The Brewster Sisters

While we were putting the Doris Seward columns together, we came across an article on the Brewster sisters among the Bloomington Herald-Times archives. We added the article to our family album and have since been in touch with several of these heroic sisters' descendants, all of whom have added to our knowledge of their Revolutionary war service and the times in which they lived. Please see our Brewster, etc., forum page for a list of the members of our little group of researchers.

(In case you were looking for information on the demented Brewster sisters of the Broadway play or film, Arsenic and Old Lace, you've come to the wrong place!)

July 17, 2000

Brave sisters helped militia men

Right Next Door: Daughters of the American Revolution

By Jan Ley,
Herald-Times Staff Writer

Sisters Elinor, Agnes and Jennette Brewster, buried in Dunn Cemetery, were verified Patriots of the American Revolution. They were remembered in April with a dedication plaque on their monument. At the ceremony were Polly Tilford, left, Anne Bailey, Kathleen Bauer, Janice Bolinger, Sonna Rayburn, Karen Loy and Dora Brown. Courtesy photo.

The Brewster sisters were just young girls when the colonies entered the American Revolution. Elinor, age 22, Jennette,1 age 14, and Agnes, only 13 years old, lived with their family in Rockingham County in Virginia when they heard "the shot heard 'round the world."

Today, the women are buried in tiny Dunn Cemetery, next to Beck Chapel, in the middle of the Indiana University campus. How did these young ladies become verified Patriots of the American Revolution and eventually find themselves in Bloomington?

Daughters of the American Revolution member Dorothy J. Taylor said, "We've known about these brave women for some time. But it was important for us to highlight their lives so people know the DAR is more than just women marching and wearing white gloves. These teen-age girls worked very hard."

As staunch supporters of the cause of freedom, the family devoted much of their time, property and food to the American militia men.

The family owned a large herd of sheep. The girls continued to shear wool throughout the winter. They carded and spun it into yarn, used their looms to weave the wool into cloth and cut and sewed clothing for the soldiers.

When the militia camped on their property, the girls cooked, baked and then carried food to the men.

After the Revolution, the family moved to Kentucky. Agnes married William Alexander,2 Jennette wed Samuel Irvin and Elinor married Samuel Dunn.

"It's been said that Dunn objected to the idea of slavery and moved further north in the territory," said Taylor. The family settled near Bloomington.

Dunn bought a large farm east of what is now Dunn Street. He perpetuated in his will that a plot of land be used for the burial grounds of the three sisters and their descendants and those they marry.

"There's been speculation that Agnes and Jennette lost their husbands and then moved here to be near their older sister, Elinor Dunn," Taylor said.

In 1883, after a fire destroyed much of Indiana University at its former location at what is now Seminary Square, Dunn sold part of his farm to the university trustees, who were searching for a new spot for the university that would allow for growth.

The university did grow, but the deeded land and the cemetery remained, eventually becoming surrounded by the campus.

In April, members of the Bloomington Chapter and state DAR officers met at the sisters' grave site and placed a memorial plaque on their monument.

There are 48 interments in Dunn Cemetery. Local descendants of the sisters, Charles Barnhill, Herman Young, Marilyn Warden3 and Darlene Easton, were at the dedication ceremony. They may choose to be buried at Dunn Cemetery.

In the 1950s, Dr. Frank O. Beck told Curtis D. Aiken, a past caretaker of the cemetery, that he wished to "build a nondenominational, nonsectarian chapel on campus, but that because of the country's church-and-state rule, he was forbidden."

After further study of the cemetery property, it was assessed that there was, in fact, more land available from the cemetery plot with which to build a chapel that would not be on IU's property.

Beck Chapel was built in 1956 with the intent to complement the cemetery.

"They wanted it to look old-world, like a church and graveyard one would find in Europe," Taylor said.

Over the years, the church has been the site of thousands of weddings, services and private meditations.

For more information on the Brewster sisters, Dunn Cemetery or the history of Indiana University, call the Monroe County Historical Museum at 332-2517 or the IU Archives at 855-1127.

Reporter Jan Ley can be reached by phone at 331-4380, or by e-mail at

Copyright © 2000 by the Herald-Times.

