Select Bryant Surname Genealogy

Bryan and Bryant are English and American surnames derived from the old Celtic personal name Brian which is thought to combine the elements bre meaning “hill” and brigh “strong.”  Bryan may alternatively have been derived from the place-name Brionne (pronounced Brionny) in northern France.  The names were probably first brought over to England with Breton and Norman bearers of the name who had arrived at or after the time of the Norman Conquest.

Brian Boru rose to the high kingship of Ireland in 1002 and later defeated the invading Vikings.  His descendants became the O’Brien sept.  The O’Brien name in its travels abroad, particularly in America, often got mixed up with the Bryan name.  Bryants outnumber Bryans by about two to one today.  The Bryant name is particularly numerous in America

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Select Bryant Ancestry

England.  Guy de Brienne was the 12th century scion of a Norman family which based itself at Walwyn’s Castle in Pembrokeshire and began six generations of knights that were all named Guy.  Whether there was a descent from here to Thomas Bryan of Cheddington in Buckinghamshire is doubtful, although one was claimed.

This Thomas Bryan rose from humble origins to become Chief Justice of the Common Pleas in 1475.  His son and grandson were courtiers to Henry VIII, most famously his grandson Sir Francis Bryan the rake who was known as the “Vicar of Hell.” 

Most Bryants came from the west country, principally Somerset and Gloucestershire in the 19th century.

.  Breton origins may have been the base of the Bryan family in Somerset which took its name from Brean manor sometime in the 14th century.  However, the spelling in Somerset became more Briant and Bryant.  Alexander Briant was the Jesuit priest from Somerset who was martyred for his faith in 1581.  There was a later Briant family from Yatterdon which emigrated.  There were as well notable Bryant families in the villages of Withiel-Flory and Thurlbear.

.  This county had the largest number of Bryants in England in the 1891 census.  The small village of Frampton Cotterell near Chipping Sodbury has had a significant number of Bryants dating back to the 1600’s.  A Bryan family of masons flourished in Painswick from the early 1700’s.  

.  The Bryant name appeared in villages such as St. Hilary and St. Uny near Lelant in the 18th century.  The latter was the birthplace of William Bryant, the convict transported on the First Fleet to Australia in 1788 who made a famous escape by ship to the Dutch East Indies three years later.  William died soon afterwards.  His wife Mary was captured and brought back to London, but subsequently pardoned.

.  Thomas Bryant was recorded at Bampton in 1634 and descendants were subsequently to be found at Tiverton where James Bryant was a starch-maker in the late 1700’s.  His son William Bryant, who became a Quaker, entered into a partnership with a fellow Quaker in 1843 to form what was to be the Bryant & May match company.  William’s son Wilberforce took over the company after William’s death in 1874.  By 1900 the company had become, through expansion and merger, the largest match-making company in Britain.

The Bryans of Kilkenny were not thought to have originated from the Irish O’Briens, but from the Anglo-Norman de Brienne family in Pembrokeshire in Wales.  Sir William Bryan of this line may have come to Kilkenny sometime in the late 14th century, although details here are sketchy.

“There was a John Bryan who around the year 1640 owned well over 5,000 acres of the civil parish of Erke in the northwestern tip of county Kilkenny in the barony of Galmoy.”

These Bryans were Catholic at the time of Cromwell and lost much of their land.  However, Pierse Bryan and his descendants remained sizeable landowners at Jenkinstown in Kilkenny during the 18th and 19th centuries.  
The principal early Bryant lines were to be found in New England.

New England
.  Anne Bryant, a widow, was an early arrival in New England, coming to Plymouth on the Handmaid with her three young Bryant sons from Kent in 1630.  The main descending line came from her second son Stephen.

The line via Ichabod, Philip, and the literary physician Peter led to the 19th century poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant.  The chef Julia Child might have been a descendant too.
  Another line via Ichabod went to Edwin Bryant, a Kentucky newspaper editor who wrote a popular book in 1848 entitled
What I Saw in California about his overland journey to San Francisco.

