Bryant Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Bryant Surname Meaning

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.

Bryant Surname Resources on The Internet

Bryant and Bryan Surname Ancestry

  • from SW England and Ireland (Kilkenny)
  • to America (incl. African Americans) and New Zealand

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.

Somerset.  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.

Gloucestershire.  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.  

Cornwall.  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.

Devon.  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.

Ireland.  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.  

America.  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.  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.

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.

Bryant Surname Miscellany

Bryans and Bryants Today.  The following are estimates of the number of Bryans and Bryants today.

Numbers (000’s) Bryan Bryant Total
UK    17    23    40
America    17    50    67
Elsewhere     9    17    26

Sir Francis Bryan, the Vicar of Hell.  Sir Francis Bryan was an English courtier and diplomat during the reign of Henry VIII.  He was known for his skills at jousting and hunting and he became the King’s master of the foils in 1518, a position he held for the rest of the King’s reign.   He lost an eye jousting in 1526 and joked about it, writing of the one-eyed Robert Aske: “I know him not, nor he me, yet we have but two eyes between us.”

His lack of principle at the time of his cousin Anne Boleyn’s downfall and beheading led to his earning the nickname “the Vicar of Hell.”   Thomas Cromwell first referred to Bryan by that nomenclature and he was followed by the King himself. The following exchange was reported:

“This man was once asked by the king to tell him what sort of a sin it was to ruin the mother and then the child.  Bryan replied that it was a sin like that of eating a hen first and its chicken afterwards. The king burst forth into loud laughter, and said to Bryan, ‘Well, you certainly are my vicar of hell.’  The man had been long ago called the vicar of hell on account of his notorious impiety.  Henceforth he was called also the king’s vicar of hell.”

He was a suspected accomplice to the king’s extramarital affairs and was one of the few men who dared speak his mind to the king.

Thus he managed to retain the king’s favor throughout his life, despite his own personal faults. In 1537 he was sent to Paris to secretly arrange the kidnapping or assassination of Cardinal Pole but it was suspected that he actually tipped Pole off.  The next year he acted as ambassador to Francis I in Nice but was recalled due to his reckless gambling, drunkenness and all-round bad behavior.

He ended up being appointed Lord Justice of Ireland.

The Bryan Family of Masons.  The Bryans were a family of masons and carvers who had quarries at Painswick in the Cotswolds.  The forebear of this family was Joseph Bryan of Painswick who lived between 1682 and 1730.   His two sons, John and Joseph, carried on the business.

John stayed in Painswick. But Joseph had moved to Gloucester by 1760 as the following advertisement in the Gloucester Journal suggests:  “Wanted.  A sober mason that can work moldings etc. in freestone.  Apply Joseph Bryan in the city of Gloucestershire or to John Bryan in Painswick.”

Masonry work executed by the firm included the tower of Great Whitcombe church in 1749, the rebuilding of the spire of Painswick church after it was destroyed by lightning in 1763, and the spire of St Nicholas, Gloucester in 1784.  Their tablets and churchyard memorials have charming and well-carved details, while a delightful and intelligent use is made of colored marbles.

John died in Painswick in 1787.   He was described as “late of this town, carver” on his large pyramidal monument at Painswick. Joseph’s son John took over the business and entered into a partnership with George Wood of Gloucester around the year 1795.

Reader Feedback – Bryants from SW England to Warwickshire.  I’ve been 40 plus years tracing my family branch which originates out of the Somerset/Gloucestershire region of SW England.

There is a residency of ancestors from the late 15th century until the relocation of Charles Bryant to Huntingdon in 1798/1800.  I have a record of the family branch descendancy from the time in Warwickshire up until myself.

John Bryant (

The Three Bryant Sons in the New World.  Anne Bryant, a widow, came to Plymouth on the Handmaid with her three young sons from Kent in 1630.  These sons came under the care and protection of their step-father John Doane.  

Thomas Bryant

Thomas, the eldest, was bound out as a servant to a family friend named Samuel Eddy.  In the Plymouth court records of January 1632 he appeared as follows:

“Thomas Bryant, the servant of Samuel Eddy, was brought before the Governor and his assistants because he had run away and absented himself five days from his master’s service and, being lost in the woods and found by an Indian, was forced to return.  For his offense he was privately whipped before the Governor and council.”

Nothing was heard about Thomas again.

John Bryant

John, the youngest, also had his problems as a young man with the law.  It was said that he was cantankerous in mood.  He made his court debut as a teenager in 1638, charged with drinking inordinately at John Emerson’s house. He was released with admonition, but James Till was whipped “for alluring” John to drink.  Three years later in 1641, he was in court “for drinking tobacco upon the highway.”

John became the head of the line now known as the John Bryant line of Scituate, Massachusetts.

Samuel Bryant

The middle son was Samuel who, like Thomas, was bound out on arrival – in this case to John Shaw.  He in fact married Shaw’s daughter Abigail in 1643.  Samuel held various public offices in Plymouth including constable in 1663.  He and his wife Abigail raised eight children.

Of their six daughters, the eldest – Abigail – married Lieut. John Bryant of Plymouth and a Bryant line continued there.  This Bryant-Bryant marriage was not so unusual at this time and was a practice which continued for several generations.  The two sons of Stephen and Abigail were named John and Samuel.

