Name and Origin Puzzle DeBreae or O'Brien - Buffalo (NY), Canada and Michigan connection

+2 votes
I've stumbled into a bit of a puzzle while seeking possible sister of my ancestor Catherine "Kate" O'Brien Stephenson.

Based on census records there was a Mary A O'Brien living with her and her husband and children.   Like Catherine,  Mary was reported to have been born in Canada about 1837/8

I commenced searching for her hoping to turn up another trace in Buffalo, given that they likely would have arrived together, and that as Catherine had a child in Buffalo by mid 1850s. I felt something should turn up.

Of course O'Brien is as popular as Smith, and in order to explore this line of inquiry I often have to research entire families and see what can be pieced together.

I primarily research through the familysearch databases.

So to the puzzle -

there is a family appearing in Buffalo, NY 1850 US census and 1855 NYS census, headed by Edward and Jane, both respectively reported to be born in Canada circa 1811 and 1818 or so.    The surname is recorded as Obrian and Obrion, and I take it at face value that these are properly O'Brien's.   (leaving aside that O'Brian is fine too)

They have several children -- the earlier one born in Canada, with some inconsistency for daughter Mary A... reported as NY (Erie county) for one and Canada for the other.   I'm fine with the inconsistency, and if she turns out to be the same Mary living with Catherine later (working as a seamstress) it's reported as Canada there too .. knowing this detail would help figure out when the family migrated.   (i.e. between which of the children of Edward was  last born in Canada and first born in Erie County NY.)   

In 1850 they are in what is enumerated as Black Rock, and which is annexed to the growing city of Buffalo before 1855.  

At this point - whether Mary in 1850/1855 and Mary with a sister Catherine (my ancestor) is the same person is circumstantial.   So I dig deeper into the other children present in those two census records, and normally I'd have established profiles here on WikiTree for them but for something that left me quite stumped.

Reported on profiles at familysearch (which I take with a grain of salt) is that the people in the 1850 census are in Michigan by 1860 (including Mary - which if true makes the connection to my line less likely) - on Beaver island, near Charlevoix, Michigan.   

The profiles they are connected with are all under the surname DeBreae / Debrea/ Devrea and similar.  

At first - I felt "this can't be right"  and I remain somewhat uncertain.

One several profiles a test is mentioned which purports to go into the story of the surname of this family.  

The text is not provided nor even explained or summarized  with any detail and I don't have access to it nor can I judge it's value as a source.  For now I treat it as more akin to folklore.

The gist as far as I can tell is that the family was French Canadian  or at least from what was known as Lower Canada.  If the parents were actually born there circa 1811-1819, were they Irish in Canada?  Were they a mixed couple - Irish & French (wife)?

The major inconsistency between the family in Michigan census is that the wife goes by Roselle there rather than Jane.   It is unclear if it is the same woman or if the father remarried.  

Assuming that it's the same family reported to have come from Canada, lived in western NY and then on to Beaver Island -  what are the possible bases for their surname.

Is O'Brien proper and LNAB for father and children... or is the DeBreae proper?  (resolving this is essential to me getting these profiles on to wikitree - which luckily I put off doing before stumbling into this quagmire)

Possibilities I have been mulling:

I) O'Brien is correct, but in partially Francophone context (Beaver Island/Charlevoix) and with wife (or second wife) possibly of French heritage - the name morphed by this influence and some children used it that way (and Roselle is buried under that name)

II) the renderings in Black Rock/Buffalo census were incorrect - i..e misinterpretation by enumerators (2 of them? 1850/1855) and something like DeBreae was actually correct.

I've been trying to follow several of the children in order to see which of these two options makes more sense.  (I favor option I - but I leave it open that there may be another explanation.)

Many, especially the younger ones appear to exclusively use DeBreae or similar (including V for letter B) later in life but as O'Brien appears on a few documents I find it hard to accept theory II - such as marriage records of grandchildren, or death records of some of the grandchildren in reporting their parents. Given this I'd be more likely to establish them as O'Brien LNAB and include the DeBreae name as current or other name as appropriate.

In any case I am being rather cautious  - I have not proven this to be connected to my own line, and I dont want to step on any toes, but these names dont seem to be established here on wikitree yet.

In all of this I also am wondering about the  history of Ontario Canada - in particular the Irish who arrived there this early - and whether they may have been in upper or lower Canada - is still uncertain to me -- and if it turns out that they were not O'Brien's then were they even Irish?  They are present very early in Canada for the Irish, and they are early in Buffalo area, too.