Captain John Bryant, born in Boston in 1742, may have been of this line, but there is no proof.  He was Deputy Commissary of Military Stores at the Springfield Armory during the Revolutionary War.  His son John was a prominent Boston merchant of the firm of Bryant & Sturgis in the mid-19th century.

Another early Bryant line started with John Bryant, also from Kent, a carpenter who was first recorded at Scituate near Plymouth in 1639.  He was married three times and was the father of 19 children:
  • from one line came Gridley Bryant who was born in Scituate in 1789.   He was a construction engineer who built the first commercial railroad in the United States in 1826.  His son G.J.F. Bryant was a well-known Boston architect and builder.
  • from another came the Bryants who moved to Maine in the 1760’s.  Later Bryants here were blacksmiths in Knox, Maine.
Bryans from Ireland.  Irish O’Briens frequently became Bryans in America.  One early example was William Smith Bryan who was transported as a rebellious subject to Virginia in 1650.  A grandson, also named William, made his home along the Roanoke river.  He lived to be 104, being able to die after having seen the defeat of the British in America in 1783.  A descendant of these Bryans is thought to have been the politician and three-time Presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan.

Other O’Brien/Bryan examples were the five Bryan brothers,including Edward and Hardy, who came to New Berne, North Carolina from Munster around the year 1700.

African American Bryants.
  Bryant has been a prominent African American name even prior to emancipation.

Sherrod Bryant had been born into slavery in North Carolina in 1781.  He became a free black, moved to Tennessee, and his plantation at Bryant Grove in the pre-Civil War South was large in size and undoubtedly employed slaves.  He died there in 1854.  Abraham Bryant meanwhile was a freed slave from Tennessee who had moved to Hamilton in Canada by the 1840’s.

Eliza Bryant, the daughter of a freed slave, grew up in North Carolina but moved to Cleveland in 1858.  There she worked tirelessly for the cause of black people.   In 1895 she founded what became known as the Eliza Bryant Home for elderly citizens.  Other noted African American Bryants, who have been traced back to the 1830’s, were to be found in Jefferson and Franklin counties, Missouri.

John D. O’Bryant, who was born in Boston in 1931, sounds Irish but was in fact an African American who became President of Northwestern University in 1981.

Australia and New Zealand. 
James and Mary Bryant were among the early arrivals in New Zealand.  In 1840 they came from Cornwall on the Duke of Roxburgh to Petone beach near Wellington where their first son John was born.  James purchased the Hula farm in the Ohariu valley in 1857.  The family story was told in Shirley Arabins’s 1990 book The Bryants of Ohariu.  Meanwhile Lewis Bryant from Bristol emigrated with his family on the Queen Margaret in 1855 and made his home in Brightwater near Nelson.

The mining slump in Cornwall prompted the emigration of the Bryants from St. Teath in the 1860’s.  Three brothers and five sisters came to Australia.  They headed for the gold-mining town of Ballarat in Victoria

Select Bryant Miscellany

If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:

Select Bryan/Bryant Names

Sir Francis Bryan was an amoral but successful courtier to Henry VIII who ended up as Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.
William Cullen Bryant was an American 19th century romantic poet, journalist, and long-time editor of the New York Evening Post.
William Jennings Bryan
was a dominant force in the populist wing of the US Democratic party, standing three times as the Presidential candidate between 1896 and 1908.

Sir Arthur Bryant
was an English historian of the early 20th century, extremely popular in his day but less so today.
Bear Bryant
was the longtime head coach of the Alabama college football team.
Kobe Bryant
is a superstar basketball player for the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA

Select Bryan/Bryants Today
  • 40,000 in the UK (most numerous in Wiltshire)
  • 70,000 in America (most numerous in Florida) 
  • 26,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 800 surnames.

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