Ellenor Brewster Dunn (1754-1841)
Jennet Brewster Irvin (1761-1839)
Nancy Brewster Alexander (1763-1830)
The matriarchs of Indiana University's founding families.
Surnames such as Dunn and Maxwell are synonymous with Indiana University, serving as the namesakes of popular areas and a well-known building on the Bloomington campus.
But had it not been for the Brewster sisters, places such as Dunn Meadow, Dunn's Woods, Dunn Cemetery and Maxwell Hall -- and even IU -- may not have existed, and the history of Bloomington could have been drastically different.
Ellenor Brewster Dunn (1754-1841), Jennet Brewster Irvin (1761-1839) and Agness "Nancy" Brewster Alexander (1763-1830) were three of the eight children of James and Elinor (Williamson) Brewster, and their families had a significant impact on the university and the city.
"They are matriarchs in the true sense," said John Summerlot, director of the Center for Veteran and Military Students, who has researched the Brewster sisters as part of IU's history. "Very often when you talk about the early history of IU it's usually only men. But in reality, we probably wouldn't have the university if not for the Brewster sisters putting their collection of families together."
James Brewster was born in Ireland in 1720 and moved to Virginia at age 18. James and Elinor lived in Augusta County, and he enlisted in the Virginia Militia in 1758, serving as a quartermaster.
The Brewster family raised sheep and sheered wool to make clothing for American soldiers during the Revolutionary War. The sisters weaved the wool, cut it and sewed clothes for the soldiers. When the militia camped on the family's property, the sisters cooked and baked food -- namely bread -- and carried it to the soldiers.
James later sold his land in Virginia and moved his family to Jessamine County, Kentucky.
It was in Kentucky where Ellenor, Agness and Jennet met and married their husbands -- creating families that would have an impact on IU and Bloomington later.
Ellenor married Samuel Dunn, a soldier in the Revolutionary War, and they settled on a farm near Danville, Kentucky. Jennet married Samuel Irvin, her cousin, and they settled on a farm in Richmond, Kentucky. Agness married William James Alexander, and they established a home on a farm in Lexington, Kentucky.
"By folding their families together, the Brewster sisters laid the groundwork for making IU possible," Summerlot said.
Ellenor and Samuel's daughter Mary married David Maxwell, who is considered the founding father of IU. On Jan. 20, 1820, the Indiana Legislature passed an act and established in the state constitution the creation of the Indiana Seminary in Bloomington, thanks to Maxwell's successful lobbying. The Indiana Seminary was renamed Indiana College in 1828, and then renamed Indiana University in 1838.
Maxwell served on IU's board of trustees, including as the president, and later was elected mayor of Bloomington in 1848.
Children of the Brewster sisters started moving to Bloomington in the 1820s after Maxwell founded IU. At some point after each of their husbands died, the widowed sisters moved to Bloomington.
Samuel and Ellenor's son Samuel Fowler Dunn bought property in Bloomington east of what is now Dunn Street. He stated in his will that a plot of land the family owned was to be used as a burial plot for the three sisters and any of their descendants.
Interestingly, the spelling of the sisters' names on their shared tombstone in Dunn Cemetery represent one of several known variations of their names. Ellenor's name also was spelled Elinor and Eleanor. Jennet also was spelled Jennette, Jeannett, Janet, Jannet and Jannett. Agness also was spelled Agnes.
The Dunn family was considered a proponent of education. After an 1883 fire destroyed much of IU's former campus -- located at what is now Seminary Square a few blocks south of the Monroe County Courthouse -- George Grundy Dunn, son of Samuel Fowler Dunn, sold part of the Dunn farm to the IU trustees. The land allowed the university to grow.
Other descendants of the Brewster sisters made their mark on Bloomington as well.
Janette "Jane" Irvin, a daughter of Jennet and Samuel Irvin, married Austin Seward in 1817 in Madison, Kentucky. Jane and Austin later moved to Bloomington, where Austin started Seward Foundry in 1822. The business operated until 1983. Austin Seward also was commissioned by the county to forge the fish weathervane that sits atop the county courthouse.
Williamson Martin Alexander, a grandchild of Agness and William J. Alexander, was a captain in the Union army and is the namesake for the Alexander Memorial on the Monroe County Courthouse square. John D. Alexander, a captain for the Union army whose Civil War memorabilia is in the IU Archives, also was one of their grandchildren.
And so many Dunns served in the military that by the Civil War, they were known as
"The Fighting Dunns," Summerlot said.
Today, Bloomington residents whose family name is Dunn, Alexander, Seward, Irvin, Maxwell, Binkley or Taylor, for example, have a good chance at being a descendent of the Brewster sisters, Summerlot said.
The legacy of the sisters lives on in other ways, too.
Hoagy Carmichael, an IU grad and famed singer and songwriter known for "Stardust," is a descendent of Agness Brewster Alexander.
IU's Hutton Honors College is named for Ed Hutton, an IU alumnus, prominent philanthropist and businessman, and the husband of Kathryn (Alexander) Hutton, a Brewster descendent and IU graduate. Both are buried in Dunn Cemetery.