in the Brey family Bible is that of Anthony Johnson,
born in 1814. This name gives important evidence as to who the mother was.
Both Anthony and Johnson were names common among members of the tribe, and
not likely to be used by any of the local people who despised them. In the
1820 census record for Towanda PA we find Ellen Johnson with a six-year-old
son, an older daughter, and a younger son. Unfortunately, the children’s
names are not given in the census record, but without contradicting the
facts we can assume that the six year old was the Anthony of the Brey family
Bible, that the baby was William, and that the daughter died (or for some
other reason was forgotten) before the list in family Bible was recorded. On
this assumption, Ellen was still part of the tribe when Anthony was born,
and Anthony’s father was probably also a descendant of Sir William.
As to the first name of William’s father, I do not have a clue. The only
sure facts are that his last name was Bray and that he came from Ireland.
And, of course, that he had red hair — according to family tradition, at
least. William later changed the spelling of his last name from Bray to
William’s mother and father apparently
didn’t live together very long, and perhaps were never married. Ellen is not
listed as Bray in the 1820 census, only a year after William’s birth. Only
about three years after William’s birth, according to the family Bible, his
mother had a daughter named Mary Ann Clark. Mary Ann’s father was probably
Ebenezer Clark, the son of a local settler. She soon had another daughter,
Elizabeth Clark, and in 1828 a son named John Robinson, whose father was
probably George, an eccentric fellow. Since none of these are Pool clan
names, she must have left the clan permanently after William was born.
Census records seem to confirm that Ellen lived in the white community. She
raised her children and sent them to school along with the white settlers.
William moved to Illinois as a young man, and married
Samantha Andrus in 1842. He became a farmer, a Civil War veteran, a
doctor (in the 1800s sense of the word), and an amateur poet. Seven of his
12 children grew to adulthood.
Samantha was a
pioneer homemaker of excellence, and a great cook. She made straw hats, and
spun her own yarn from the wool of the sheep on their farm. She kept the
home, made the clothes, and raised the children, often in a log cabin. She
was the queen around whom the family swarmed.
proud to be a descendant of the red-haired Irishman, and of the Indian squaw
who had a dream for her children and who helped her son William move from a
despised clan into the mainstream of American life.
The Indian mother of a child with an Irish name like
William Bray, born in a frontier town, is sure to be a source of some
speculation. Who was William Bray’s mother - what was her name? Is she the
Ellen Robinson in the1830 and 1840 census records from Towanda PA? Can we
ever be sure? What is surprising is that we know as much about her as we do.
My grandfather told me that William’s father was a red-haired Irishman and
that his mother was an Indian squaw. These facts have not been substantiated
by birth and marriage certificates, which probably do not exist. But other
records do exist, including the Brey family Bible and census records from
Towanda, PA. In the 1830 census, William reported that his father was born
It appears that William’s mother was
herself a half-breed, born in a colony of mixed blood whose members were
unwelcome both in Indian society and in white society. From William’s
records we learn of her children. From what we now know of her history, we
see that she and her children managed, in the best way she knew, to break
out of the stigma, the poverty, and the hopelessness of belonging to a
Part of the story we seek
can be found in the history of the Mohawk River valley in New York, of the
Susquehanna river valley of Pennsylvania, and — in particular — of the town
of Towanda PA.
Before the American Revolution,
the entire Mohawk valley was forested. It was inhabited by Indians who
traveled on the rivers and hunted in the forests. The Mohawk tribe, part of
the Iroquois nation, was led by Chief Joseph Brant.
Among the early white settlers in the Mohawk River valley was
Johnson, a wealthy Irishman who was flamboyant, pushy, and indiscreet. He
settled near present day Johnstown, New York (about 30 miles west of
Albany), made friends with Chief Joseph Brant, and bought a large tract of
forest land from him. Sir William married the Chief’s sister, Molly Brant,
who bore him eight children. He also brought many other Indian women to his
plantation where they lived and bore him sons and daughters.
Unfortunately for his large family, when Sir William died (in 1774), his son
John came to America, took over the estate, and expelled all the Indian
women and their children. Molly Brant’s children went to Canada, according
to one source. She had a beautiful daughter, Elizabeth Johnson, who married
Anthony Vanderpool, son of a Dutch immigrant family of some influence. They
too were forced to leave his home settlement. The Mohawk women and their
children moved southward, and Vanderpool with his family joined them. They
became a large part of the clan that settled in Towanda PA.
