top of page


Robert Breckinridge (1723-1772)

Scott Dudley Breckinridge, Jr. prepared the following text regarding Robert Breckenridge (1723-1772)

Man of the Frontier

Traditionally history has concentrated on great events of the past, and on the personalities that became prominent because of their involvement in those events. More recently, historians have focused on a form of sociological research and comment, giving attention to the lesser events and figures that played a part in one way or another in the happenings of their time.

American historians, perhaps more than others, have led the way in searching out the smaller events and those involved in them. In relating their findings, they have revealed some of the critical undercurrents that help understand aspects of the larger issues that have become blurred with time.

As the nation has grown, horizons and perceptions have tended to expand, submerging the more local events of earlier times, however important they were to those involved in them. The more prominent leaders of earlier times -- for example the Virginians, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Mason -- retain much of their aura, despite the tendency of bookish people to denigrate them. But there were others, of local prominence in critical formative periods, who have disappeared beneath the flood of subsequent drama. Yet, in their stories there is a source of conscious awareness of basic factors that contributed to the character of the growing American society.

Obviously great leaders must have organized societies from which they come, and for which they speak. They necessarily rely on lesser leaders, and on the anonymous multitudes that both stimulate and support their ideas and action. If the contribution of the minor figures is difficult to discern today, it nevertheless was real. Those who retrieve and tell the story of the earlier figures do us all a great service. One of those historians, Patricia Givens Johnson, has chosen to study and write about the period in which Virginia began to move away from the coastal plain of the Atlantic and toward the West. If Mrs. Johnson's work has not received the recognition it merits, those who have read her published writings cannot help but have a better understanding of the personally challenging and difficult times on the new frontier. It was a story to be repeated over and over as the westward movement of the nation continued.

It was Mrs. Johnson, in correspondence about personalities mentioned in her books, who suggested this memorandum about one of those local leaders of the period in Virginia to which she has given so much time and thought.

The Virginia Frontier

As Virginia completed building the society along the coast, east of the mountains, attention turned increasingly towards the western lands, which seemed to stretch endlessly to the distant Pacific. Virginia society had succeeded in emulating British culture in many ways, with great estates and a yeoman class, trade with the mother country, a representative parliament, along with the new institution of slavery. Its patterns of government took on many of the strengths and weaknesses of evolving British practice, but there were other forces at work -- those produced by a new and growing society. If an established society tends to become sedentary and mercantilist, the building of the society also sharpens the energies and attitudes of some, and an aggressive entrepreneurial temperament and outlook infected those not content to rest on their achievements. The attractions of the unclaimed lands to the west exercised a magnetic attraction not to be denied.

The Colonial Virginian government had long encouraged the settlement of new people, concentrating on its eastern regions. It also began to develop policies for further expansion westwards. In 1701 the Virginia Council passed an act:1

“...for the better strengthening the frontier and discovering the approach of an enemy.”

Small numbers of venturesome hunters and settlers had crossed the mountains, and had commenced to establish themselves there, but the numbers were negligible. In 1716 Governor Spotswood led an odd expedition into the area, with the apparent hope that the publicity would encourage movement west. Little came of it at the time. By 1730 Tidewater planters were completing settlement on the upland country east of the Blue Ridge, and were giving serious thought to the area west in the Great Valley, which ran from Pennsylvania down into the Carolinas. A variety of considerations affected how it was approached.

Although the colony was separated from the European continent by a wide ocean, the enmities of the Old World were finding an arena in North America for their competition. The French held Canada, and had ambitions to the South. They considered the Ohio Valley key to control of the inner territories of the continent. That land was the area the British felt they owned extending, as they claimed, west from the Atlantic coastal areas they occupied. French interests were known to the British, and the desirability of consolidating the claims by populating the region were compelling cause for what followed. The 1701 Act had been followed by offering land to settlers who were “able fighting men...between sixteen and sixty.” An added inducement was the clearly understood tolerance of religious practice that would be observed by the Virginia government, despite the fact that the Church of England was the official church of the colony.

2. Many of the settlers attracted to the Valley in Virginia were what has come to be known as the Scotch-Irish people. Of Scottish origin, they had settled in North Ireland over the years, for various reasons, and in the 1700s began to move again to America. 

3. Virginia's method for administering its real estate policy is interesting. Large grants were made to land speculators rather than creating a corps of civil servants to handle it. In 1732 one Joist Hite acquired a grant of 100,000 acres on Opequon Creek in the Shenandoah Valley. The same year John Lewis settled on a branch of Middle River, acquiring 2,071 acres for his own use. In 1736 William Beverley received a grant of 118,491 acres (the grant would be known as Beverley Manor). The small township that grew up there was first known as Beverley's Mill Place. That name changed to Augusta Court House when Augusta County was formed in 1745, serving as the center for county government. In 1761 it was incorporated as the city of Staunton, a name that continues to this writing. Also in 1732 Benjamin Borden secured a patent to 92,100 acres south of what became Beverley's grant.

4. Of these this memorandum will first concern itself with the Beverley grant and events that brought a particular Scotch-Irish family there from Pennsylvania.

The Breckenridge Family

Among the Scotch-Irish settlers in Pennsylvania was a family bearing the name “Breckenridge.” The name has suffered many spellings over the years, and this version was not the first, nor was it to be the last.

