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The Origin of the O’Rear/O’Rear/Orear Family of Virginia

October 2010



Lee H. Hoffman


Research by many interested in the O’Rear family has gained much of interest over the years.  Yet no O’Rear family historian has been able to get past the eastern shores of America in the mid to latter 17th century although there have been tantalizing hints that remain with us today.


The earliest O’Rear family birth record is reported to be recorded as occurring in 1675 in Dettingen Parish of Virginia.  This researcher has not been able to find where that record is supposedly recorded/located and has some doubts that it exists.  The main problem with this is that Dettingen Parish was not formed until 1745.  Still, it is possible that the birth could have occurred in 1675 in the geographic area that was later designated as Dettingen Parish.  Another problem is that without seeing the actual record, we do not know if the event was the birth or the christening of the child. 


There is some indication that the child (or his two-year older brother) was born before arriving in America.  Notes from early researchers apply the term “born at sea” which may be taken from a letter which said that the “immigrant” child was “born on the ocean.”  The term “born at sea” often meant the child was illegitimate.  But the term “born on the ocean” may or may not have the same meaning.  If the child was born in a ship on the ocean then the christening theory gains some credence.


Another factor to be considered which may negate the illegitimate birth theory is that the child, John O’Rea is known to have had a two-year older brother, Daniel.  Thus the theory becomes that a father, his pregnant wife, and infant son began the treacherous sea trip to the new world and the wife gave birth along the way.  Then, upon landing, the newly born child was christened.


That such a voyage happened is almost certain although there is no record if it.  The ship’s passenger manifest may have simply been lost or it may be that the father and family were considered “criminals” or vagabonds by the British government and transported.  “Criminals” then could simply be those who were politically opposed to the government in some way.  These transportations were notorious in their lack of record-keeping when the mindset was that no one cares about criminals and the poor. 


Thus we are left only with clues that the O’Reas came to America between about 1650 and about 1700 without any clue as to where the O’Rea name originated.  The name, at first look, appears to be Irish or possibly Scottish.  And there some evidence to support that theory.  Another theory is that the O’Rea name was French.  The biggest support for this is that the family settled nearby a group of French Huguenots and even inter-married with them. But this may have been happenstance.  Still the French origin theory was prevalent for many years.

Research done by a French investigator indicates that there was a O’Rea family in France just prior to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.  In fact, at the time, this family only needed some signatures on various papers to ennoble them.  Thus they were already treated as nobles, but just lacked the final paperwork to make it official.  Since they were Protestants and not nobles, their only resouces were converting to Catholicism, escaping the country (not easily done), or death.  The investigator hired by the late Edward C. O’Rear II of Lexington, Kentucky, reported that some few descendants of that family may have survived by whatever means and remain in France today (this was in 1947).  No effort was made to contact them as records to support their ancestry are lacking due to the politico-religious climate of the time and that systematic efforts to destroy those records were made to allow the family members to excape death.


This leaves us with only circumstantial evidence, the best of which indicates Irish origin.  One descendant, Captain George M. O’Rear, USN wrote the above Ed O’Rear telling the story he was given by his father, John Benjamin Conley O’Rear.  The John O’Rea referenced above would have been Captain O’Rear’s sixth great grandfather.  His father said:

      “Our family in America, as it was related to me by my father, springs from John O’Rior, an Irish Baron of the court of Charles I. When Charles was seized, John O’Rior fled to Armagh County, Ireland and took with himone of the younger ailing children of the King – a girl by the name of Elizabeth – after giving out that the child had died and purporting a dead child’s body as hers.

      “In 1654 he came to America and settled with his family and ward in New Jersey.  The spelling of the name for phonetic or other reason became O’Rear.

      “Later his own son, John, and his ward, Elizabeth were married and the family migrated south to Virgina – just when I do not know.

      “My father also told me, as part of the story, that Prince Charles (Charles II) was very fond of his family and during the period of his exile came to Jamestown, Virginia in search of his sister, but did not locate the O’Riors.”


The story sounds reasonable at first glance, but there are many problems with it:

1.      No John O’Rior (of any spelling) was ever an Irish Baron.

2.      Charles I did have a daughter, Elizabeth who was ill at the time, but she died some time after he was executed.

3.      No records indicate an O’Rior (or other spelling) settlement in New Jersey.

4.      Prince Charles never traveled to America at any time during the Protectorate.  Cromwell would have been afraid that he might escape and treat with English enemies to take back the crown.

There are a few minor things that support the story (the Irish connection, the coming to America, settlement in Virginia, etc.).  But, these lack specificity. Still, this story may have some basis in fact.  Some possibilities are:

1.      That John O’Rior was employed by an Irish Baron in Charles I court.

2.      That it was the Baron’s daughter that accompanied him.

3.      That the Baron fled to the Isle of Jersey and O’Rior fled to Ireland and then came to Jamestown.

4.      That Prince Charles went to the Isle of Jersey to find the Baron.

5.      That the Baron traveled to America in search of his daughter.

All of these are just possibilities to try to explain how the legend may have evolved into what we have above.  But until, these are proved or some better theory comes along we must discount this story.


Still, the Irish origin is also supported by the 1659 Irish census in which O’Rea is given as one of the “principal names” in the townlands of Duogh Parish, of the Owhny Barony of the county of Tipperary.  This is located in or near the town of Cappamore about 15 miles southeast of Limerick.   


Having said all of this above, it is the opinion of this writer that the Ireland is the most recent origin of the family in the American colonies – that is, in Virginia, and that they just happened to settle in and near various French Huguenots.  However, considering that most all O’Rears are Protestants, this writer believes that the family was originally from Scotland.  This origin would have been in the 1500s and the family was forced to re-locate to Northern Irelands in the English attempt to subdue Ireland.  Over the next hundred years, some of the family wound up in Tipperary.  Whether the family came from there to America or somewhere else is not known.


This is about as close to the family origin as we are likely to get – mostly theories and questions.  Some have a good basis in fact, while others are more just illusive dreams.  Definitely more research is indicated and perhaps, someday, we may find the final record that will tell us where we came from, be it Scotland, Ireland, France, or someplace else. 


And perhaps O’Rea is just the spelling that clerks used that stuck.  Just as more recent research in the census must look for the family under many different spellings – including Orare, Oreer, Oscar, Oraear, and more.  Indexing also has it under Greer in at least one instance.