Along the Susquehanna River in northern Pennsylvania is a region with high
bluffs west of the river. The Sugar River joins at this point, about 15
miles south of the New York border. Nestled under the bluffs and climbing
their lower slopes lies the town of Towanda. It was settled by early
pioneers and traders, and was a stopover for men coming northward up the
Susquehanna from Pennsylvania or westward from the Hudson River valley of
New York. This area is still forested, with trails running from village to
village and from farmstead to trading post. The trails are now paved roads
and the settlement is not as sparse as in the days after the Revolution. But
the area is still well off the beaten track, with kindly people busily and
quietly going about their daily lives.
remaining descendants of those early half-breeds still live in the lower end
of Towanda, on the flats along the river near the fork. They are separated
in culture and society from the rest of the city folk, who refer to them as
the Pools when they mention them at all. (Even in the Historical Society
library in Towanda, I was told that few Indians had ever lived in that area.
I was gently referred to another library several miles away, where I found
the story of the “Pools.” The name seems to be derived from Vanderpool. See
The Pool Tribe of Bradford County, by George Lasco, 400 Main, Athens
Nowadays, any member of the clan with
the least bit of ambition moves out and away from the settlement. Those who
remain usually intermarry, and are considered shiftless and of lower morals
and intelligence by the townspeople.
granddaughter (probably) of Sir William was Ellen, born a few years before
1800. She lived in Towanda for many years, and her name (Ellen Robinson, by
a later marriage) appears in several census lists beginning with 1820.
Although this may be hard to prove, she is the most likely candidate for the
role of William Brey’s mother. As a young girl, Ellen grew up with the clan,
with the women and their children, and with some wilderness men who lived
among them and had Indian wives. While she was with the clan, in 1814, she
had a son named Anthony Johnson. Then, in 1818, Ellen’s life made a sudden
Although we know very few of the
details, we can let imagination fill in. Up the Susquehanna River, on a raft
poled by strong young men, came a young Irish adventurer with a long mane of
red hair and a bushy red beard. He had fled Ireland and was on his way to
find a new life in the young West that was opening up between the Atlantic
coast land and the Mississippi river valley. His name was Bray. (The change
to Brey came later.)
How did they meet? Perhaps
Ellen was hanging around the trading post, hoping to attract a young
stranger. Or she may have been washing clothes or picking berries along the
river bank. Was she irresistibly beautiful, or did she only seem so to the
Irishman - lonely and perhaps a bit overcome by drink? Did he go home with
Ellen or she with him - or did they spend only one magic night together in
the forest, along the river, or in a local rooming house? Were they swept
off their feet with passion? Or did one or both sense an opportunity they
had been waiting for?
So much for imagination.
All we really know is that he was Irish and that his name was Bray. We don’t
even know his first name. We don’t know how much time Ellen spent with him,
but it was long enough for her to learn his name and to conceive a child,
Ellen never returned permanently to the
clan. By 1820, she was living in the white community. Within the next three
years she had two daughters named Mary Ann and Elizabeth Clark. Presumably
the father of these two girls was Ebenezer Clark, a local family member who
moved away after a few years. In 1828, Ellen bore a son named John Robinson,
whose father was George Robinson, a strange character who lived on the
fringe of the town. At the time of the 1830 census, George had a wife and a
house full of children. Later, Ellen lived with a daughter named Mary Jane
Robinson, and she may have had at least one more daughter by George.
I have found no actual proof that the Ellen Johnson (later Robinson) of the
Towanda census records was actually the wife of the red-haired Irishman and
the mother of William Brey. However, several of the names and dates in the
1820, 1830, and 1840 census records agree with those in the Brey family
Bible. The Bible lists William Bray as one of 5 children: Anthony Johnson
(b. 1814), William Bray (b. 1819, Towanda PA), Mary Ann Clark (b. 1822),
Elizabeth Clark (b. 1823, d. 1844), and John Robinson (b. 1828). It may be
noted that the names Anthony and Johnson were very common in the half-breed
Pool clan and would probably not have been used by anyone else in the
I believe that William and all of
his brothers and sisters went to local schools with the white settlers, but
that they also learned some of the Indian ways of their mother: the use of
herbs, the nearness of the spirit world, the love of nature, and — above all
— to be proud and to make the most they could of themselves in life.
By 1840, William and his brothers had left Towanda. We know almost nothing
further of the others. William later called himself a doctor. At some point,
he changed the spelling of his name from Bray to Brey. In 1842, William
married Samantha Andrus.