5. This seems to be the form used most often by members of the family at the time, including its head, Alexander Breckenridge. His son, Robert Breckenridge, the main subject of this memorandum, seems to have retained this spelling, as did his brothers and sisters. So did his children by his first wife. However, the children of his second wife modified the spelling to “Breckinridge,” a form that has been used by their descendants since then.

6. The background of the Breckenridges is not known with certainty, beyond the family traditions that have not been verified. Checking tradition with related facts does give it some plausibility, but it is doubted that it can be confirmed.

Tradition holds that the Breckenridges originated in the Ayrshire-Lanarkshire area of southwest Scotland. In fact, a few miles southwest of Strathaven in Lanarkshire are four dairy farms bearing the names of East Brackenridge, West Brackenridge, Little Brackenridge and Mid Brackenridge. When visited in 1972 by the author of the present memorandum the residences were built of a cut brown stone that seemed to have come from a single larger residence. Some of the markings on the stones were random and seem to have been part of some earlier inscription, perhaps from a single structure that may have presided over a single, larger estate. However, no single Breckenridge estate seems to have existed, according to a genealogist who did some research on the question. So the origin of the names of these farms is lost in time. One recorded “chronicle,” written around 1858, reports family tradition to the effect that the family descended from “the House of Douglas.”  The genealogist mentioned above, unaware of this tradition, did report that the Douglas family once held lands in the area, apparently losing them during the reign of James I.

Tradition also states that the Breckenridges were Covenanters, a Scottish Protestant group that entered into a covenant opposing interference with their worship by government or the Catholic church. After Cromwell’s death the throne was re-established in 1660 (the Restoration, as it is known in history). Religious contests assumed major proportions and the Covenanters found themselves in open rebellion. In June 1679 a small Covenanter army was attacked unsuccessfully in what became known as the Battle of Drumclog, at a location very near the Brackenridge farms described above. Enthusiastic over their success at Drumclog, the Covenanters raised an army of some 8,000 and were defeated decisively at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge three weeks later, with some 500 killed and 1,000 captured. The following period (1680-1682) was called the “Killing Time,” when harsh rule made things difficult for non-conformers. During this time the “Test Act” imposed an oath an all who held posts of trust, emphasizing royal supremacy over the church. The Earl of Argyll -- a Covenanter -- refused to take the oath, and was sentenced to death for treason. He landed a small army in Argyll, which seems not to have been well organized; the army dissolved and the Earl was captured and executed in 1685.

Breckenridge family tradition holds that it was during the religious wars following the Restoration that they fled northwards to central Scotland, where they took refuge with the Campbells of Breadalbane. It is noted that maps of the period show the area in Ayrshire and Lanarkshire, where tradition states the Breckenridges originated, as Campbell territory. It is reasonable to assume that when the family fled north they had claims on the hospitality of the Campbells of Breadalbane. Whatever the facts, the story of the flight and of Breadalbane hospitality was preserved, being perpetuated in the name a number of descendants gave their properties -- Breadalbane, with a slight modification in spelling.

It is noted that it was in 1692 the Earl of Breadalbane seems to have been involved in the plotting for what became the infamous Glencoe Massacre. One cannot but wonder, as the Breckenridges were refugees in the Earl’s care, whether they would have been looked to for some role in that event if still in Scotland at the time.

There is a gap of some 40-45 years in tradition, from about 1685 to 1728. The Breckenridges moved to North Ireland; at least some of them did. Whether some of this group -- perhaps older members -- stayed behind is anyone’ guess. It is reasonable to believe that at least the younger ones would be tempted by the unknown advantages across the Irish Sea. Such move also would have added greater distance between them and any enemies that they may have feared. That they went there is part of tradition, but it is fact that it was from there -- in 1728 -- that Alexander Breckenridge and his family migrated to Pennsylvania.

With tradition and speculation behind us, Alexander Breckenridge is not myth. His records are clear and his movements begin to be open to research. There are questions that remain, as the answers are unknown. They are mentioned only because if answers are found they might throw light on the traditions.

Alexander Breckenridge obviously had sufficient funds to pay the cost of his family’s travel to Pennsylvania. Had this not been so there would have been some indentured service agreement, as was the practice of the time, to repay the costs underwritten by the person financing the travel. The travel was not inexpensive, as the family consisted of Alexander, his wife, and seven children. And there apparently was some reserve cash, used in entering into the society of Pennsylvania, where land was more costly than later would be found to be the case to the south. One can wonder where refugees could have acquired sufficient funds to meet these costs. Could there have been some property settlement in Scotland?

One tradition -- again unsupported by proof -- holds that there also were two brothers accompanying Alexander Breckenridge’s party, but there seems to be no record of them. The author has corresponded with a Homer Breckenridge of Savannah, Georgia, who felt he was descended from one of them, who had been killed by Indians, causing the family to be broken up, but final proof seemed difficult to come by.

