Helen Kortright Brasher Full Biography
I was born in April 1739 in New York City as daughter to Cornelius and Hester Kortright and in 1758 married Abraham Brasher. When the American Revolution broke out Abraham’s time-consuming service as an officer in the New York militia and a Patriot political leader caused him to neglect our family, but finally I told him, “Go my dear, and serve your country I will find the means to provide for the family.”
When the war came to New York, “our peaceful city became a garrisoned town, …[and] by order of Genl. Washington all the women and children were ordered to leave it.” Abraham “procured part of a house for us at Hackensack in Jersey,” for me, my aged mother, and our three children and three servants. Abraham joined us when the British took control of New York.
When the British forces crossed into New Jersey, Abraham “got rooms for us at Paramus, a village about twelve miles back” where we resided with a miller, Mr. John Hoppers, who said he would be a “father and friend to us” and he was “as good as his word. … His wife was a fine humane woman whom I really loved ….” We became friends with our neighbors and “found them very good kind hospitable farmers.”
When Paramus became a post for our army, it “totally changed the scene, [and] from the simple whistle of the village lad and the cheerful song of the simple pleasant country girls, we had the fife the drum and all the accompaniments of noisy Mars.” Soldiers were quartered in our town and “our house [was] constantly filled with officers[,] amongst them many of our citizens.” One group was no sooner gone than another came and I tried to make them as comfortable as I could. “I [did not] complain, so great was my zeal to promote all in my power the comfort or pleasure of my countrymen that were exposing their lives for their country’s safety.”
In April 1780, Major Byles of the 3rd Pennsylvania Regiment was at our house and his guard in our kitchen. “This my good husband thought a security to us but to me it appeared a sure omen of distress and [I] frequently declared my fears to him and the Major by saying that I was sure his being in the house with his men would bring destruction on me and my family. The Major promised to remove himself and his men the next day, and said, Madam I will ensure your safety this night.” However, I believed the enemy would attack and plunder us that night. “He laughed at my fears. … [and] I went to bed but could not sleep from apprehension.” About two in the morning we were attacked and the British called out “to surrender or we will put you all to the bayonet.”
“My husband left my room with his apparel in his hands and I knew not where he had gone.” The troops in our house began firing their muskets out the garret windows and “immediately the house was surrounded and the [musket] balls flew in every direction. I could not leave my room it being on the ground floor nor could I get to my aged mother and children.” When the firing ceased I found Major Byles “laying on the floor weltering in his blood” mortally wounded and “the house was full of men plundering everything they saw.” I was panicked that my husband had been killed or captured, but “found him up and dressed in my mother’s room where he had hidden.” At this point the house was on fire and “my husband desired me to call the [enemy] commanding officer and he would surrender. I begged him not, [but] he said we must or we should all be consumed.” I led my eldest daughter who was faint from the smoke to the back door. “One of the subaltern officers came up to me and offered his canteen with water, saying this is too much to see beauty in distress[. He then] ordered his men to draw back and let the lady and her daughter out, he took her by the hand and supported her.” My husband and I dragged my mother’s bed out of the burning house with my husband crouching under it. “By this stratagem my husband got safe out unperceived in the presence of two hundred British troops with their bayonets fixed. We had scarcely left the house before the roof fell in and all was in a light flame. The British gave three cheers and left us.”
I moved with part of my family to Morristown and then Newark for the remainder of the war. My husband died at Morristown in 1782 at age 48. I returned to our “racked, abused and filthy” house in New York after the British left in November 1783 and operated a dry goods store into the early 1790s. In 1802 I wrote about my experiences in the Revolution and seventeen years later I died in New York in 1819.
John U. Rees, “It appeared to me as if here we should live secure …” A Family’s Precarious Refuge in Paramus, 1776 to 1780,” in Barbara Z. Marchant, ed., Revolutionary Bergen County: The Road to Independence. Charleston, SC and London: The History Press, 2009, 31-42.