I've attached my ancestor here - but that link is not a lot of help in solving this.
WikiTree profile: Kate Stephenson
in Genealogy Help by Michael Maranda G2G6 Mach 6 (66.4k points)

1850 Ref:

"United States Census, 1850," database with images, FamilySearch ( : 12 April 2016), Edward Obrian, Black Rock, Erie, New York, United States; citing family 655, NARA microfilm publication M432 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

1855 NYS Census ref:

"New York State Census, 1855," database with images, FamilySearch ( : 13 March 2018), Edward Obrien, E.D. 1, Ward 12, Buffalo City, Erie, New York, United States; citing p. , line #1, family #394, county clerk offices, New York; FHL microfilm 825,679.

1860  "Beaver Island:    

"United States Census, 1860", database with images, FamilySearch ( : 14 December 2017), Edward Obrion, 1860.

A user on family search asserted the following - way bak in 2015- so I have not figured out if they are still active nor do I know what is contained in this volume as it is not summarized there:  

"I found that this O'Brian family and the Edward De Briae Family were the same family. The had lived on Beaver Island and the Beaver Island Historical Society has written a book "The Journal of Beaver Island History" volume one. On page 37 they tell the story of the DeBriae-O'Brian family."

If anyone has access to said volume - I'd appreciate info or summary or an assessment of whether to treat it seriously.

I would leave O'Brian as the LNAB for time being doing the research.
Our attention to LNAB here at wikitree is one of the virtues of a consistent policy.   Also-having a place for community to engage-those are my ruminations upon reviewing user edited spaces of familysearch.
there are a number of O'Brien's in Québec in the early 1800's, there were actually many Irish immigrants to this province, most of them Catholic, so intermarriage was not a problem from that viewpoint.  That said, would need more precise data on names to do a further search in Drouin (which is indexed, unlike FS).

I've made some progress - enough to start a profile for the father Edward on WikiTree:

I've cleared up one of the mysteries -- the woman who appears as wife Jane in 1850 and 1855 must be the same woman who appears as wife Roselle in 1860.   Her grave marker species date of death under name of Rosalia wife of Edward DeBriae but appears in Michigan county death record as Jane O'Brine.  A page (and year later) I find Edward O'Brine's death record.   There is no record in this county for a death under the name DeBriae in this period.  

Now, Edward's date of birth has been uncertain and all there was to rely upon were the several census records which give birth year estimates 1810, 1811 and 1814.., so I've estimated it at 1812, however, the death record in Michigan (d. 1884) indicates he was 84 years old.  This may not be accurate, but if so he could be born in Canada as early as 1800.

Jane, aka Rosalia/Rosy, his wife, is associated with the surnames Shasette and Cart on death and/or marriage records of some of her children.  As she dies about a year before her husband that rules out these names being a result of remarriage.  I have no indication which would be more likely her maiden name or if they are transcribed or recorded correctly.  In any case, we have her reported age at death as 69 years and a few months, which gives a likely birth in early 1814.   Of course the census reports of her birth year vary from 1812-1817.

Four daughters are reported to be born in Canada:  

Jane (same name as mother, and I would wonder if she shares both names Jane and Rosy)  - she only appears in 1850 census with estimated birth year of 1830,

Each of thes next three have a range of estimated birth years which varies considerably, which may make it hard to determine in the Droulin databases.

Zoe (sometimes appears as Susanna in census) usually indicates 1832/1833 but her grave marker says 1829 which I don't think is likely to be accurate.

Matilda's birth year is reported in the census as 1835, 1836 and 1840 but her death record says 1837.

Mary Ann is indicated in the census as being born 1837, 1838, 1837, and her death record says 1837.  I don't think it likely she was born the same year as Matilda as Matilda is usually reported as two years older.

Now- my personal interest - in my line - which I have not determined if it connects to Edward is in the person of Catherine (Kate) O'Brien, linked below.  I don't have a concrete fix on her birth year either, but it is likely about 1835.   It's a good chance she's baptized as Maria Catherinam.

Prior to this exploration I thought English controlled Canada was more likely than French controlled Canada.  

Took a look for baptisms in this province of any of the girls reported Canadian born, going by census ages for date ranges, no luck finding any that fit with a father named Edward.

Mary Anne per 1850 census is born in USA.  Matilda and Zoé are Canadian born, as is Jane.  Jane and Zoé disappear from the census for 1855, you might cast about for a marriage for them, they were of an age to marry between 1850 and 1855.

Note that age at death is about the least accurate age you can get, they are estimates, mainly based on appearance of the deceased.  Census records are much the same, but at least the people were alive and could answer to what age they were, even if off by a couple of years.  Edward's wife is given 38 on both 1850 and 1855 censuses, as an example.  cheeky  She gets to be 41 in 1860.  