Whatever the traditions, Alexander Breckenridge first appeared in Pennsylvania records in 1730, when he was a defendant in two suits before the Court of Common Pleas, Doylestown, Bucks County. In those two suits the name is spelled “Brakinridge” and “Brackinridge.” He appears in several suits between 1730 and 1736, suggesting more than a little activity in advancing his interests, not without some controversy along the way.
Alexander Breckenridge also had some activity in public affairs. He was one of a group of nineteen signing a petition on 13 December 1733, seeking official recognition for the community where they were, as Warwick Township, Bucks County. There is a town bearing the name of Warwick, some fifty miles west of where the Breckenridges seem to have lived, but any questions arising from this cannot be resolved here. The community where the Breckenridges lived is described as a Scotch-Irish community. The social pattern of such communities in earlier America typically centered around the church, and one source speculated that the Breckenridges were members of the Neshaminy Presbyterian church.9
Our final note about all the things that may point to the sort of man Alexander Breckenridge was. A sample of his handwriting is well formed and that of an educated man, suggesting more than a person without some previous status.

After some nine years in Pennsylvania the Breckenridges decided to move to greener fields. One can assume that the family, as the children matured, had greater demands for the future than the local situation and resources provided. Presumably, as the new arrivals learned about conditions they began to study alternatives. The attractions of Virginia, mentioned earlier, must have seemed promising. There was another consideration. (Alexander BreckenridgePreston, was sister ’s wife, Jane of one John Preston, who had married Elizabeth Patton. Elizabeth Pattonto be a partner, and ’s brother,)(this last bit scrambled - I’m unsure of what was meant) James Patton, was agent on the scene, for William Beverley, who had one of the large land grants in the Shenandoah Valley.10  With the advantage of hindsight -- and with a sense of how things were in those days -- Patton was to be a very prominent man in the new community to take form around Beverleyof Virginia could ’s Mill Place. Such a connection in the promising land not be dismissed by those seeking to better their position. One can speculate that Jane Preston Breckenridge’s brother had written her, telling of their plan to accompany James Patton to Virginia. James Patton may even have done some recruiting getting in touch with people in Pennsylvania, as he was known to have done later, making a point of his sister’s in-laws.

On 25 May 1737 Alexander Breckenridge sold his farm, the deed describing it as 236 acres, having been patented to him by John, Thomas, and Richard Penn on 22 July 1735, lying near Neshaminy Creek, his “having for some years past settled and improved the land.”11 That may have seemed a substantial tract of land to a new arrival from Ireland, but it clearly was not the amount, by developing American standards, for providing for a large family for the future.

The Prestons did not arrive in Virginia until 1738, but by 1737 the Breckenridges already were leaving Pennsylvania for their common objective. Details of the trip south are not known. Assuming they traveled along the avenue of the Great Valley, it is interesting to think what it involved. They already knew the problems of opening new areas, and the limitations on what could be acquired there for the work ahead. It would be wise to keep such household possessions and farming equipment as they had accumulated. One can envision a couple of wagons loaded with things, with some of the company on horseback. If there was a small herd of livestock it had to be driven along, as well. Whether they joined with other travelers, for such mutual help as the members of a caravan of wagons might give one another, is not known. It is a likely arrangement. Travel with others also provided a form of protection, there being strength in numbers. Indians had been active earlier and it was prudent to anticipate a renewal of that, joining with others for the trip.

What was the distance, and what were the travel conditions? The Valley provided a relatively easy route, probably easily followed, even if the trails were primitive by modern standards. There would be at least one major river to cross, the Susquehannah, near modern Harrisburg. The route was used frequently enough for there to have been a ferry there, for those who could pay for it. Distance would be another factor in planning for the trip.

Modern Allentown, in the Valley, is the nearest city to the general area where the Breckenridges lived, near Neshaminy. The Great Valley runs southwest from modern Allentown, through Reading and Harrisburg, where it takes a turn more southerly, although still westerly, on down through Hagerstown, Maryland, and into Virginia at Winchester, passing on through Harrisonburg to Staunton. It is a distance of some 250 miles. Assuming the rate of advance of two miles an hour (see The Americans, The National Experience, by Daniel Boorstin, Random House, 1965, page 56), steady, uninterrupted travel could have taken at least three weeks.

Tragedy struck not long after the Breckenridge family arrived at their new home. Alexander’s oldest son, John Breckenridge, was the first white man in the new settlement to be killed by Indians. The Breckenridges are described as living at the time “on the ridge back of the present Church of the Good Shepherd near Folly Mills.” (This reference was written in 1954). John Breckenridge’s grave is cited in various references. His death seems to have caused the settlers to petition for “a Supply of Arms and Ammunition for their defense,” to which the Council of Colonial Virginia responded positively with guns and powder in 1738.12  The incident probably led to more formal organization of the local militia group, already a feature of frontier settlements of the period.

Alexander Breckenridge, His Family, and Land

Land was a central factor in material well-being and long range plans for security in those days, for those not engaged in manufacturing the commerce. It was not an unusual characteristic of the people of the times to pursue the acquisition of land. The early great families of Virginia -- through energy and working within the system of the times -- laid the foundations for their prominence on large land holdings. Land hunger was a central feature of the move west, and the opening of the frontiers of America. It offered the chance to establish one's self, and to provide for future generations.

Even prior to the policy to open lands west of the mountains to entice settlers there, the Virginia colonial government long had adhered to a policy of granting 50 acres of land for each person transported into the colony. If an individual brought himself there he could claim 50 acres of land. This “head right” may have seemed an ample farming tract -- perhaps about as much as one man could work by himself with the tools of the day -- but it did not promise much for the future. People could gather a number of head rights, and assemble them into larger tracts of land. Of course, the large grants such as those given individuals in real estate ventures in the Valley were a separate matter. In any event, the Breckenridges did not claim head rights as soon as they arrived; they may not have known that they were eligible for it, considering themselves as migrating from Pennsylvania, instead of directly from overseas.