I found the following undated article in a scrapbook which belonged to my grandmother, Alice (Seward) Walker:

Local Woman Prizes Oven That Provided Bread for Washington

A genuine relic of the life of George Washington, one of the few to be found in this part of the country, is the little Dutch oven belonging to Mrs. Rufus East,4 West Sixth street. During a Revolutionary campaign in Virginia, bread which fed the great general, was baked in this oven.

Washington's army, according to the story handed down to Mrs. East from several generations of ancestors, encamped near the Brewster home in Jasmin County, Va.5 All the men of the family were away fighting for the Colonies, but the three Brewster sisters volunteered to bake bread for the army. Night and day during the entire encampment the oven was kept going, never once being allowed to cool.

Oven Goes to Jane.

The Washington oven has been handed down to the descendants of the Brewsters from that time to the present. It is a tradition that the daughter of the family bearing the name of Jane or Janet shall always receive the relic. Mrs. Janet Brewster Irvin, one of the early settlers of Kentucky, took it with her from the old home in Virginia. Enroute to Kentucky, the oven with some of the other furniture had to be buried because of Indiana hostilities.

Mrs. Jane Irvin Seward,6 the next possessor, of the historic heirloom was the mother of its present owner, Mrs. Janet East.4 The three Brewster sisters and Mrs. Seward are buried in "God's Half Acre" on the campus, just south of Jordan field.

Exact Age Unknown.

Although the exact age of the oven is unknown, it is said to have been brought to Virginia from Scotland many years before the Revolutionary War. Characteristic of such early heaters, it is of very heavy iron, durable and crude looking compared to modern stoves. The relic has not confined its military usefulness to the Revolutionary war but also functioned to bake bread for the soldiers in the War of 1812 and later in the Civil war.--Daily Student.

Steve Hofer has provided what appears to be the earliest document describing the Revolutionary War services of the sisters. Steve writes,

As I promised in my e-mail of May 30, 2002, when I heard back from the Daughters of the American Revolution Library Research Service on the subject of the paper, "Revolutionary Service of the Brewster Sisters," I would pass the information along and I have finally received a response. Here is, I believe, the definitive answer to the question of how and when that paper was published, the following information having been extracted from a letter dated July 23, 2002, from Elizabeth Erb Bode of the Library's Search Service and attachments. The actual text of the document appears to be consistent with the text that Revilla C. Parks copied down on October 15, 1915 and which is now in the possession of Connie Young Kitchen. However, the information about when the paper was first written and signed and the names of the four grandchildren who signed it on behalf of a DAR applicant is new:

The paper, "Revolutionary Service of the Brewster Sisters," is a handwritten, three-page document written on ruled and lined paper and signed by Amanda Maxwell Hughes and Mary Maxwell Shryer, granddaughters of Eleanor (Brewster) Dunn, Ann S. Alexander, granddaughter of Agnes (Brewster) Alexander, and James D. Irvin, grandson of Jannet (Brewster) Irvin. The signatures of Mrs. Hughes, Mrs. Shryer and Mr. Irvin were notarized on October 23, 1912 by S. W. Charles, Notary Public, and the signature of Mrs. Alexander was notarized April 21, 1913 by George M. Reed, Notary Public.

The paper was submitted to the Office of the Registrar General, National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution, in support of the membership application of Mrs. Ella Dunn Mellette, National Number 93983 Add. 62, and was approved by the DAR as supporting documentation of the Revolutionary War service of Eleanor (Brewster) Dunn, Agnes (Brewster) Alexander and Jannet (Brewster) Irvin on December 22, 1913.

Revolutionary Service of the Brewster Sisters

The family of James Brewster, of Augusta County, Virginia, gave strong and unfaltering support to the cause of American Independence. It was a family chiefly of daughters, but they gave to their country the result of their supreme effort as loyal women. They worked unceasingly for the comfort of Patriot-soldiers. They knit, spun, wove, sewed and cooked to provide for the needs of the soldiers who could be reached by them.

For a time Washington's men were stationed at a point not too far away for them to send supplies. When they knit and wove till the wool was exhausted, they did not wait for the regular sheep shearing time to renew their supply, but would catch the sheep, (of which they had a great number) clip the fleece, and turn it into yarn as fast as possible and put it in the loom. As soon as a web was long enough to make a suit it was cut from the loom, made up and sent to the front.

