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My great-grandmother Permelia Nelson Pearce (1839-1914) had one of the most popular maiden surnames, especially in Great Britain – Nelson, and one of the most unusual first names – Permelia – in all the world. Her background had been very illusive, until now as new information has been uncovered. Unfortunately, no one from the old Pearce-Nelson reunions (1926 – 1981) could be found to go beyond the names and dates of the 1915 Pearce-Austen Family genalogy list, but I thought it might be helpful to tell you what I know. We’ll begin with the origins of the Nelson surname and tell you about some of her namesakes, including Lord Admiral and Viscount Horatio Nelson (1758-1805). Then, we’ll tell you about her roles as wife of my Great-grandfather Charles Pearce and mother of 10 children.
Nelson or Neilson probably originated in Scandinavia and means “son of Nel or Neil.” This is similar, as we said in our early articles, to the name Pearce meaning “son of Piers, Pears, or Peter,” which is “Petros” in Greek for “the rock.” However, Nels means “Champion” (New Dictionary). In another similarity, remember that one possible origin of the Pearce name was the Percy Forest, a part of Northern France that had been conquered by Manfred the Dane in 922 AD. Those Scandinavians, along with some Pearces, supposedly accompanied William to England in the invasion of England in1066. Earlier, purely Viking conquests had brought the names and culture of the Norsemen directly to Britain. Perhaps the name Nelson was part of that. Today, England has both a Nelson Society and a Nelson Museum, but most of their time and space is devoted to Lord and Viscount Admiral Horatio Nelson, the hero of the British Navy. The magazine of British history and countryside, Realm, featured him as their first great Briton in a series begun in 1995, calling him “one of the world’s great heroes.” [See his picture in “Introduction: Nelson.”]
Lord Nelson was born to a Norfolk pastor in 1758, one of 11 children. While not yet a teenager, he wrote to his uncle, a Captain Suckling, expressing an interest in the Royal Navy. His uncle wrote back, “Let him come, and the first time we go into action a cannonball may knock off his head and provide for him at once” (“Horatio” 28). Ironically, Nelson, known as was his nemesis Napoleon for his short stature, eventually lost both an eye and an arm in battle. The uncle placed Nelson’s name on the muster roll of the HMS Raisonnable January 1, 1771, certain that the boy would not last. [According to the Pearce-Austen “Original Family Narrative,” Great-great grandfather Richard Pearce’s brother-in-law, Charles Austen, was supposedly a part of the same Royal Navy a few years later, but no proof has been uncovered. See the OFN and three-part commentary that follows.] Nelson showed a great spirit for life at sea, though he experienced illness and bouts of seasickness all his life. Within seven years, at the tender age of 20, he captained his own ship. Nelson married Frances Nisbet in 1787 and soon received a commission to command the Agammemnon in the costly war against Napoleonic France. Later, his love affair with mistress Emma Hamilton, while both were married, became common knowledge, but his heroic acts kept him endeared to his countrymen (WWW.BRITANNICA.COM). He lost an eye off Corsica in 1794 and an arm at Santa Cruz in 1797. Even with his limb in shreds at that time, his concern was for the rescue of his men in the water. It is said that he “endured the amputation of his arm without anesthetic, though he criticized the surgeon for not warming the knife” (“Horatio” 28).
Nelson’s victory off the Cape of Trafalgar, for which London’s most famous square is named, on board the Victory against the combined naval forces of the French and the Spanish in 1805, is considered his greatest. His 27-ship fleet defeated over 30 in the combined forces. Alan Schom called it “The greatest victory in naval History” and reminds us that while not a single British ship was lost, the opposing combined fleet lost 22 ships (369). Unfortunately, the little admiral was killed. He was only 47. In the heat of the battle, a sniper’s bullet had struck him in the back. His final words, though strange, are well known and according to his biographers, “reveal the simple human need of a hero for a last comforting embrace” (“Horatio” 28). He simply said, “Kiss me, Hardy.” Some 1,690 other British sailors were also killed or wounded that day along with 5,568 French and Spanish. Nelson received a State funeral. Many saw this victory as the beginning of the end for Napoleon and the rebirth of British trade and colonial power around the world. Today the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich features the exhibit “Nelson – Life and Legend.”
The name Nelson can be found around the world as cities, towns, rivers and parks. For example, there is a gold mining town about 400 miles east of Vancouver, Canada, named in 1888 for Hugh Nelson, the lieutenant governor of British Columbia. The Nelson River in northern Manitoba begins near Lake Winnipeg, flows northward, and empties into Hudson Bay. This name Nelson was the sailing master for English explorer Sir Thomas Button in 1612. The name is also used after Lord Nelson in New Zealand for both a port city and park on South Island.
Several famous (and infamous) Americans have carried this name:
· Samuel Nelson, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1845-72)
· William Rockhill Nelson, journalist, editor, and first publisher of the Kansas City Evening Star (1880) [which later employed Ernest Hemingway]. He was a pioneer in investigative reporting. The Museum of Fine Arts in Kansas City, the 10th largest in the U.S., is named after him.
· Baby Face Nelson, 20th century gunman and bank robber known for his vicious murders and youthful looks.
