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The Breen Family
The Breen Family

This history is written by Meg McGowan.  Family members are free to cite it with permission and proper attribution.  It is a work in progress and will be updated as new information become available. For this reason, please do not copy the material and post it elsewhere, as the material may be outdated over time.  

Among the Irish families that were attracted to Stevens and Swift Counties in Minnesota in the late 1870s by the Irish Colonization Bureau were the Breens. Daniel Breen and his wife Sarah were both born in Ireland had immigrated to Port Henry, New York, by 1850, perhaps at the time of the Great Famine in Ireland a few years earlier. Daniel worked in the mines and two children were born there--Bridget in 1848 and Patrick Joseph (P. J.) in 1850. Sarah’s mother was also living with the family in 1850.  Her name was listed as Mary McGuire on the 1850 census but other sources have Sarah’s family name as McGinn.  The Breens moved to Fort Winnebago, Wisconsin between 1850 and 1853 to take up farming.   Fort Winnebago is in Columbia County a few miles north of Portage.  Columbia Co had been organized in 1846 and Fort Winnebago attracted many Irish settlers.  It is not clear whether Mary McGuire/McGinn made the move with them.

Several more children were born in Fort Winnebago:  Thomas in 1853, Anne in 1856, James in 1858, and Mary Agnes in 1860.  The family suffered a tragedy in 1863, when Bridget, Thomas and Ann died within the space of three weeks. A year later, in 1864, the youngest child, Sarah, was born. 
The father, Daniel Breen, died in 1874 in Fort Winnebago, Wisconsin, when P. J. was 24 and Sarah was ten years old.  At the time of Daniel’s death, the value of his real estate  property was listed as $1600 and personal property $200.  The farm was slightly larger than 80 acres.  The family gave up their farm and moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, in about 1877, and after two years there, moved to western Minnesota. 

Mary Breen was hired as a teacher in 1879 in School District No. 3 in Moore Township, when she was about 18 years old. A copy of her teacher's contract shows that she was to teach for 3 1/2 or 4 months for the sum of thirty dollars per month, beginning on September 29, 1879. In 1880 there is a teacher named Mary Breen living in the McKenna household in adjacent Tara township in Swift County. Mary may have been double counted in Stevens and Swift counties, as Mary Breen is also listed with her family in Moore township in Stevens county. The other members of the Breen family were (Patrick) Joseph Breen, age 30, living with his widowed mother Sarah age 56, and his brother and sisters, James 21, Mary 19, and Sarah 16. About this same time, 16-year old Sarah became the first teacher in school district no. 31 in Stevens County.  The district was organized on June 15, 1880 and her oldest brother Joseph (P.J) was the school district clerk. 

The Breens were neighbors of widows Ellen and Jane McGowan in Moore township.  One of Sarah Breen’s students was nine-year-old Nellie McGowan, Jane’s daughter.  We can speculate that the two matriarchs—Ellen McGowan and Sarah Breen may have encouraged a marriage between Ellen son’s Patrick McGowan and Sarah’s daughter Sarah.  The marriage took place in August 1881, when Sarah was 17 and Patrick was 28.

Most of the Breen family left Stevens County within the next few years. The mother Sarah and her elder daughter Mary Agnes moved to Birch Cooley in Renville County, about 90 miles from Moore Township.  Mary had been hired in 1883 as the first teacher in newly formed district no. 96, the Franklin school. Records indicate she taught in that school for one year.  Presumably she was still teaching in the area at the time of the 1885 state census.  No further record has yet been found for mother Sarah or her children  Mary and James.

P. J. had married and was living in Watertown, Minnesota, about 15 miles from Minneapolis, with his wife Mary and daughter Mary in 1885.  In the 1886-87 City Directory of Minneapolis, a P. J. Breen is listed as an employee of J. H. Bishop & Co. He is not listed in the 1887-88 Directory, but shows up again in the 1888-89 issue as Patrick J., teacher, residing at 2126 Willow Ave. North. The next two years, he is listed as a contractor, and in 1891-92 he is again listed as a teacher. Two years later he is listed as in the insurance business at 2205 N. Queen Ave.  The 1895 state census has the same information and lists children Joseph, 9, J.R. (Genevieve Rose) 5, and Emma 2. The oldest daughter Mary who would have been 13 is no longer listed.

P.J. got involved in Hennepin County politics.  In 1892, he was named to the Hennepin Co. Third Ward district committee, and two years later, was nominated as the Democratic candidate for county Superintendent of Schools.  In a September 25, 1894 Political Gossip column in the St. Paul Global Daily newspaper, P. J. Breen is reported as saying he is not withdrawing from the Superintendent’s race in favor of the Populist candidate.  It appears his candidacy was unsuccessful, although this has to be confirmed. 

In 1897, the Minneapolis City directory has P.J.’s  insurance business is at 515 Temple Court, and his residence at 2509 Thomas Ave. In 1901 the family moved to 2223 Russell Ave. North where they lived for many years. In the 1905 census, the three children, are listed as Joseph, age 14, Genevieve (Rose) 10, and Josephine, 7. 

The oldest son, Joseph, became an attorney, but died in 1915 at the age of 29 of tuberculosis.  P. J. Died in 1932;  his widow Mary Jane, four years later.  Their daughter Genevieve Rose, remained in the house at 2223 Russell Ave. North while employed as a high school teacher.  She died in 1950 of breast cancer.,_Minnesota,_Minnesota