As far as the name De Briae, nope, no such.  I have ideas as to how this name comes about:  O'Brian compared to D'Brian - De Brien, Brien, Briand.  Might be somebody's misreading of the name, capital D and capital O can look similar.  Because there is not only the name O'Brian and its variations, there are the names Brien and Briand here, which can sometimes be preceded by de, whether rightly or wrongly, it happens.

Thanks for looking.  I believe Mary Ann is likely born in Canada too -- the census is not consistent on that point (e.g. 1855) , but several other documents state she was born there.

My theory on the name s somewhat semantic -- O'Brian latinized or put into a French form -  O'Brien becoming De Brian... "of Brian" De Briae -  perhaps by the wife who seems to be French Canadian. (Shasette or Cart is the mother's surname given in records where the children list their mother).

I think the issue was the name as spoken and used by some of the family at this generation and not a misinterpretation of something written by others, as upon deeper research this form only appears (when applied to Edward) in documents looking back, and among the children of Edward it appears some chose to be known as O'Brien and other as De Briae.  Some are buried under that name and their descendants appear to be using it.   

It's an unusual surname -- I don't find very many in indexes.  

Yes - Jane is missing.  Likely  married by 1855, but possibly deceased.

Zoe is married by 1855, In Buffalo - i find her with spouse (See) and track her and her family. I have not located a marriage record for them yet, nor for my Catherine (b. ca. 1835) who married Joseph Stephenson.   I'm pretty sure at this point that she's not connected to them given she was probably married between 1850 and 1855 and if she was part of Edward's family she'd likely have been with them in 1850.

In other developments - in addition to death records for Edward & his wife I've also found their 1870 and 1880 census records.
Well, if they could read and write, which I don't know if they could, might have been someone else's interpretation of what they said.  Happens a lot.  That said, I will leave you to it, good luck.
Zoe is my 2nd great grandmother and I have researched her family.  I wanted to give you info on her sister, Jane, as you say she was "missing".  As of the 1855 census, Jane was married to Moses Lighton (1834-1863) and living in Buffalo NY.  They had five children: William, Jane R. (married to Stan Toupin), Joseph, George and John Charles.  Jane eventually moved to Albany NY to live with her daughter, also named Jane, and she died there in 1896.   I was happy to confirm this is correct, when I DNA matched a Toupin family member.

One more thing.... at one point in your comments you mentioned you were not clear on Zoe's death.  Her date of death was October 16, 1917 (according to her purchased death certificate.)

Thank you for all this research.  I enjoyed reading all your notes!

2 Answers

+2 votes
Did you know there is a Beaver Island on the Niagara River outside of Buffalo, Michael?

Is she buried in Holy Cross Cemetery?
by Maggie N. G2G6 Pilot (816k points)
I did not know that , but i have just now  linked the 1860 ref above which is Michigan.
+1 vote

DeBriae story and further analysis:

item excerpt from The Journal of Beaver Island History, Vol I, pp 37-38.

(Beaver Island is part of Michigan, Northwest of Michigan’s lower peninsula.) 

The following paragraph is in the chapter titled The Irish Migration to Beaver Island by Helen Collar which offers sketches of the life and origin of many of the Beaver Island families.

(Helen Collar visited Beaver Island every summer starting 1915 and commenced actively researching island history in the 1940s and over the next 50 years,   Her notes are held by Central Michigan University and are available online:

'One family to come to Beaver Island from New York had an unusual history.  Neither husband nor wife, Edward and Rosalie DeBriae, were Irish; they were French Canadians.   By 1837, when the first of their seven children were born, they were living in New York City.  It must have been there that that they made friends among the Irish and thus heard of Beaver Island.  By the time the 1860 census was taken we find them living on Green’s Bay at McFadden’s Point.  Either while living in the Irish Quarter ion New York, or soon after they reached Beaver Island, the family name was changed to O’Brien.  The story told on the Island is that the Irish found DeBriae much too foreign a name for an Irish tongue to pronounce with ease.  Someone remarked, “Oh hell, DeBriae is just French for O’Brien!,” and O’Brien the family became.  They are recorded as O’Brien in all census records, beginning in 1860, and as O’Brien or O’Brine in all land records. The first Mrs. O’Brien, however, must have felt some nostalgia for their French heritage, for on her gravestone in the Beaver Island cemetery, she is, “Rosalie, wife of Edward DeBriae.”'

I presume that the only census records this author found pertaining to Edward and wife were the 1860, 1870 and 1880 records placing them at Beaver Island.

