On William Gale Breene

What follows is unlikely to be of interest to anyone who isn’t at the very least a cousin of mine, and indeed might not be very fascinating in that case, either. 

This has nothing to do with Norfolk, nor is it a ghost story. It’s family history, and not very good family history at that, because it’s more about what I couldn’t find than what I could. To the extent it posits any conclusions, these are entirely speculative and quite possibly incorrect. 

I should add, in case it isn’t obvious, that I’m not an expert on Irish or US history, that this is a casual blog post rather than a substantial and serious piece of research, that I can and will alter it without notice or compunction if new facts come to light, and that while I’m hugely grateful for the generous help and advice I received in the course of putting this all together, the mistakes — and I’m sure there are plenty — remain entirely my own.

The only reason, then, that I’m posting any of this here at all is that, having done the research that underpins what I’ve written, it seemed a bit wasteful not to make this material available in the unlikely event that someone, somewhere, might perhaps be able to derive some benefit from it. 

Finally, I am aware that I have not supplied footnotes. In truth, I do have these, in a working draft, but it is so hard to make them work on WordPress that I gave up. If, for some reason, you’re desperate for a reference, track me down and I’ll do the best I can to help.

Finding William Gale Breene

This is the story of my thrice great grandfather, William Gale Breene (1820-1896).

William Gale Breene’s life was not, as far as I know, any more remarkable than most lives are. All the same, he preoccupies me. In part, this is because he’s a problem for my sporadic attempts at cultivating a family tree. 

On more or less every other side of the family, I can trace my origins back into the early eighteenth century — and in many cases, far earlier than that. But with William Gale Breene, the trail stops dead. I have no idea who his parents were. I don’t even know the name of the town or village where his story started. And yet this was a man who was alive within the lifetimes of two of my own grandparents. He’s not some creature of the distant, mythic past — the world in which he died, at least, was not entirely unlike the one into which I was born. There is so much I cannot discover about him. Yet at the same time, there are points at which his life may well parallel my own. 

Anyway, this is my attempt to tell his story, in which there will be more silences than declarations, several strange digressions, many halting suggestions and few definitive answers.

Making a start

Where do we begin? The first piece of evidence that establishes the existence of William Gale Breene is a slightly unexpected one. In 1845, the American Colonisation Society, reporting on progress made on the purchase of land in Liberia, announced that between 22 October and 31 December 1844, they had received a donation from one W.G. Breene of Dayton Ohio to the value of 50 cents. The movement to send free black Americans to Liberia was opposed by abolitionists, by many black Americans, and even at the time was criticised as being possibly fraudulent, probably racist, and certainly supportive of slavery as an institution. By the 1840s it would have been obvious to most that the effect of supporting ‘repatriation’, as it was called, was anti-abolitionist — clearly so in a politically polarised state such as Ohio. So here we find William Gale Breene spending fifty cents on nailing his political colours firmly to a particularly discreditable mast.

More benign is the next record. Five years later, on 3 September 1849, two children were baptised at the Third Street Presbyterian Church in Dayton, Ohio: William Henry Breene and Martha Jane Breene. Martha Jane, known as Jennie, was to become my twice-great grandmother. The children’s parents were listed as W. G. and Margaret Breene. Their older sibling, Francis M. Breene, had been laid to rest at the Woodland Cemetery in Dayton on 20 April 1847, at the age of only three years. 

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