The family members did move into the land settlement practices of the time. This was reflected in a suit brought on 21 February 1738 by Alexander, with George, James, Robert and Adam Breckenridge -- at the same time as similar suits by others -- seeking deeds from Benjamin Borden for property, stating that they had “entered each 200 acres.”13  


Borden seems to have died after they had their arrangements with him, and they had to pursue legal means to complete the deal. It is likely that the original transaction was some time in 1737, as the suit was filed so early in 1738. In addition to these transactions, one source shows land transfers to members of the family as follows: Alexander, 245 acres in 1742; George and Robert, 761 acres jointly in 1742; George, 540 acres in 1747; and, another Breckenridge (first name not shown, nor the date), for 112 acres.14


Alexander Breckenridge proved his “head rights” on 22 May 1740, when he appeared at Orange County Court -- at the same time that other heads of family did so. Perhaps they all discovered the right at about the same time. The record of it is below:15

Alexander Breckenridge came into Court and made oath that he imported himself, , John, George, Robert, , Smith, , and Letitia Breckenridge from Ireland to Philadelphia, and thence to this colony, at his own charges, and this is the first time of providing his and their rights in order to obtain land, which is ordered certified.

The blank spaces above represent marred records, the names obviously being those of Alexander's wife Jane, and their sons James and Adam. Alexander seems to have transferred the rights to his son Robert, who on 1 December 1740 took 400 acres of land on the South Branch of the Shenandoah River, under the rights of Alexander, Jane, John, George, himself, James, Adam and Smith Breckenridge.16  Letitia was not named, possibly because she had married, with her right going to her and her husband. Robert's use of the rights may reflect agreement in the family, as will be noted later, as Robert was not a beneficiary in distribution of land in administration of his father's estate.

The pattern of Scotch-Irish society on the frontier centered on the church, and Alexander Breckenridge was one of five commissioners selected to build a Presbyterian church at the Tinkling Spring, near modern Fishersville. James Patton, the leader of the community, was one of the five designated for this task. The record of this was 17 August 1741, and Alexander Breckenridge's name appears below the record spelled “Breackenridge.”17 The printed report of that action does not reveal whether this was his signature or merely the recording official's phonetic rendition of how he heard the name.

It is believed that Alexander Breckenridge died in 1742, but one source puts it later, saying that the earliest record of his death is when it was cited in an action of 23 September 1743, dismissing a suit because of his death.18  Alexander's widow did not appear in court until 22 May 1744 to relinquish to the eldest son, George, her right to administer her husband's estate.19  Alexander did not have a will, and under the laws of primogeniture -- which prevailed at the time -- George could have claimed the right to it all, subject to Jane Breckenridge's dower rights. George, however, stated that it was his father's wish to transfer 400 acres to Adam, 300 to Smith, and 112 to James. It was Robert's not being included in this distribution that suggested that the earlier transfer of 400 acres to him under Alexander's head rights was in anticipation of this eventuality. Adam moved to the Carolinas, being reported as having died there about the time he would have come of age.20  James, who was under age at the time of this father's death, returned to Pennsylvania about 1746.21  George moved to what is now southwest Virginia around 1763, settling in what is now Wythe County, where he lived until his death in 1790.22

The ages of the children of Alexander and Jane Preston Breckenridge seem not to have been a matter of major concern, not being recorded or even referred to other than indirectly. Family tradition -- that persistent but unverified source -- maintains that the eldest surviving son, George, was named for George I, the Protestant king who ascended the throne in 1714. Assuming that the crowning of George I was the occasion for naming the son, the date of 1714 seems a reasonably acceptable birth date for him. It seems to fit with the older son John -- the one killed by Indians in 1738 -- who first appeared in records in 1733 when he acted for himself in a law suit in Pennsylvania.23  This indicates that he was “of age” then. His birth date would have had to be by at least 1712, at the latest. Robert's participation in the Borden litigation in 1738 cannot be given the same significance, as he did not act alone. His father, his brother George, and the younger James and Adam also were parties to the suit.24  The younger were under age when their father died some four years later, and Alexander probably acted for them in the suit. However, it does seem safe to place Robert's birth about two years after George's, around 1716, keeping in mind that this is approximate, and based on speculation.

Robert Breckenridge and His Life

Having devoted the preceding pages to the background of Robert Breckenridge and his family, the remaining discussion has to do with him. If he was born around 1716 in North Ireland, he would have been a boy of about twelve when his family moved to Pennsylvania in 1728. He would have been about twenty-one when they moved to Virginia in 1737. He was raised on the frontier, his father’s farm in Pennsylvania presenting all the aspects of that life: clearing fields, working the land, and building a new life in an undeveloped area. The move to Virginia would have further developed his attitude towards the challenges of such an environment, readying him for the life ahead. The death of his older brother, John, in 1738 at the hands of Indians, inevitably left a lasting impression on how he saw things. Robert became very much a part of the new environment. He sought land, involved himself in the community’s affairs, and engaged in public service that came his way. By the time of his father’s death in 1742-1743 he was established with holdings of his own -- the 400 acre tract he had taken under the head rights of the family, his share of the 761 acres he held with George, and such land as he had acquired from Borden.

