Some thoughts on the origin of the name O’Rea
(O’Rear, Orear, O’Rier, O’Riar, &c).

By Lee H. Hoffman
12 Feb 2007

Early speculation within the O’Rear family (1940s through 1950s) centered on the idea that the first O’Rea family in America came from France. [Note: From this point on, I will use the family name spelled as O’Rear which will include the variants unless a particular variant is needed for a specific part of a narrative].

The idea that the family came from France was somewhat reinforced by the fact that the family seemed to settle in the Northern Neck of Virginia in the same area as many French Huguenots. The O’Rear family settled near Brentown and John O’Rea is even said to have married a member of one of the French Huguenot families (Hester (Esther?) Reno (Renoe)). This is probably more coincidence than anything else except that the O’Rear family tended to be of the Protestant (Calvinistic) persuasion insofar as religion goes. This furthers the speculation they were Huguenots. However, the Reno family researchers all deny that such a marriage took place as they can find no Hester, Easther, Esther, or any other spelling for that time that is unaccounted for.

Still, another indicator is that a sword has been handed down through the family for many generations. The Sword was said to have been given to an O’Rear for service to the King of France and that an O’Rear had the title of Procureur du’Roi (Kings’s Agent). Further research in France does find some O’Rea and O’Ree families there and also finds that this family was almost of noble blood in that the papers lacked signing (prior to the French Revolution). This last supported the sword and story. However, expert evaluation of the sword shows that the sword itself is of Revolutionary War age although the hilt was newer.

More recent research indicates (without proof as yet) that the O’Rear family came to America from Ireland and probably in the latter half of the 17th Century (1660-1675 is my guess). A family legend supports this.

When King Charles I was about to be captured, an Irish Baron named O’Rea was a member of his court. King Charles I gave a younger ailing daughter, Elizabeth to O’Rea for safe-keeping. John O’Rior, as his name was said to be, took the girl to County Armagh in Ireland and eventually came to America in 1654 settling in New Jersey. Charles I gave out that the girl had died. Supposedly, the girl later married the son, John O’Rear (Jr) and they migrated south to Virginia. At some point, Charles II came to America in search of his sister, but was never able to find her.

As with most family legends, very little of this one seems to be true. The following facts have been gleaned from historical documents:

Now, all family legends also have a grain of truth in them. As to where the grain of truth is in this legend (considering the facts) we do not as yet know. Conjecture can give us some possible ideas for further research.

The earliest known member in the O’Rear family in America is John O’Rea born in 1675 according to the Dettingen Parish, Virginia Parish Records and according to Laura Pack. Now, this parish is defined as follows:

Dettingen Parish of Prince William. In 1745 the parish of Hamilton, by an act of the Assembly was divided as follows: "…a line to be run from the dividing line of Stafford and Prince William counties, a straight course to the head of Dorrell's run, thence down the said run to Cedar run, thence to the fork of Broad Run near the lower line of Colonel Charles CARTER'S tract, called Broad run tract, thence to the mouth of Bull Lick run, opposite to Jacob SMITH'S in Fairfax County… all that part… situate below said line to be erected into …. parish… of Dettingen, and all that other part thereof, scituate above the said line to be erected into one other distinct parish and retain the name of Hamilton. (5 Hening 259)

The formation of the parish in 1745 may or may not mean much in that when Dettingen Parish was formed, it may have become the repository for the earlier records from whatever parish (Hamilton?) had them previously. More research needs to be done on this. Further, was 1675 the date of birth or the christening date? If, as is likely, the date was of the christening, then when had the child been born and where was it born. His mother was named Mary Peck (again according to the parish records and the given name is supported by other records).

Note should be taken in the above description of Dettingen Parish of Dorrell’s Run and Cedar Run which are names of waterways associated with the O’Rear family land grant. Cedar Run Cemetery is one that was created of multiple small graves and graveyards in that area when the Quantico Marine Corps Base was established in the 1940s or early 1950s.

If John O’Rea’s birth was earlier, could it have been aboard ship on the way to America? Some records indicate the birth was “at sea”. The problem here is that the term “born at sea” was often used to indicate an illegitimate birth. Was John O’Rea’s (b. 1675) father, John O’Rea [Sr] and was he the son of the John O’Rear of the above legend said to have married Elizabeth, daughter of someone in the British Isles? Could this John and Elizabeth not have married until after the “born at sea” John was born?

Going back to the legend, could the “came to America in 1654” be correct? Could it be that the family came as prisoners transported to America. Could they have paid their way and if so, where is the passenger manifest. If they were transported, what was the charge? Or was the fact that they lived in Ireland sufficient charge?

Research to date has not turned up any passenger lists on which any O’Rear is named. However, that is not unusual in that the English were not particular regarding passenger lists when the ships were sailing from/to the British Isles or a British Colony.

On arrival in America, if they were prisoners, were they turned over to someone as indentured servants? If so, who? The usual term of indentured servants was seven years. After this time, it was not unusual to find the former servant given 50 acres of land (per person) as their headright for settling in America. Again, if so, was land put in their name. So far, there does not appear to be any record of an O’Rear receiving a headright either on their own as an immigrant or as an indentured servant at the end of the term. This may only be that records do not survive. Or it may be that prisoners didn’t qualify for headrights (something that needs research).

