And The Risler School

First, Gen. Daniel Bray

I am not ready to write at length about Gen. Daniel Bray. But in order to write about his son Andrew, something must be said of the father.

Daniel Bray is one of the most famous residents of Hunterdon County, thanks to his participation in the marvelous escape of 1776, when Washington succeeded in getting what remained of his army across the Delaware River, and preventing the British army, hot on his heels, from following him into Pennsylvania. Daniel Bray was in charge of collecting the boats that were used to transport Washington’s army, and then of hiding them from the British.

After the war, Daniel Bray, like Cincinnatus, went back to being a Hunterdon County farmer, on his homestead farm in Kingwood Township. He and his wife Mary Wolverton already had four children by the end of the war. Afterwards they had ten more, Andrew Bray being the 7th out of 14 children. Only ten of the Bray children reached adulthood.

The Early Life of Andrew Bray

I have no evidence for this, but it is safe to assume that Andrew spent his youth working on his father’s farm, and attending the Baptist church, whose services alternated between Baptistown and Locktown. It was probably at church that Andrew met his future wife, Sarah, the daughter of Elisha Rittenhouse and Isabel Miller. Sarah was the fourth child of ten born to Elisha and Isabel Rittenhouse. She was born on May 14, 1796, when her parents were living on the mill property on Old Mill Road. Andrew and Sarah were married in the Baptist church on June 15, 1815, when Andrew was 25 and Sarah was 19.

The fact that Andrew and Sarah married after the end of the War of 1812 made me wonder whether Andrew Bray was a participant in that war, carrying on his father’s military legacy. But he is not listed in Stryker’s Records of Officers and Men of New Jersey in the Wars, 1791-1815, and there is no record that he applied for a pension. In fact, as far as I can tell, none of his brothers participated either. Perhaps the family was less than supportive of this controversial war.1

Andrew and Sarah Bray’s first child, Sylvanus Jackson Bray, was born on October 27, 1815, only four months after his parents’ wedding. The choice of name shows that the Brays were duly impressed by the victory of Gen. Andrew Jackson over the British at New Orleans. It would be interesting to know whether Andrew Bray sympathized with the Federalists who had opposed the war but then got swept up in the euphoria of Jackson’s victory. Sadly, Sylvanus Jackson Bray did not live beyond his 11th birthday; he died on February 16, 1827.

Daniel Bray died in 1819 at the age of 67. He had written his will in 1813, in which he ordered lands to be sold and the profits divided among his children, including son Andrew. By this time, Andrew Bray was probably living on the extensive property owned by his father-in-law, Elisha Rittenhouse.2 The Rittenhouse lands originally ran along the Wickecheoke from Locktown down to Old Mill Road. In 1801, Elisha Rittenhouse exchanged that property for a large farm owned by Thomas Opdycke, which was located on Upper Creek Road south of Old Mill Road. That farm was described by Egbert T. Bush in his article The Anderson Bray Farm.

After Thomas Opdycke died in 1805, Elisha Rittenhouse was named one of the Commissioners to divide his real estate to satisfy his creditors. But Rittenhouse was one of those creditors, and he wanted his old family farm and mill back. (Mr. Bush also wrote about this property, calling it Holcombe’s Mill.) Since Rittenhouse could not bid on the property, being a commissioner, he arranged for his son-in-law Andrew to bid when it was put up for public auction in March 1818; then on August 20, 1818, Andrew conveyed it back to his father-in-law. Sounds a little shady, but this was quite common at the time. In most cases, the two sales took place within a few days, but in this case there was a gap of five months, suggesting that Andrew Bray might have tried his hand at milling, and decided against it. This second sale took place a month before the birth of Andrew and Sarah’s twin sons, Daniel and Elisha R. Bray, born on September 5, 1818.

Once Elisha Rittenhouse had taken possession of his father’s old farm and mill, he probably began construction of the handsome stone house that stands on the north side of Old Mill Road. It was built in the federal style, and must have been admired by his fellow congregants of the Baptist church, for Elisha Rittenhouse was chosen to supervise construction of a new church at Locktown in 1819. Many of the architectural details of the church are similar to those in the house on Old Mill Road.

Old School Baptist Church at Locktown, before the stucco was removed

On February 28, 1821, Andrew and Sarah Bray had a daughter Matilda. She died at the age of 12 on May 30, 1833, probably from scarlet fever, a common killer of adolescents in the early 19th century.

On September 1, 1821, Elisha Rittenhouse made a sort of settlement with his son-in-law. He conveyed the 248-acre farm once owned by Thomas Opdycke to Andrew and Sarah Bray for $3100, which was considered half of its actual market value, and in exchange, Andrew and Sarah agreed not to make any claims against the rest of the estate of Elisha Rittenhouse. So, the property later owned by Chet Huntley and Douglas Knight officially became the Bray Farm as of September 1, 1821.

The Portraits

Andrew Bray, portrait by William Bonnell, 1825

In 1825, Andrew Bray was 35 years old, Sarah was 28, and John Quincy Adams had just been sworn in as president. It was then that Andrew and Sarah decided to have their portraits painted by Hunterdon County’s only accomplished portrait painter, William Bonnell of Clinton. This idea may have come from Andrew’s mother Elizabeth Woolverton Bray, who also had her portrait painted by Bonnell.