The work of those days was without bull-dozers, chain-saws, an other modern equipment taken for granted in the 20th century. One can, without difficulty, conjure up a picture of the back-breaking toil of clearing the land of trees, burning brush, building the first home and then adding to it, along with such other structural dependencies as seemed necessary. In addition to raising crops for food, livestock was an important aspect to a well-balanced farm. Extensive fencing, enclosing all the land, must have been a relatively low priority in an area where development of farm land was the first demanding task to achieve. However, the need to identify straying cattle must have been a consideration. On 20 August 1752 Robert Breckenridge registered his mark -- “Cross and slit in the left ear and an underkut (sic) in the right ear.”25  It might be likened to the later burned brands of western cattle ranching.

Robert first married Sarah Poage, daughter of a prominent settler in the area, Robert Poage. Poage owned close to 1,000 acres of land, and was one of the original justices of the peace when Augusta County was formed in 1745.26 The date of the marriage seems not to have been recorded, but there were two sons by it: Alexander, doubtless names for Robert’s father (b. circa 1752); and, his own namesake, Robert (b. 1754). Sarah died at an early age, the date being lost in time. Robert remarried in July 1758 to Letitia Preston, his first cousin. Their children were: William (b. 1759); John (b. 1760), perhaps named for the brother killed by Indians in 1738; James (b. 1763), the first to be born in Botetourt County, where the family had moved by then; Elizabeth (b. circa 1766); and, Preston (b. 1770). All but James moved to Kentucky after the Revolution, although some descendants returned to Virginia.

Robert Breckenridge did not limit his life to acquiring land and developing it. He was very much involved in the community’s public life, starting about ten years after arrival on the scene. Presumably, by then he had established himself in the eyes of the older generation that had founded the local community. His father had been active in Pennsylvania, in seeking formal recognition of the township where they lived in Bucks County, and had been one of the five commissioners selected to arrange for construction of the church at the Tinkling Spring in Virginia. Those small efforts may have set some sort of example for Robert, but there were other factors that could have attracted involvement.

One of the limitations of frontier society was the scarcity of hard money -- cash. Society was not advanced enough to produce much money in the backwoods, being somewhat removed from the more established economic system nearer the coast. Crops could not be moved economically to the eastern markets, if there was any surplus at all in the earlier days. People with limited resources were highly unlikely to have much spare currency to use as a medium of exchange, so barter and shared labor were a part of frontier life. Public service could produce cash, however small the amounts. It was not unusual for men who had the time and energy to take on work on public projects, such as building and repairing roads. Public office also held its rewards in money, prestige and influence. If Robert Breckenridge was willing -- and he seems to have been -- and if he had the talent for it, it did not hurt to have some tie with the leadership of the community. His first father-in-law, Robert Poage, was a prominent citizen and member of the court. Perhaps more importantly was his mother’s connection through her brother’s brother-in-law -- James Patton, the leader of the community -- whose niece Robert married after his first wife died. And when Patton was killed in 1755 by Indians, his position of leadership soon was assumed by Robert Breckenridge’s brother-in-law, William Preston. Whatever the weight of his connections, the records do show public service.

One form of public service that involved most of the men on the frontier was the militia. As has been noted, defense of the frontier was one of the reasons behind the program to attract settlers to the area. It is certain that any motivation along this line, on the part of the Breckenridge men, was reinforced by the death of John Breckenridge at the hands of Indians. The earliest Augusta County records -- in 1742 -- show Alexander and his sons George, Robert and James as giving service to the militia.27  Robert continued his activity, having become a captain by 1755, when a major crisis struck the frontier. 

Prior to the 1755 drama, Robert had been involved in a number of public activities: he had qualified as Under Sheriff 17 February 1747;28  in 1751 he is listed among those who were members of the court;29  he qualified for sheriff in November 1753.30  He is listed as both sheriff and as a member of the court at the same time.31  Whatever the burden and advantages of this public involvement, it is the military service that provided new experience and drama for the next few years.

The settlers probably had been unconcerned with the distant rivalries of the European powers, caught up as they were with the demanding labors of making a new life for themselves. However, the foreign rivalries had found a new locale for their contests, and North America was about to become the scene of a fierce struggle. Virginia was not to be spared.

The British colonial governments claimed the land that extended west into the continent, which conflicted with French claims based on exploration in the area. Feeling the need to establish its claims by tangible action, a British expedition was dispatched to the Forks of the Ohio, as it was known then (where modern Pittsburgh is), to establish a post. A French expedition, with similar objectives, ousted the Colonials and began to build a fort, which they named Fort Duquesne. On to the stage of history came a young colonial colonel named George Washington, dispatched to protest the French action and gain their removal. He was to experience humiliation twice at the hands of the French, first on the mission to remove them, and then in 1755 when he accompanied British General Edward Braddock, whose force was attacked near Fort Duquesne and was defeated decisively by a smaller group of French and Indians. Braddock lost his life in the battle.

Already the Indians had been increasingly active along the frontier, forays against the settlers in 1754 having succeeded in driving many of them back to the east. James Patton was involved in reinforcing the frontier, and just three weeks after the Braddock defeat he was caught and killed by Indians when he left a convoy taking military supplies to the western territories. The Braddock defeat, in terms of its effect throughout the middle colonies -- and Patton’s death but a few weeks afterwards, in its effect on the Virginia frontier -- caused near panic.

