Within the last few years Mr. Bryan has corresponded with a number of persons bearing the family name. Some of the Bryans trace their ancestry to Ireland, some to Wales, while others have followed the name through Irish into English history. A biographical sketch written under the supervision of Silas L. Bryan states that the family is of Irish extraction.
William Bryan, who lived in Culpeper County, Virginia, something more than one hundred years ago, is the first ancestor whose name is known to the descendants. Where he was born, and when, is a matter of conjecture. He owned a large tract of land among the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, near Sperryville. The family name of his wife is unknown. There were born to the pair five children: James, who removed to Kentucky; John, who remained upon the homestead; Aquilla, who removed to Ohio; and Francis and Elizabeth, about whom nothing is known.
John Bryan, the second son, was born about 1790, and at an early age married Nancy Lillard. The Lillard family is an old American family of English extraction and is now represented by numerous descendants scattered over Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. To John Bryan and wife ten children were born, all of whom, excepting Russell and Elizabeth, are deceased. The oldest, William, removed to Missouri in early life and lived near Troy until his death, some ten years ago. John and Howard died in infancy. Jane married Joseph Cheney and lived at Gallipolis, Ohio. Nancy married George Baltzell, and lived in Marion County, Illinois. Martha married Homer Smith, and lived at Gallipolis, Ohio, later removing to Marion County, Illinois. The next child, Robert, a physician, was killed in a steamboat explosion while yet a young man. Silas Lillard, father of William Jennings Bryan, was born November 4th, 1822, near Sperryville, in what was then Culpeper, but is now a part of Rappahannock County, Virginia. The next child, Russell, located at Salem, Illinois, where he has since lived. Elizabeth, the youngest of the family, married another George Baltzell. She early removed to Lewis County, Missouri, her present home.
About the year 1828 John Bryan removed with his family to the western portion of Virginia, in what is now West Virginia. His last residence was near Point Pleasant, where both he and his wife died, the latter in 1834, the former in 1836.
Silas, then but a boy, went West and made his home a part of the time with his sister, Nancy Baltzell, and a part of the time with his brother, William. He was ambitious to obtain an education, and after making his way through the public schools, entered McKendree College, at Lebanon, Illinois, where he completed his course, graduating with honors, in 1849. Owing to lack of means he was occasionally compelled to drop out of college for a time and earn enough to continue his studies. At first he spent these vacations working as a farm hand, but later, when sufficiently advanced in his studies, taught school. After graduation he studied law, was admitted to the bar, and began the practice at Salem, Illinois, at the age of twenty-nine. On November 4th, 1852, he married Mariah Elizabeth Jennings. During the same year he was elected to the State Senate and served in that body for eight years. In 1860 he was elected to the circuit bench, and served twelve years. In 1872 he was nominated for Congress upon the Democratic ticket, receiving the endorsement of the Greenback party. He was defeated by a plurality of 240 by General James Martin, Republican candidate. As a member of the convention of 1872, which framed the present Constitution of Illinois, he introduced a resolution declaring it to be the sense of the convention that all offices, legislative, executive and judicial, provided for by the new Constitution, should be filled by elections by the people. Before his election to the bench, and after his retirement therefrom, he practiced law in Marion and the adjoining counties. He was a member of the Baptist Church, the church to which his parents belonged, and was a very devout man. He prayed at morning, noon and night, and was a firm believer in providential direction in the affairs of life. He was a man of strong character, stern integrity and high purpose. He took rank among the best lawyers in Southern Illinois, and was a fluent, graceful and forcible speaker. His mind was philosophical and his speeches argumentative. In politics he was a Democrat in the broadest sense of the word and had an abiding faith in republican institutions and in the capacity of the people for self-government. He was a staunch defender of higher education and gave financial as well as moral support to various institutions of learning. He regarded the science of government as highly honorable and used to say that the guest chamber of his home was reserved for "politicians and divines". He was broad and tolerant in his religious views. It was his custom, after he removed to the farm, to send a load of hay at harvest time to each preacher and priest in Salem. While a public man during a large part of his life, he was eminently domestic. He died March 30, 1880, and was buried in the cemetery at Salem. His will provided that all of his children should be encouraged to secure "the highest education which the generation affords".