Sunday, July 9, 2017, was steeped in feelings of awe as I stood in front of the statue of Colonel John Neilson, my fourth great-grandfather, listening intently to the words of the Declaration of Independence spoken aloud. Throughout the 10-minute reading, my eyes were transfixed on this towering reincarnation of my ancestor, eyes darting between his shining face and the document in his hand, as if I was a citizen of colonial New Brunswick that hot, humid day on July 9, 1776.
Discovering My Connection
Up until a few years ago, I did not know much about Colonel John Neilson, let alone that I was his fourth generation great-granddaughter. My quest began after I retired. I had asked my niece for a document of my mother’s to join another lineage society when I saw that Colonel John Neilson was listed as her ancestor. I had to learn more about him and his contributions to American history. That’s when my search began, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Fast forward a few years to five years ago when I inadvertently discovered Colonel Neilson’s grave at Van Liew Cemetery and the Jersey Blue Chapter in New Brunswick. This chapter is how and why I became a Daughter in the first place. With their help, I was able to trace my direct lineage to Colonel Neilson through my late grandmother, Sally Neilson Rice, a DAR member herself, and a New Brunswick native by birth.
I cried a lot from discovering his grave and to almost every other thing that happened along the way through my discoveries. Seeing his grave was humbling and surreal. To read that gravestone and his wife next to him, recognizing all the familiar family names that have been passed down through my generation and beyond has been an intense family experience.
Today, four of my great-nieces have become members of the Colonel John Neilson Society of the National Society of the Children of the American Revolution (C.A.R.), and one who just became a Daughter on July 5, just in time to attend the statue dedication. Two of my great-nieces (twins) even share the same birthday as Colonel Neilson!
Who Was Colonel John Neilson?
Neilson was born March 11, 1745, in Raritan Landing, a busy port community located across the Raritan River from New Brunswick. His father, an emigrant from Belfast, Ireland, died when Neilson was an infant, and he was raised by his uncle, James Neilson, one of New Brunswick’s first settlers and businessmen.
It was in this busy Colonial port city that Neilson grew up to become a respected local merchant and well-known Revolutionary who spoke out against the oppressive taxes instituted by the British crown. A good friend of General George Washington and Marquis de Lafayette, he was asked to join the Continental Congress in Philadelphia as it met to draft the Declaration of Independence. He declined, due to his duties in New Brunswick. Instead, the Congress sent him one of the first copies of the Declaration of Independence to read to the people of the city.
On July 9, 1776, an impromptu oration took place on the city streets, with a table dragged from the nearby White Hall Tavern to serve as a stage, for the 31-year-old Neilson as he proudly read the now immortal document aloud in its entirety, despite many loyalists in the audience. He would go on to lead one of two regiments of the Middlesex County militia during the war and represent New Jersey at the Continental Congress of 1778.
After the war, he became the state’s deputy quartermaster general, built New Brunswick’s first public school and spent two years in the state legislature. When his uncle died, he inherited considerable wealth, including land that eventually became part of Rutgers University. But at his core, he was a New Brunswick native; he was an original signer to the city’s charter by the state legislature in 1784, and his contributions that hot July day in 1776 a testament to the significance of the city of New Brunswick during the Revolution.
The Statue Comes to Life
For its inaugural project, New Brunswick Public Sculpture (NPBS) chose to commission a life-size bronze statue depicting Colonel John Neilson a top a table in July 1776, giving the third-ever public reading of the Declaration of Independence (after Philadelphia and New York), and the first-ever statue depicting one of the first readings. Located in Monument Park between Neilson and Albany Streets, the statue was created by Chicago-based husband and wife sculptor team, Anna Koh Varilla and Jeffrey H. Varilla. It stands 7 feet tall on a three-foot-high bronze pedestal. The Declaration's text appears on the front of the pedestal, while its three sides carry the names of its original 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence and of the project's donors, two of which are the Jersey Blue Chapter.
As chair of the Statue Dedication Committee for the Jersey Blue Chapter, I was especially eager to see this project through and found the dedication ceremony itself to be a stunning and powerful complement to the statue. Meticulously plotted by NPBS Chairman Greg Ritter, Pamela Stefanek and the board of directors, every last detail held a remarkable touch. Major General Robert Kenny USAF, a New Brunswick native, read the Declaration of Independence, while City Council President Glenn Flemming, a minister at Abundant Life Family Worship Church, put the celebration in the proper historical context by proclaiming that the statue was dedicated not to the remembrance of a man, but of a cultural movement and set of ideals inherent in all of us. Over 60 descendants of those who signed the Declaration attended, along with 18 descendants of Colonel John Neilson in an almost modern-day reunion of my own family. The most entertaining part, however, was when a colonial-styled rider delivered the Declaration to the event on horseback and handed it over to be read to the citizens of New Brunswick!
It was an unprecedented opportunity and privilege for me to celebrate this great act of patriotism, along with representatives and dignitaries from several lineage societies, including the Jersey Blue Chapter (DAR), Children of the American Revolution (C.A.R.), National Society Colonial Dames of America in New Jersey (NSCDA), Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) and Society of Colonial Wars (SCWNJ) as well as the Masons. Many ceremony attendees were new to history, and this was their first up close and personal patriotic experience learning about these societies. I was honored to play a part in their own patriotic journey!
What’s Next for Me
My quest is not yet over. Along my journey, my research helped me find a long lost other half of my family at Thanksgiving, which allowed me to celebrate this thrilling occasion with 14 of these newly “found” family members. I know there are many, many more, and I have begun further research into my Rice relations, the descendants of my grandmother’s siblings, James Kearny Rice Jr. (1877-1957), Schuyler Neilson Rice (1881-1960), John Warren Rice (1884 - ?) and Richard Coxe Rice (1885-1972). I hope to discover many more members of my family and share with them this new chapter in our family’s story.
I cannot help but think that Colonel John Neilson and my parents, grandparents and great grandparents were looking down on us with great pride and appreciation on this long-awaited occasion. On a deeper, spiritual note, I believe that they set in motion a series of events that made this happen. I am honored to continue their legacy and share it with my many family members, particularly the children, who will carry the torch forward.
Written by Catherine "Kit" Stahler-Miller
Catherine "Kit" Stahler-Miller has been a member of the Jersey Blue Chapter since 2014 and is a fourth great-granddaughter of Brigadier General John Neilson.
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