· Byron Nelson (b. 1912), professional golfer from Texas whose career was cut short for reasons of health. A PGA tournament is named after him.
· Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, TV’s most famous couple of the 1950s and 60s, embodied middle-American values.
· Rick Nelson, son of the above, became one of rock music’s first teen idols. He died at the height of his career in the crash of a small airplane on his way to a concert.
· Willie Nelson, Texas songwriter and guitarist and one of the most popular country music artists of the late 20the century. His annual July 4th picnic/concert, originally called “FarmAid,” has raised millions for farm-related causes. (WWW.BRITANNICA.COM)
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1977 Nelson was the 26th most common surname in the United States with over 400,000 family members. Compare that to the many spelling of Pearce, 156th with only 130,000, and Austen, 217th with 103,000. Nelson is one of those names that works as either a first or a last name. I still remember the famous singer of the early 20th century, Nelson Eddy, and his duet with Jeannette McDonald, “Indian Love Call.” My late Uncle Dale Pearce’s middle name was the family name Nelson [see “Sons of Wesley & Bessie: Dale Nelson Pearce”]. Thanks to research by distant cousin Betsy Hare Kemp and cemetery records, we know that our earliest Nelson to come ot the United States was John (1778-1859). He was born in Ireland and is buried with his wife Annie Allen (1785-1855) in the Hilands Presbyterian churchyard, Ross Township, where many other famous Pittsburgh names lie, the McKnights and Isalys, to mention a few. John and Annie produced nine children, the oldest of whom was Thomas (1803-1876). He married Pamelia Allison (1806-1883), or as my her daughter, my great-grandmother, came to be known, Permelia. That union produced eight children, the fifith of whom was Permelia, born 1n 1839, just five years after her husband Charles, who was the youngest son of 10 to my immigrant great-great grandparents, Richard and Susan Austen Pearce.
After being married on April 21, 1859, the couple settled in the large family home next to the farm and mill. He was almost 25 and she was only 20. He had been working with his father at the mill, but his father was in his mid-70s and more than ready to retire. Their first child, Albert, was born almost exactly 11 months later. The second, named Permelia for her mother, came two years after that. My grandfather Wesley was their seventh child, born in 1876 when the couple was married over 26 years. Charles was in his early 40s then, but the couple eventually had three more children, the last being born 10 years after my grandfather. Great-grandmother Permelia was 47 when baby Clarence was born.
Though life just north of the frontier city of Pittsburgh was constantly changing in the late 18th century, with new settlers arriving on a regular basis, meaning more and more business for the farm and mill, it was never easy to feed a family of 12 [see “Pearce Milling Company: The Story of the Family Business”]. As soon as the children were old enough to help, they were called to work: the girls with their mother in the kitchen or changing diapers and the boys with their father at the mill or around the farm. My Grandfather Wesley married Grandmother Bessie Reed Hill in 1910 as most of the older children had left or were leaving home. They stayed in the big house until Allegheny County took everything in 1927 by the right of eminent domain [see “Settlement at Pine Creek: Parts II & III]. But Great-grandparents Charles and Permelia, in their mid to late 70s then, moved in with daughter Minnie A. Grubbs and her husband “L.L.” just down the road in Wildwood, McCandless Township. Great-grandfather Charles had run the mill successfully for over a half-century, but he was also on the local school board and the trustees’ committee at Salem Methodist Church, of which he and Permelia were founding members [see “Faith of our Fathers (and Mothers): Part II”). Their deaths came only four days apart the first week in May 1914. My late father, Ralph, told me that his grandfather had died of pneumonia and that Permelia, insisting on attending the graveside committal in rainy weather, also caught pneumonia and died. Apparently, they had both been ill prior to this, but the newspaper account simply says, “A pathetic feature of the case was that [Permelia] survived her husband only four days.” They are both buried with Charles’ parents and several of their children and grandchildren at Cross Roads Cemetery along Rt. 910, the Wexford-Gibsonia Road.
As the dust of our research on the Pearce family settles, I look forward to learning more about the Nelsons. Fortunately, we have several pictures of Permelia and Charles. While Great-grandfather Charles appears to have been tall, slender, and muscular with white hair and a long beard, Permelia looks slight with long, dark hair parted down the middle and drawn into a bun. She had small features and dark eyes. She is rather serious, avoiding any kind of a smile. Her dark dress is buttoned to the neck with simple white lace at her chin. I hope some eternal day to meet the woman who remembers the American Civil and Spanish-American Wars, the western expansion, the coming of the automobile and many other inventions, but above all, was a great wife to my great-grandfather and mother to 10 children, including my Grandfather Wesley. If Horatio Nelson was a Lord, then Permelia Nelson Pearce was quite the Lady, the stuff that the settling of America was made of. She’s my hero!
Some Works Cited
“Climbing Your Family Tree.” Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1977.
“Horatio, Lord.” Realm September/October 1995: 28.
Kemp, Betsy Hare. E-mail. 22 November 2008.
“Nelson.” New Dictionary of American Family Names. 1973.
Schom, Alan. Napoleon Bonaparte. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1997.