Fonds MS-4-242 - O'Brien Family fonds

Correspondence between Joseph O'Brien and John Northrup & Sons Order of passage issued to the Eliza Oulton by the Ottoman Empire

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O'Brien Family fonds

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  • Textual record

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  • 1838-1876 (Creation)

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Physical description

72 cm of textual records

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Biographical history

The O’Brien family represented in this fonds begins with Joseph O’Brien (1813-1882), who was born in Remsheg, Nova Scotia to Capt. John O’Brien (b. 1789) and Mary Margaret Thomas (b. 1791). Joseph’s siblings were William Harrison O’Brien (b. 1822), who was often referred to as “Uncle William”, and John Russell Bryant, who was also referred to as “Uncle.” Joseph also had one sister, Hannah who married, and subsequently died during the 1840s.

William and John sailed with their father on many voyages before settling down. William married and settled in England to a widow with one daughter followed by another daughter they had together. William became a shoemaker when his health forced him to leave the sea. John Russell Bryant settled in Boston, Massachusetts and was married to Mary Caroline. They had 5 children, but two of those children did not survive past infancy.

Joseph O’Brien was a master mariner and was married to Janet Russell O’Brien who was born in 1816 in Wallace, Nova Scotia. Joseph was captain of the vessel “Janet”, which was lost on Rio de la Plata, Argentina in January, 1868. The insurance collected for “Janet” allowed Joseph to buy 32 shares of the new Barque “Eliza Oulton” being built by John Oulton in Pugwash, Nova Scotia. Joseph’s son, John, was meant to be Master of the new vessel, however, John Oulton failed financially before the vessel was completed and his shares were taken over by Black Brothers Shipping Agency. The O’Brien family sailed many other vessels throughout their lives, but the key vessels were "Janet" and "Eliza Oulton."

Joseph and Janet had three sons and two daughters. Their eldest son was John Russell O’Brien (b. 1841 in Wallace) followed by Thomas O’Brien (b. 1845) and Alexander O’Brien (b. 1852); all three brothers were master mariners at some point in their lives. Their daughters were Margaret (b. 1844) and Primrose (b. 1854). Joseph O’Brien died in 1882.

John O’Brien was married to Susan Elizabeth Morris in 1868. Susan was the great-granddaughter of the Honourable Charles Morris of Halifax, the first Surveyor General of Nova Scotia. Together they had one child, Elizabeth Olga, born on the vessel “Eliza Oulton” while in the harbour of Poti on the Black Sea, Russia in June, 1869. John O’Brien died of yellow fever in January, 1870 on the Island of St. Thomas in the West Indies. Susan continued to raise Elizabeth, with her parents, in Wallace, Nova Scotia.

After John’s premature death, Thomas O’Brien eventually became the master of “Eliza Oulton” while his youngest brother, Alexander, sailed as a mate. Thomas continued to sail many voyages on the “Eliza Oulton” and other vessels. Thomas was married to Maggie and lived with her in Pictou, Nova Scotia for many years. The couple had three children together. Alexander married and eventually settled his family in California.

Margaret O’Brien’s trade was as a milliner; however, before her trade she sailed with her brother, John, and Uncle William on a two year voyage. After her voyage she married Dr. David MacLean and moved to Stellarton, Nova Scotia so her husband could start his practice. Margaret was widowed shortly after the birth of their only child in 1876.

The youngest daughter, Primrose (referred to by all as “Sis”), married Nathaniel Purdy and went with him to live in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Custodial history

The material for this fonds was received in four accessions and were donated by John and Dorothy Dobson. The first donation was in 1996 which included the correspondence and shipping papers of Joseph O’Brien. The remaining three donations were made in 1997 which include correspondence of the family, vessel papers, and miscellaneous material.

Scope and content

The fonds consists predominantly of correspondence and vessel papers. The fonds also contains records that document the family's business activity, particularly that of Joseph O’Brien.

Notes area

Physical condition

Immediate source of acquisition


Arrangement was imposed by the archivist. The fonds is organized into three series:


Vessel Papers

Business Records

The Correspondence series is further divided into sub-series based on the name of the family member.

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  • English

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Restrictions on access

There are no restrictions on access. All records are open for research.

Terms governing use, reproduction, and publication

Materials do not circulate and must be used in the Archives and Special Collections Reading Room. Materials may be under copyright. Contact departmental staff for guidance on reproduction.

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No further accruals are expected.

General note

Preferred citation: [Identification of item], O’Brien Family fonds, MS-4-242, Box [box number], Folder [folder number], Dalhousie University Archives and Special Collections, Halifax Nova Scotia, Canada.

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Dates of creation, revision and deletion

February 2012

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