To retaliate against the Indians Virginia dispatched an expedition against the Indian settlements on the Big Sandy. It became known as the Sandy Creek Expedition. That revealed the low level of training and readiness of the militia. The expedition floundered about in the forest, experiencing considerable privation and hardship, never reaching its objective.32  This suggests that whatever the expertise of the individual militiamen as foresters those qualities had not been adapted to relatively formal military organization. Robert Breckenridge was a captain of one of the companies participating in the affair.33

Governor Dinwiddie reacted to the success of the Indian raids along the frontier. Recognizing the broader implications of the Braddock defeat, he assigned George Washington to form a “Virginia Regiment” to defend the frontier. The ranger companies were felt better suited for the assignment than the militia, and were to constitute the central elements of that organization. Robert Breckenridge’s ranger company was one of these.

The discouraging and frustrating experiences George Washington had in mobilizing support from the Virginia government, and in organizing the frontier militia, are recited in Douglas Southall Freeman’s biography, The Young Washington, the second volume of his seven volume work on Washington (pages 191-231). Some fortifications already had been commenced along the frontier, and Washington undertook to complete that work and build new forts as well, where armed forces could provide shelter for the settlers, as well as serving as a base for operations when needed. One might consider that the line of forts marked something of a line of westwards settlement prior to the American Revolution.34
Washington’s efforts included an inspection tour of some of the forts, his visits ranging from south of present-day Martinsville, Virginia, near the North Carolina border, to Cumberland to the north, in Maryland. He had little to say that was encouraging about the state of things, or the military qualities of the forts and the forces that manned them. Breckenridge’s Fort, as it was known then, was included in the inspection, according to an historic marker on U.S. Route 220. The marker (numbered D-26 on the Virginia marker system) states that “Fort Breckenridge” was three miles west of the marker, at the mouth of Falling Spring Creek, where it joins the Jackson River. Virginia state Route 640 runs from U.S. Route 220 to Virginia State Route 687, which parallels the river. The creek runs through private property for about a half mile down to the River.
The probable site of the fort is the east side of the river, on the downstream side of the creek, where it joins the river. The land there is level for some distance, as it is also upstream and across the river. Those areas could be cleared to deny cover to approaching enemy forces conducting reconnaissance or a surprise attack. Clearing operations would have provided trees for the stockade that would have been built. Location farther down stream on the river would not have been acceptable, as high, steep banks on the west side of the river would have permitted hostile forces to fire down into the walled compound.

Published accounts do not tell how continuous was operation of the forts, although the historical marker states that in 1763 Fort Breckenridge withstood an attack by Shawnees under the famous Indian leader Cornstalk. It is doubted that Robert Breckenridge was present then, as he was moving or had moved to Botetourt. Whatever Robert Breckenridge’s service during this period, it is clear that he was on the Sandy Creek Expedition and later involved with establishing the fort, although details are not all that clear from published sources.35

Out of Robert Breckenridge’s service came later controversy. One soldier sued him in 1768 for the 1755 campaign, seeking pay for “72 days on the Shawnee expedition which you promised to pay me.”36  Another sued in 1759 for that year’s campaign; Robert Breckenridge certified that the man had served as claimed.37  The nature of the suit suggests that it was a procedural way of establishing a claim not previously recognized. In 1762 another man sought pay for service as a waggoner in the 1761 campaign, in which -- again -- his service seems to have been certified by Robert Breckenridge.38

Robert Breckenridge’s management of his company’s affairs on the Sandy Creek Expedition in 1755 drew criticism from Governor Dinwiddie, apparently based on complaints from Major Andrew Lewis. The Governor threatened to “prosecute Breckenridge for not paying the poor people for provisions.”39  Dinwiddie did order him into retirement, but his neighbors returned him to his offices. In 1761, when the town of Staunton was incorporated, he was elected one of the town’s first trustees.40

Robert may have felt civilization closing in on him, with an erosion of the independence he had come to prefer. He prepared to move again, possibly to take advantage of the opportunities open to those founding new communities. In any event the move probably occurred between 22 August 1762, when he filed his last suit in Augusta County, and the birth of his son, James, the next year in Botetourt County, where they had moved. All of Alexander Breckenridge’s sons seem to have left this area by the end of 1763, it having provided the base for their later careers.
Life in Botetourt County seems to have followed the pattern that had developed in Augusta County. Robert Breckenridge was active in organizing the township of Fincastle when it was created, serving as justice, sheriff of the county and lieutenant colonel of militia. For a while he held a license to operate an “Ordinary” -- an inn or tavern -- such a license usually being reserved for people of influence. It is interesting to note that Andrew Lewis -- the man who had been critical of Robert Breckenridge’s management of the affairs of his company on the Sandy Creek Expedition -- was a leader in the formation of Botetourt County. The two seem to have been quite close in their cooperation in decisions on how things were to progress in Botetourt.41