William Smith Bryan and His Descendants.  William Smith Bryan, who was called “Prince William of Ireland” by his followers, was deported from Ireland by the British Government as a rebellious subject at the time of the Kilkenny uprising.

He was thought then to have been a lineal descendant of Bryan Boru, the King of Ireland in the 11th century.  Alternatively he might have been descended from the Englishman Sir Francis Bryan. The genealogy is extremely murky.  When the British invaded Ireland in 1650, he was a landholder in county Clare.

The Government shipped him with his family, goods and chattels (consisting of a shipload) and dropped them off on Gloucester beach in Virginia.  He settled there in Gloucester county where he died in 1667.

He and his wife Catherine were said to have had eleven sons.  The eldest, Francis, returned to Ireland in 1677 in an endeavor to recover his hereditary titles and estates.  He was so harassed by the English Government there that he eventually sought refuge in Denmark.

One of Francis’s sons Morgan returned to America in 1695. Two of Morgan’s sons joined Daniel Boone in his expeditions to Kentucky and one of their daughters Rebecca married Daniel.  The Bryans built a stockade in Kentucky which became known as Bryan’s Station.

Another son of Francis, William, returned to Ireland but left for America in 1718 after the English had harassed his son.  From his line is thought to have come the Democrat politician William Jennings Bryan. He himself saw him as the descendant later on of William and Rebecca Bryan of Culpepper county, Virginia. 

Reader Feedback – Bryants from Kilkenny to Florida.   My family were previously from Kilkenny. My great great grandfather arrived in Florida about the 1860’s or 1870’s. And yes, most of the men in my family line are masons and builders.

Guy William Bryant III (

Working Conditions at Bryant and May.  Quakers William Bryant and Frances May had established Bryant and May in 1850 to sell matches.  At first they imported the matches from Lundstroms in Sweden.  But as demand outstripped supply, they decided to produce their own and set up a factory in London.

At this time there were about thirty match-making firms in London. Many of them, including Bryant and May, employed children.  Public concern was growing about the conditions in which the children were working.  The Commission on the Employment of Children in Industry investigated the London match-making firms in 1863.   Generally they were critical of the working conditions, but they found Bryant and May’s factory, perhaps because of its Quaker heritage, to be “a very nicely conducted place.”

By 1872 Bryant and May had over 5,000 employees, many of whom were piece-workers.  They would make matchboxes at home and had to pay for the materials such as string, glue and fuel for the fire to dry the finished boxes.

At the factory Wilberforce Bryant invested in three hundred match-dipping machines.  These were based on the ground floor of the factory and the fumes from the white phosphorus they used permeated the two floors above.

This sometimes had horrible results. Workers could contract ‘phossy jaw,’ a disfiguring affliction caused by inhaling these fumes.   Bryant and May paid the workers £1 per week to stay at home whilst they recovered, which they never did.  Payment ceased after a few months.

In 1888 the journalist Annie Besant became interested in the working conditions of the match-girls at Bryant and May.  She got her information from talking to workers outside the factory gates.  She wrote an article in her magazine The Link entitled White Slavery in London.  She described their ten hour day, low wages and fines for being late or talking during working hours.

The first reaction of the Bryant and May management was to sack the girl that they suspected of being the ringleader in passing on the information to Besant. They followed this up by asking the other girls to sign a document refuting the accusations.  They refused and went on strike.

The Quaker reputation as good employers was tarnished by this strike. Whatever the reasons, Bryant and May had not taken the care of their employees that people expected of Quakers.

Death of the Old Settler Lewis Bryant.  The death of Lewis Bryant in Brightwater, New Zealand was recorded as follows in the Colonist of October 25, 1900.

“On Saturday at Brightwater, another old settler passed to his rest in the person of Mr. Lewis Bryant.  He was born at Bristol, England, three days after the Battle of Waterloo, and began his business life in his father’s establishment, a large wholesale grocer and merchant. He relinquished this after a time in order to accept an appointment with an English firm as a commercial traveler.

In June 1855 Mr. Bryant with his wife and young family left London in the ship Queen Margaret for Nelson, New Zealand where they arrived in October.  Mr. Bryant and his family resided for a short time in Nelson, thence removing to Appleby to take charge of the school there. From Appleby he went to Waiwero near Ngatimoti where he had a farm which did not prove the success anticipated and, after losing much money and ruining his health, he removed to Brightwater about 1862.

Here he brought up a family of eight; three sons and five daughters, all of whom are married. About two years ago they all assembled at the celebration of the golden wedding of the deceased.

Notwithstanding that for the past six years he had been bedridden, he still kept in touch with a large circle of neighbors and friends, whose love and respect he had won by his upright consistent life among them for so long a period.  We in common with the numerous friends above mentioned, extend to Mrs. Bryant and the family our sincere sympathy with them in their loss.”

Reader Feedback – Bryan in Mississippi.  My father Gene Fiona Bryan was born in Mississippi. He had no birth certificate and his existence was verified by his brothers when he applied for Social Security at a local office in Chicago. He enlisted in the Army and served during World War II. Trying to find just where I came from and how did my father get to Mississippi.

Jean Leake (

Bryant and Bryan 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 was a superstar basketball player for the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA.

Bryant and Bryan Numbers 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)

Bryant and Like Surnames

Many surnames originated from SW England, the principal counties there being Devon and Cornwall, Somerset and Gloucestershire.  These are some of the prominent and noteworthy surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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