I presume the author assumed they came to Michigan from NYC or was informed by someone else making that assumption.  There is no evidence they were ever in NYC and the census and birth timeline makes it highly unlikely.

The O’Brien’s are first found in Black Rock, Erie, NY in the 1850 US Census and again in 1855 NYS census by which time Black Rock had been absorbed into Buffalo.    Here they are recorded as O’Brian, too.   Of their children, several are identified as born in Erie County, NY and the elder 3 or 4 in Canada.  (The 1850 and 1855 records vary on which child was first to be born in Erie County.)  Their life in NYS was not in the Irish Quarter, but in a mixed cultural milieu.   The “Irish Quarter” of Buffalo was on the south side of the city.

That the family came from French Canada is fairly clear.  It is  unlikely they were ever in New York City, based on timing and location of births of their children.  

Rosalie is variously identified as Jane or Roselle, in successive census records.  Her Michigan  and death record names her as Jane O’Brine.   No DeBriae appears in death records of this period and the death date of Jane O’Brine matches the headstone and precise age indicated on the marker of Rosalie DeBriae.   

Records pertaining to the children give her maiden name as Shasette or Cart.   

Given the additional census data and through a review of surname use of the several children over their lives two things are clear - firstly,  in all records found thus far husband and wife Edward and Jane/Rosalie are documented as O’Brien and variants including O’Brine, O’Brian.  Only the headstone of Rosalie indicates DeBriae.  Secondly - the children were varied in their usage of a family surname, in their individual lives and among the children collectively.    All were recorded as O’Brien in census records in NY and MI, and many were recorded as O’Brien in other documents.   Several clearly made a choice to shift to DeBriae but some did not.

The author assumes a direction of shift - a shift back to a familial name, and also assumes (or takes reports at face value) that their origin in French controlled Canada indicates they must have been of  French heritage and could not be Irish.   

The two maiden names associated with Jane/Rosalie are likely French, possibly with different spellings than the children would have thought.   

There were Irish in Lower Canada (assuming this is where they were from) in the early period when Edward was born and it is plausible that the couple is of mixed Irish and French heritage.  It is also plausible that the  native linguistic instincts that morphed the family name were those of Jane/Rosalie shifting O’Brien to DeBriae, rather than the Irish of Beaver Island, MI or Black Rock, NY shifting the name from DeBriae to O’Brien.

Searches for births or marriages for the DeBriae name in Canada  and France have not turned up any results or close variants thus far.   

by Michael Maranda G2G6 Mach 6 (66.4k points)
edited by Michael Maranda
I have done extensive research on the DeBriae/O'Brien lines, as I descend from Mary Ann DeBriae Smith. I would be happy to help with your research on this family and try to establish whether or not Kate Stephenson is a member of the O'Brien family :)
Thank you Anna, nice to hear from you.  I appreciate any assistance you can offer.

I do know that Kate is an O'Brien by birth and she came from Canada.   Her birth year which is approximated is in range to be among the siblings (children of Edward).    

In 1855 I find her  in the census, newly married.  

In 1850 the family of Edward O'Brien (later DeBriae) are already in Black Rock, NY and Kate/Catherine is not among them.

Of course she could be living in service in another house in Buffalo or Black Rock in 1850.  On her profile I list two possible leads that might be her record in Buffalo in 1850.

In 1860 there is present a Mary A O'Brien in household headed by Joseph Stephenson and Kate.   Birth location Canada.   Her age matches a daughter of Edward: Mary Ann (who later marries Smith).   However unless Mary Ann is double counted in 1860 census, it leads me to believe Kate is of another branch of O'Briens that came down from Canada to the Buffalo area (and there are many).

I'd appreciate any comments clarifications you can offer or reaction to my notes on Edward O'Brien's profile or in regard to my ancestor Kate O'Brien Stephenson.

Thank you.

Related questions

+5 votes
1 answer
138 views asked Feb 12, 2015 in Genealogy Help by Michael Maranda G2G6 Mach 6 (66.4k points)
+3 votes
2 answers
+6 votes
1 answer
118 views asked Jun 20, 2014 in Genealogy Help by Neil O'Brien G2G Crew (470 points)
+2 votes
1 answer
37 views asked Aug 8, 2020 in Genealogy Help by Karen Connor G2G Rookie (220 points)
+2 votes
1 answer
104 views asked Apr 21, 2019 in Genealogy Help by Martin Brabander G2G6 (9.1k points)
+3 votes
0 answers

WikiTree  ~  About  ~  Help Help  ~  Search Person Search  ~  Surname:

disclaimer - terms - copyright