Not everything went smoothly. In 1769 Robert Breckenridge resigned as vestryman of the local church, declining to subscribe to the doctrine and discipline of the Church of England.42  Perhaps the assurance of freedom of worship on the frontier had not been forgotten, nor his father’s family’s problems with religious persecution in Scotland years before.
In 1772 Robert Breckenridge, who seems to have been in declining health, “took to his bed.” He made his last will on 17 August, dividing his property among his wife and seven children. Not wealthy by the standards of the great planters to the east, he did have a substantial estate: 2,000 acres of land, ten slaves, and considerable personal possessions. If 1716 was the date of his birth, as was speculated earlier, he would have been around 56 when he died.
Robert Breckenridge’s wife, Letitia, lived in the area for a while. She appears in records in 1780 when she sold beer to the Rockbridge County militia, marching en route to what became the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina.43  As most of her children moved to Kentucky after the Revolution, or were planning to do so, she also moved there, dying in Fayette County in 1798.44

One writer has the following to say:45

Robert Breckenridge was an able and respected member of the group of men with a sense of social responsibility who derived many benefits of a social, political and financial nature from their peculiar position, and who in turn provided Virginia with some of the best local government that the English-speaking people have ever known.

Robert Breckenridge’s Off-Spring

In the terminology of earlier generations Robert Breckenridge was a progenitor. Many of his descendants, by both wives, seemed to gravitate towards public service. Among the lawyers, ministers, soldiers, engineers, and social reformers there were local officials, ambassadors, military flag officers, numerous members of Congress, Cabinet Officers, and one Vice President.46  He set his own goals in the world that he faced, and seems to have achieved most of them. Not the least of his achievements was that of providing a material base, and an example, from which future generations could plan their own lives. A man of the frontier, he became a part of the future.

Robert’s two sons by his first wife seem not to have found life easy with the second wife. They went to southwest Virginia where they learned the carpenter trade. They became officers in the Revolution, Alexander as a captain and Robert as a Lieutenant. They were captured and were on British prison ships in Charleston harbor. After the war they moved to the Falls of the Ohio -- the site of modern Louisville -- where they were commissioners for handling the land claims of veterans of the campaigns of George Rogers Clark. Alexander married the widow of the pioneer John Floyd, and became a well-to-do citizen. Robert became a wealthy man, and also served as the first speaker of the Kentucky legislature when the new state was formed in 1792.

By Robert’s second wife there were five children. William moved to Kentucky, where he lived a quiet life. John, who had assumed management of his father’s farm for a time after Robert died, had a meteoric if brief career. He attended William and Mary College, where he studied law under the famed George Wythe, and served in the Virginia house during the Revolution. Although elected to the U.S. Congress from Albemarle County, he moved to Kentucky in 1793 without serving. In Kentucky he was in the state legislature, where he introduced the famous Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, part of the campaign of Jefferson and Madison against the Alien and Sedition Acts. In the U.S. Senate he became President Jefferson’s primary floor leader, and was prominent in the fight for ratification of the Louisiana Purchase. Appointed Attorney General in Jefferson’s cabinet, he was the first cabinet officer from west of the Alleghenies. After an uneventful year in that post he died at the age of 46. James also attended William and Mary, and remained in Virginia. He became a member of the House of Burgesses there, and a member of the U.S. Congress. During the War of 1812 he rose to the rank of brigadier general. With Thomas Jefferson he was a member of the Board of Visitors for the new University of Virginia. Elizabeth married Samuel Meredith, Jr., and they settled in Fayette County, Kentucky, near land acquired by her brother John. Preston also moved to Kentucky, settling in Scott County, where he lived a quiet life.

Other writers have dealt with the generations that followed the original Breckenridge settlers in America. This memorandum only addresses briefly the main story of the man who brought his family to America, and one of his sons.

Scott D. Breckinridge, Jr.
Lexington, Kentucky
May, 1986


1. Great Valley Patriots, by Howard McKnight Wilson, McClure Press, 1976, page 3.

2. James Patton and the Appalachian Colonists, by Patricia Givens Johnson, McClure Press, 1973, page 27; Great Valley Patriots, page 4.

3. The Scotch-Irish of Colonial Pennsylvania, by Wayland F. Dunway, Genealogical Publishing Company, 1985, pages 102-103.

4. Great Valley Patriots, page 4-5. See also Scotch-Irish of Colonial Pennsylvania, page 105, which states that Borden’s grant eventually was 500,000 acres.

5. In Scotland there were many variants of the name, which seems to appear primarily in the Ayrshire area. In addition to Brackenridge and Breckenridge, the name appears as Bracanrig, Brakanrig, Braikenrig and Breckinridge. See Kilmarnock (Scotland) Standard, 22 March 1947, “Ayrshire Notes.”

6. There seems to be agreement that Robert Breckenridge spelled the name with an “en” in the second syllable. The Life and Times of William Clark Breckenridge, by James Breckenridge, St. Louis, Missouri, 1932, page 123, carries a facsimile of his signature with that spelling. It must be noted, however, that Abstracts from the Records of Augusta County, Virginia, Volume I, by Lyman Chalkley, published by Mary S. Lockwood, 1912, shows his name recorded with the “in” spelling, while other members of the family appear with the “en” version. Pages 33, 42, 45, 48, 52, 53, 69, 70, 72, 80, 83, 97, 107, 136, 147, 300, 311, 322, 327, 332, 343, 358 and 487 -- covering the period from 1747 through 1759 -- show the “in” spelling for Robert. The last of these shows his name as having been spelled -- when he signed a document -- as “Rob’t Breckinridge.” It is an unimportant point except to those burdened with the various spellings the name receives, for who it is more than a point of curiosity.