The earliest O’Rea land is recorded in a land grant to Daniel & John O’Rea on 30 Aug 1711 from Lady Culpeper. This is for 400 acres located between Goose Run and Dorrell’s Run on today’s county line of Fauquier and Prince William Counties just east of the small community of Bristerburg.

Back to Ireland -- the 1659 Irish Census denotes the name O’Rea as one of the “Principal Names” in the census of Owhney (Owney) Barony. This barony is located in County Tipperary and overlaps into County Limerick.

Note that the 1659 census does not give a count of persons by the name of O’Rea. It does give the number of people in Owney Barony as 473 with 391 being Irish and 62 as English. The only names given seem to be landowners within the townlands (townships?). But it also gives the Principal Irish names and their number with O’Rea having the number 5. What this number 5 means is not quite clear. It could be the number of persons named O’Rea or the number of families. I assume the latter is the meaning in that the sum of the numbers after the names multiplies by 4 (average persons in a family) give 332 which would be about right considering the 391 Irish persons counted. This means that the other 59 persons either were part of larger families or had names with occurrences less than five.

The book by Michael C. O'Laughlin, The Families of County Limerick Ireland, Book of Irish Families, great & small, Vol 5 (Kansas City, Missouri: Irish Genealogical Foundation, 1997) shows the name is given in the 1659 census in that barony in County Limerick. It also states that the name in Limerick may be taken from O’Riabhaig. Further, the Fiants* of 1550-1600 from the latter half of the 17th century show the name as O’Rea, O’Ree, and O’Reigh. O’Laughlin says that it should not be confused with the ‘Rea’ or ‘Reay’ families of Belfast or Antrim. He states that most of the name in Ireland descend from MacRea or MacCrea being found in Northern Ireland, of Scottish descent there.

Edward Neafsey, Surnames of Ireland, Origins and numbers of Selected Irish Surnames (Kansas City, Missouri: Missouri: Irish Genealogical Foundation, 2002) says the origin of the Rea name is the Irish Riabhach (meaning swarthy or grizzled) and that that Rea is a contraction of the Scottish Gaelic MacRea or MacCrea, is rendered in Irish Gaelic as MacRaith, Magraith and anglicized as MacGrath or Magrath. He says the name means ‘son of grace or prosperity’ with Reay as a minority spelling.

Neafsey says the majority of families with these names live in Counties Antrim and Down and are originally Scottish from before the Plantation of Ulster. He bases this on the fact that the name is mentioned in the Fiants of 1600-1601.

O’Laughlin also gives a number of variants for the name Rea. They are Raw, Mac Rea, Reagh, Reavy, Wray, Ray, Mac Rae.

Note that O’Laughlin stated that one of the variant O’Ree may be found in the fiants. One instance of the name Oree is that of Daniel Oree listed in the burial register of St. Michaels Parish of Barbados. He is noted as buried on 16 Sep 1679 from the “Almhous.” Unfortunately, nothing else is known of this person listed in Hotton’s “Original Lists.” It is known that Barbados was one of the prison colonies of England during the 16th and 17th centuries. Prisoners were sent to work on the plantations for a number of years and then set free. If they could work out a way to return to the British Isles then they could return. Most, however, were just turned loose to fend for themselves and even the natives regarded them as worthless. The poorhouse (Almshous) was the best that was available for many. This supports the conjecture above that treatment of prisoners delivered to the British Colonies in America was similar.

The Owneybeg Barony in County Limerick is located near the town of Cappamore on the line between Limerick and Tipperary adjoining the Owney and Arra Barony of Tipperary. The history of the Barony(ies) of Owney or Owhney (other variations) are given as :

Since nothing in the above refers specifically to O’Rea or Rea, then it must be presumed that that O’Rea or Rea were not a large family or may have been an un-named and smaller sept or clan than those given above. At a guess, it may be an off-shoot of the O'Maoilriain (O'Mulryan or O'Ryan) sept.

In County Armagh, the following baronies were located north (upper) and south (lower) in the eastern part of the county:

Compare this with the family legend above. The problem here is that the barony of Orior died with the first Baron (O’Hanlon) who fought Queen Elizabeth. His son was exiled and after returning, his grandson was sought as a highwayman by King Charles II and killed. So none of this seems to meld with the family legend either.

While much of this is factual, a great deal more is conjecture or un-proven data meaning much more researcher. O'Rear/Orear researchers having supporting evidence or theories are invited to post their information on the OREAR Mailing List on (for more information, see the list information page at <>) or you may contact the author directly by sending comments to:  Lee H. Hoffman

[*] A Fiant was a warrant issued to command the drawing up of Letters Patent, the formal royal Letters by which grants of land, official appointments, pardons, etc. were made. In the Tudor period, the drawing up of the actual Letters Patent was often neglected, and the Fiant remained the actual record.

[†] John Camden Hotton, editor, The Original Lists of Persons of Quality; Emigrants; Religious Exiles; Political Rebels; Serving Men Sold for a Term of Years; Apprentices; Children Stolen; Maidens Pressed; And Others Who Went From Great Britain to the American Plantations, 1600-1700, with their ages, the localities where they formerly lived in the mother country, the names of ships in which they embarked, and other interesting particulars (London: Chatto and Windds Publishers, 1874) re-published on CD # US0107 by Archive CD Books USA (Columbia, Maryland, 2004).

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