Margaret McCullough of Bloomington, Indiana, has in her possession the dutch oven used by the sisters in baking for the soldiers. According to their own account, "It was not allowed to get cold." As fast as one baking of bread came out, another lot was ready to be put in.

The story of the suffering of Washington's men, of the bloody footprints in the snow, was that of a condition they strove to relieve. They spun the yarn and knit unceasingly to supply as far as lay in their power the needs of the heroic troops: always with the deep personal interest that self consecration gives. When in later years, "training days" had become a feature of the times, Jannet Brewster Irvin took great pleasure in watching the military manoeuvers: but she was often displeased with the methods of the officers -- she said "They were not right: it wasn't the way Washington did."

It is a fact well known to their descendants that these sisters, Eleanor, Jannet and Agnes Brewster in times of peril, melted up their household utensils of pewter and moulded bullets from it. Whether this last was in Colonial or Revolutionary times, we can not now certainly affirm. But it was done for the defense of their country in her time of need, and is another evidence of the right of the Brewster sisters to a place among the heroic women of the Revolution.

[Signatures]: James D. Irvin, Grandson of Jannet Brewster Irvin. Amanda Maxwell Hughes, Mary Maxwell Shryer, Grandchildren of Eleanor Brewster Dunn. Subscribed and sworn to before me this 23rd day of October, 1912. S. W. Charles, Notary Public.

The above stories of Revolutionary times, were given to me by my Grandmother, Agnes Brewster Alexander. Ann S. Alexander, Granddaughter of Agnes Brewster Alexander. Subscribed and sworn to before me this 21st day of April, 1913, at my office in Waynesville, Mo. My commission as a Notary Public will expire Dec. 30th 1915. Geo. M. Reed, Notary Public.

Steve continues:

Mrs. Bode also notes in her letter that "Elinor Brewster is an established DAR ancestor, listed in the DAR Patriot Index, under her married surname of Dunn"... This presumably means that Eleanor's sisters, Agnes "Nancy" (Brewster) Alexander and Jannet (Brewster) Irvin, will also be found in the DAR Patriot Index under their married names (but please note that I have not confirmed that fact). We already know that the sisters' father, James Brewster, Eleanor's husband, Samuel Dunn, and Agnes' husband, William Alexander, are likewise all recognized Patriot Ancestors.

Finally, I was somewhat surprised to learn from Mrs. Bode that "in connecting the generations of the Brewster/Dunn/Alexander line, most DAR applicants have depended on the Maxwell History & Genealogy." It really doesn't matter now because I have since gone ahead and gathered copies of supporting documentation (wills, obituaries, etc.), but I had previously been led to believe that the DAR would probably not accept the Maxwell History & Genealogy as genealogical proof because it was primarily a family history and a secondary source with very little supporting documentation cited. However (and I'm speculating here), perhaps because of the length and the substantial content of the many biographical sketches contained in the book, some of which were written by descendants who had personally known the people about whom they were writing, and/or its age (published in 1916), and/or the simple fact that most of the genealogy cited therein can be proven to be true from other documents, it appears as if the DAR is willing to accept citations to the book itself for the purpose of proving genealogical linkages to known Patriot Ancestors.

A similar document, dated 15 Oct 1915, had been made available to us earlier by Connie Young Kitchen. Below the date a note reads: "Copied by Revilla C. Parks for the benefit of Alice Peterson's family, we being descendants of the Brewster sisters herein named." Connie tells us:

The above named Revilla (Sluss) Parks and Alice (Sluss) Peterson were sisters and the great-granddaughters of Agnes Brewster Alexander and William Alexander.

Thank you, Steve and Connie, for sharing this information on the Brewster sisters with all of their descendants!

Two of Elinor Brewster Dunn's grandsons served in the United States Congress as representatives from Indiana. Steve Hofer found their biographies in the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress 1774 - Present, and tells us that George was the son of Elinor's son Samuel Dunn Jr., while William was the son of Williamson Dunn.