7. William Clark Breckenridge, page 115.

8. The Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, by Ethelbert Dudley Warfield, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894, page 80.

9. William Clark Breckenridge, page 116.

10. For the story of the Pattons and the Prestons, see James Patton, op. cit. and William Preston and the Allegheny Patriots, by Patricia Givens Johnson, B. D. Smith and Brothers Printers, 1976.

11. William Clark Breckenridge, page 116.

12. The Tinkling Spring, Headwater of Freedom, by Howard McKnight Wilson, published by the Tinkling Spring and Mermitage Presbyterian Churches, Fisherville, Virginia, 1954, page 41-42, 111-112.

13. Abstracts from the Records of Augusta County, pages 305, 307.

14. The Tinkling Spring, map of real estate grants in back of book. See also William Clark Breckenridge, page 116-117, in which John Breckenridge (the one killed by Indians) seems to have had land transferred in his name.

15. Annals of Augusta County, Virginia, Supplement, by Jos. A. Waddell, J. W. Randolph & English, 1888, page 384. See also William Clark Breckenridge, page 117. The Tinkling Spring, at page 424, lists the names of those giving proof at that time of their transportation into the colony.

16. William Clark Breckenridge, page 117.

17. The Tinkling Spring, page 85.

18. William Clark Breckenridge, page 117. John Breckinridge, by Lowell Harrison, Filson Club, 1969, page 2, gives the date of death as 1774, which seems based on the date George took on the duties of administering the estate.

19. William Clark Breckenridge, page 118.

20. Ibid, 118.

21. Ibid, 119.

22. Ibid, pages 125-126. George Breckenridge’s descendants moved west into central and western Kentucky, some of them on to Missouri. One of them was William Clark Breckenridge, who was the subject of the book cited frequently in this paper.

23. Ibid, page 123.

24. Abstracts from the Records of Augusta County, pages 305, 307.

25. Ibid, page 53.

26. William Clark Breckenridge, page 120; The Tinkling Spring, map; Abstracts from the Records of Augusta County, page 13.

27. William Clark Breckenridge, page 125.

28. Abstracts from the Records of Augusta County, page 33.

29. Ibid, page 45 (although he is not shown as qualifying).

30. Ibid, page 70.

31. Ibid (although he seems to have served only as Sheriff).

32. Great Valley Patriots, pages 8-9.

33. William Clark Breckenridge, page 120.

34. The line of fortifications, intended to protect the western settlements, ran from Cumberland, Maryland, in the north, to south of Martinsville, Virginia, near the North Carolina border. It covered a distance of some 225 miles, as the crow flies. See The Young Washington, pages 215, 229, and The Tinkling Spring, opposite page 163.

35. William Clark Breckenridge, page 120.

36. Abstracts from the Records of Augusta County, page 311.

37. Ibid, pages 354, 463.

38. Ibid, pages 327, 336.

39. General Andrew Lewis of Roanoke and Greenbrier, by Patricia Givens Johnson, printed by Southern Printing Company of Blacksburg, Virginia, 1980, page 70.

40. John Breckinridge, pages 3-4.

41. General Andrew Lewis, Pages 154-155.

42. John Breckinridge, page 4.

43. Annals of Augusta County, Supplement, page 471.

44. Grave marker in Lexington, Kentucky cemetery. William Clark Breckenridge’s author states that he personally had seen a mourning ring inscribed “Lettice Breckinridge, Ob. March 1797, Aetatis 68,” indicating an earlier date (see page 122 of that book).

45. John Breckinridge, page 4.

46. William Clark Breckenridge, pages 120-121; America’s Political Dynasties, by Stephen Hess, Doubleday, pages 237-271; The Breckinridges of Kentucky, by James C. Klotter, The University Press of Kentucky, 1985.








In a paper done in May 1986 for a family reunion in Lexington, Kentucky in June of that year, focusing on the first two generations of the Breckenridge/Breckinridge family in America, it is stated at page 4 that the two sons of Robert Breckenridge by his first wife retained the “en” spelling, while, while the children by his second wife adopted the “in” spelling. The author had known Breckenridges from Louisville, Kentucky, who used the “en” spelling, and assumed them to be descendants of Alexander and Robert Breckinridge, the sons of the first wife of the elder Robert. They had settled there after the Revolution. A street in St. Mathews (a suburb of Louisville) used the “en” spelling; as it was named for Alexander it was assumed that the city fathers knew whereof they spoke. So much for assumption and hearsay.

In October 1987 Mrs. Henry Breckinridge gave some letters from the late 1700s and early 1800s to the University of Kentucky library, written by John and William Breckinridge, and by their half brothers Alexander and Robert. All used the “in” spelling. On 9 December 1987, during a visit to the Floyd burial ground off Breckinridge Lane in St. Mathews - where Alexander and Robert Breckinridge are buried -- it was noted that their headstones and memorials also employed the “in” spelling.

It is clear that all Robert Breckinridge's children, by both wives, used the “in” spelling. How or why the change from the earlier “en” version is unlikely to be learned. Added attention should be given the numerous records of Albemarle, Virginia, in which Robert Breckenridge's name appears with the “in” spelling.

bottom of page