Sarah Rittenhouse Bray, portrait by William Bonnell, 1825

I particularly like these portraits for the way they show how Hunterdon County people looked during this time in history, particularly those who were prosperous enough to hire a portrait painter. The fashions they wore did not change much between 1825 and 1838, when Delaware Township was created.3

The portraits could be found hanging on the walls of the Bray home for many decades, until 1969, when they were sold at public auction, following the death of Sarah Bray Pyatt. The purchasers were Mr. and Mrs. Terry Eld of Milford, NJ. According to a news story about the sale, Eld claimed to be a descendant of Gen. Daniel Bray’s brother Andrew. But Gen. Bray did not have a brother named Andrew. Mr. Eld may have been thinking of the Andrew Bray who was  born in England in 1713, died in Lebanon Township in 1789, and was a fervent patriot during the Revolution. Presumably the portraits are still owned by members of the Eld family. The portrait of Andrew Bray’s mother can be seen at the Hunterdon County Historical Society.

A year after the portraits were painted, Andrew and Sarah Bray had their fifth and last child, Anderson Bray, born on December 5, 1826.

A School for the Rittenhouse Neighborhood

On October 7, 1829, Andrew Bray sold a half-acre lot out of his plantation to his father-in-law. It is not at all clear why Elisha Rittenhouse wanted to acquire the lot, but a later deed of 1837 explains what Andrew Bray’s interest in it was. That later deed, in which Elisha Rittenhouse sold the half-acre plus a lot of 34 acres to John T. Risler, his son-in-law, states that the “log schoolhouse” on the half-acre lot was to be excepted from the sale to Risler, “with the Exception of the said Andrew Bray shall hereafter insist that a school be occasionally kept in said log schoolhouse for the instruction of his own children and others of the neighborhood,” and that Elisha Rittenhouse would be given notice “a reasonable time before the said school is to be opened.” In 1829, when Andrew Bray sold this lot, his twins Daniel and Elisha were 11 years old, and Matilda was 8. Anderson was only 3, so he probably did not begin attending the school until about 1834.4

In 1906, Jonathan M. Hoppock wrote an article about this school titled “The Oldest School in Hunterdon.” I suspect this is not really true, although it may have been the oldest school still standing in 1906. Mr. Hoppock’s article is important for the detailed description is gives of the log schoolhouse, and for the photograph of the school that accompanied the article. And it is fascinating because Hoppock was acquainted with Anderson Bray, who by 1906 was quite elderly, yet still able to remember attending this very ancient school when its teacher was Abraham Chatman.

Clint Wilson also wrote about the school in the Lambertville Beacon in 1965, but his was basically a rewrite (without attribution) of Hoppock’s earlier article. Wilson more prudently titled his article “The First School In Delaware Township.” I plan to publish many of Clint Wilson’s articles in the future because he was an authority on schools, storekeeping and baseball in Delaware Township. On the subject of the Risler school, however, Mr. Hoppock’s article will suffice.

Mr. Hoppock believed that the school was built about 1780 on land that was owned by the Rittenhouses. Elisha Rittenhouse was born in 1768, so he would have been the right age to attend this school, as would his three younger sisters. Mr. Hoppock wrote that the school was located about an eighth of a mile west of the old mill on Old Mill Road. The deed of 1837 suggests that it was on the north side of the road, just west of the intersection with Upper Creek Road. Apparently the name “Risler School” was used by residents of the area in 1906, but it should rightly be called the Rittenhouse school, since it was probably built by Peter Rittenhouse for his children.

An Old Road Name

In 1837, Elisha Rittenhouse sold a lot of 21 acres to Andrew Bray for about $33.50 per acre.5 The lot was described as bordering the road from “Frenchtown to Sergeantsville.” Perhaps you, gentle reader, are not familiar with a road by that name. It’s no wonder—there never was a road officially named the Frenchtown-Sergeantsville Road. Descriptions like this are misleading if you think they are describing one particular road. In fact, you need to look at a map to see what is the most likely route from Frenchtown to Sergeantsville, eliminating of course all modern roads. Since Upper Creek Road does take you in the direction of Sergeantsville if you are coming from Frenchtown, it is safe to assume that is what was meant.

A future post will discuss Andrew Bray’s later life and the estate that passed to the widow Sarah Bray, and then to their son Anderson Bray, and then to Anderson Bray’s daughter Sarah Bray Pyatt.

  1. Andrew, Daniel and James Bray were listed in the Kingwood militia for 1792, but this was too early for the sons of Daniel Bray. Andrew would have been only three years old.
  2. I could not find any land transactions by this Andrew prior to 1818; there were several for an older Andrew Bray of Lebanon Township.
  3. Apologies for the poor quality of these pictures; they are photographs of photocopies, included in a dissertation by Anne Kennedy in 2010 on the life and work of William Bonnell. It can be found at the Hunterdon Co. Historical Society.
  4. I have not found that deed of 1829 that was referenced in the deed of 1837, and expect that it was never recorded.
  5. Deed 70-115.