DUNN, George Grundy, 1812-1857

DUNN, George Grundy, a Representative from Indiana; born in Washington County, Ky., December 20, 1812; moved to Monroe County, Ind.; completed preparatory studies and attended the Indiana University at Bloomington; moved to Bedford, Lawrence County, Ind., in 1833, where he taught school; studied law; was admitted to the bar in 1835 and commenced practice in Bedford, Ind.; prosecuting attorney of Lawrence County in 1842; elected as a Whig to the Thirtieth Congress (March 4, 1847-March 3, 1849); unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1848; served in the State senate from 1850 until 1852, when he resigned; elected as a Republican to the Thirty-fourth Congress (March 4, 1855-March 3, 1857); was not a candidate for renomination in 1856; died in Bedford, Ind., September 4, 1857; interment in Green Hill Cemetery.

DUNN, William McKee, 1814-1887

DUNN, William McKee, a Representative from Indiana; born in Hanover, Jefferson County, Territory of Indiana, December 12, 1814; attended school in the first schoolhouse in Hanover; was graduated from Indiana State College in 1832 and from Yale College in 1835; studied law; was admitted to the bar in 1837 and practiced; member of the State house of representatives in 1848; delegate to the State constitutional convention in 1850; elected as a Republican to the Thirty-sixth and Thirty-seventh Congresses (March 4, 1859-March 3, 1863); chairman, Committee on Patents (Thirty-seventh Congress); unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1862 to the Thirty-eighth Congress; served in the Union Army as a volunteer aide-de-camp to General McClellan from June 19, 1861, to August 1861, in the campaign in western Virginia; major and judge advocate of Volunteers, Department of the Missouri, from March 13, 1863, to July 6, 1864; appointed lieutenant colonel and Assistant Judge Advocate General of the United States Army June 22, 1864, and brigadier general and Judge Advocate General December 1, 1875; brevetted brigadier general March 13, 1865; retired January 22, 1881; died at his summer residence, "Maplewood," Dunn Loring, Fairfax County, Va., July 24, 1887; interment in Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

This story which illustrates the spunkiness of one of the three sisters was sent to us by Barb Grainger, a descendant:

Emma Hynes Riggs in her book, "Our Pioneer Ancestors", page 97 & 98, quotes Ella Dunn Mellette, a great granddaughter of Elinor Brewster Dunn from the book, The Maxwell History and tells this quick story.

I tell it here not only to show her courage in light of a difficult situation, but to also show the integrity of these Kentucky Indians. They were impressed by and honored a powerful spirit...

The grandfather is Samuel Dunn, and the grandmother in the story below is Elinor Brewster Dunn.

I quote:
"Grandfather had sometimes to go to mill - a trip that took two or even three days, if conditions were unfavorable. For this time he must leave his wife and young children alone in the wilderness.

During one of these times of absence grandmother heard Indians about. Weapons or bodily strength were not the resources of defense upon which she must depend; they must be the invisible, though powerful, influence of the spirit. Courage and self-possession were all that she had.. She made up a great fire on the hearth; put her children to bed, set her big spinning wheel between the two opposite doors, and opened the doors. Then she spun all night to show the Indians she was not afraid. They would come to the door, would stand looking at that little figure walking back and forth, back and forth, defensless but for her courage, and say 'Brave squaw, brave squaw!' and grandmother was not disturbed."
This is a wonderfully tender story which shows that Indians weren't necessarily the 'savages' history has made them out to be and honored a strong spirit.

1 Jennette (or Jane or Jannette) Brewster was my g-g-g-g-grandmother. The sisters' parents were James Brewster and Elloner Williamson.
2 Our own family history files listed Agnes' husband as James Alexander. This apparent discrepancy was cleared up by Stephen R. Hofer who revealed that his name was William James Alexander, Sr. and listed more sources for his information than I care to publish here. Thank you, Steve!
3 Marilyn (Seward) Warden was my mother's first cousin. She did choose to be buried there!
4 Rachel Jannette Seward (1868-?), who was Jannette (Brewster) Irvin's great-granddaughter, married Rufus Hale East (1867-1921).
5 There is no Jasmin, or Jasmine, county or city in Virginia, nor in West Virginia, which was adjacent to the Brewster sisters' home in Rockingham county. However, there is a Jessamine county in Kentucky, where Janet may have lived at some time during her travels from VA to IN.
6 Jane (Irvin) Seward (1800-1865) was Mrs. East's grandmother.
This page was last updated 25 Nov 2006.