In honor of the season premiere of Real Housewives of Orange County (and the fact that both Vicki Gunvalson and Tamra Judge are no longer on the show), I felt compelled to research an active #RHOC housewife for #BravoGenealogy. Going through my options, I realized that I had the most questions about Braunwyn Windham-Burke and figured others might, too. Contrary to Vicki calling her "Boring Wind," Braunwyn's family history was anything but boring, and it gave me a better understanding of who she is and where she comes from.
What We Know
Braunwyn Windham-Burke was born on November 25, 1977. Various outlets claim she was both born and raised in Orange County. She is the daughter of Dr. Deborah "Deb" Windham, a "priestess of Burning Man" and has a younger half-brother and half-sister through her mother and her step-father, Dr. Brian Herman. In interviews, she's mentioned her biological father was a surfer with whom she became closer in the years before his death around 17 years ago. With her husband, Sean, she has seven children- Bella, Rowan, Jacob, Caden, Curren, Koa, and Hazel.
She has English, Irish, likely Scottish, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, French, and Metis ancestry.
Although information was readily available on Dr. Deb, where Mississippi roots run deep, identifying Braunwyn's paternal line required some digging. After learning that her maiden name was actually Brown (Windham is Dr. Deb's last name), I was able to identify her father as Klayne Brown, a champion surfer, who was working as a fisherman in the Eastern Shore of Delaware and Maryland around the time of Braunwyn's birth. In fact, a small blurb in The Daily Times (Salisbury, Md), announces the birth of Braunwyn, who was in fact born in Delaware, not California.
Digging into Braunwyn's heritage also provided another realization. I've been very interested in Braunwyn's name; I'm familiar with the name Bronwyn, so was curious about the spelling. The surname Brown was actually originally Braun (German for Brown), adopted sometime in the 1870s when Henry Brown (formerly Heinrich Braun), Braunwyn's 2nd great-grandfather, and his young family crossed the border from Canada into Michigan (Heinrich arrived at a young age to Ontario with his parents.. By 1880, he was Henry Brown, living in Minnesota with his wife, six children, and an infant cousin.
I'm convinced that Braunwyn is a play on her parents' last names, the original Braun and Windham. So Braunwyn Windham-Brown?
Her ancestors had a lot of kids. A lot.
Braunwyn is the mother of seven children, which has been quite the conversation piece on RHOC. Apparently, this runs in the family. Granted, it was very common to have lots of children until pretty recently, especially on the farm. However, many of Braunwyn's ancestors had over 10 children, and even I, a genealogist, was impressed. My favorite was this obituary for Zachary Taylor Smith, Braunwyn's 2nd great-grandfather, where there seems to be an unfortunate typo stating he had 19 children! The 9 should have been a 0, though even 10 children has Braunwyn beat!
Several homesteaders in the family tree.
I've recently learned how to research land records, so I had a lot of fun locating the patents and maps for Braunwyn's family. These records can be found on the GLO website (General Land Office) of the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management Website.
Here's an example of one such find for Braunwyn's 2nd great-grandfather, Johan Froiland. It was very cool to see that due to the Homestead Act of 1862, Johan was provided 160 acres of public land because he lived on it and cultivated it for at least 5 years and paid a small fee. I was pretty proud of myself for finding the map of his land, but another map provided the names of the owners. You can see Johan in the northeast corner of section 29.
Many of her ancestors fought for the U.S. military in several wars.
Several of Braunwyn's male ancestors fought in the military, which can provide a treasure trove of records. In what I like to think of as Below Deck meets the Real Housewives, Braunwyn's grandfather, Carroll Dean Brown, as a major in the air force, sailed with her grandmother, father, aunt, and uncle, from the Azore Islands to the Delaware coast (a 2,500 mile trip over 30 days) in a 35-foot sailboat in 1967. What an adventure this must have been!
And of course, with deep Mississippi roots, Braunwyn's going to have several ancestors who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. One example, her likely 4th great-grandfather Forrest Marion Derrick, fought with the 46th Mississippi Infantry at the Battle of Vicksburg where he became a prisoner of war (and appears he may have been a prisoner of war a couple times after as well). Good thing he survived the war because Braunwyn's 3rd great-grandfather was born in 1872, one of about 13 of his children.
Braunwyn could likely join the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution).
This deserved its own section because it was a really amazing find. Braunwyn's likely 6th great-grandfather, Casparus Westervelt, served in the Revolutionary War as a private in the New York militia. His second wife, Jane, applied for a widow's pension, a remarkable 62 page file, that provides great detail on the family, including names of Casparus's children. His son David is Braunwyn's likely 5th great-grandfather.
Braunwyn has documented Indigenous ancestry.
I didn't think I could top all the genealogical riches I've found on Braunwyn's family, but her Métis ancestry was among the most fascinating. Braunwyn's 2nd great-grandmother, Angelique "Agnes" (Frederick) Blake was of Metis ancestry. For those who don't know, Metis is broadly used to describe those of mixed European (French in this case) and Indigenous ancestry. Braunwyn's 3rd great-grandfather, Cyril Frederick, who lived for over 100 years, led a remarkable life as a fur trader for the Canadian government, a mail carrier, an employee of the Hudson's Bay Company, and a leader for a number of scout parties that traveled to Montana. Family legend records him as a scout for Custer, a hunter of food provisions for Buffalo Bill, and an acquaintance of Sitting Bull (I would think these stories would have made it to his obituary if they were true, but they are quite fascinating and certainly possible). According to Métis Scrip Records, perhaps among the most incredible genealogical records I've had the pleasure to review, his wife and Braunwyn's 3rd great-grandmother, Adelaide Charette, recorded she met Cyril "in 1865, on the plains while hunting buffalo." In her claim, she noted "I never got any treaty money as Indian woman." She received $160 for her claim.
Even more records were found for Adelaide's father, Jean Baptiste Charrette, Braunwyn's 4th great-grandfather. Jean Baptiste can also be found in the U.S. Indian Census Rolls. Here he was recorded as member of the Ojibwe tribe in North Dakota in July 1890.
Although this is contested, below may also be a picture of Jean Baptiste Charrette found in Cinq mois chez les Français d'Amérique: voyage au Canada et à la rivière Rouge (Five months among French Americans: trip to Canada and to the Northern Red River) by Henri Félix de Lamothe, which (lucky for me) was available on Google Books!
There was SO much I could have shared on Braunwyn's genealogy, but I think it's pretty clear her family history is anything but boring.
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