5/26/01 rev. 5/9/13
What follows is a three-part series of articles devoted specifically to the homestead in the new world of the Bourne Pearces and the Austens of Kent. The first part discusses the history, nature, and appeal of that relatively small tract of land along a northern tributary to the Allegheny River, just upstream from downtown Pittsburgh. Part II reveals what life was like at the Pearce Mill and farm from 1917 to 1927 when my father, Ralph Hill Pearce, his parents and brothers, and several aunts and uncles lived there prior to the County forcing them off the land. Part III describes the changes that came to Pine Creek as Allegheny County’s North Park was established beginning in 1927. This part is still being written today [WWW.COUNTY.ALLEGHENY.PA.US].
Judith Oliver, an historian and writer from the nearby community of Marshall, takes us back into the stone age saying in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article:
About 5,000 years ago, early hunters camped in a rock shelter in an area that later became Allegheny County’s North Park. These hunters were some of the first people to be attracted to North Park by its natural features. Little is known about these prehistoric people, but artifacts they left behind were recovered in 1979 and 1980 by archeologists from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Museum.
Jack Cummings, another Marshall resident, was taking a walk one day in 1977 when he spotted a small cave along a hillside in the park. He said to himself, “Hey, there should be something here,” and later told Oliver, “I scratched around and holy smoke, I found bone fragments and flint. I knew it was valuable so I hurried up and reported it to [the Carnegie Museum of Natural History]. Dr. James Adovasio, now head of Mercyhurst College’s Archaeological Institute in Erie, was a professor at Pitt at the time and led a team using techniques similar to those developed during the famous Meadowcroft excavations in the 70s. He believes the North Park site “was occupied as early as 3000 B.C. to as late as 1200 A.D. for short-term transient use as a hunting camp, probably in the late fall of the year.” Oliver’s research concludes that small bands of Native Americans who resembled humans today, probably 20 to 50 in number, were nomads looking for deer, bear, and turkey. They no doubt wore animal skins, built fires, and crafted stone tools and spear points. She believes that their culture buried its dead. More than 2,300 artifacts have been found, but no human bones. Little more is known about them, called the Woodland Monongahela People, because they were gone by the time the European settlers arrived. Interestingly, some Iroquois Indian pottery fragments have also been found in the rock shelter. Workmen who constructed the public park in 1927 acknowledged the presents of relics, but in those days preservation wasn’t required as it would be today. In 1939 however, a local archaeologist and a representative of the state Indian Research Bureau claimed they had located a burial mound 75 feet high and 150 feet wide. They wanted to excavate, and accused the commissioners of not cooperating. Later research was unable to substantiate any such mound. The Oliver article concludes, “It is certain prehistoric people enjoyed the natural attractions of North Park centuries before the park was created. Some of these early guests probably were ‘picknicking’ in the same places as their modern counterparts.”
What were the opportunities for obtaining land in Penn’s Woods? A look at the Brief Account of the Providence of Pennsylvania (1682) suggests that William Penn was actively recruiting immigrants with promises of cheap land and religious freedom. His “system of indentured servitude” even offered free land, money, clothes, tools, and opportunity to work off the Atlantic passage with a few years work. Pennsylvania seemed to have a preference for Ulster Scots and Rhineland Germans, citing their political and religious oppression and poor economy. Philadelphia was advertised in Britain as “The Gateway to America” and listed many reasons to settle in the Commonwealth: repressive English trade laws, decline of wool and linen manufacturing, high taxes and rent, consolidation of small farms under pasturage laws, famines and droughts, and discrimination against non-conformists (Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and of course, Catholics – the Test Act of 1673). Before the Pennsylvania state legislature established land titles in 1769, property could also be claimed under what was called “Tomahawk Rights.” One simply had to kill a number of small trees near a spring, usually the most valuable part of any parcel, cut a name or initials into a large tree, and occupy the land until a warrant or patent could be recorded with the nearest courthouse (Cassady). Northern Allegheny County was considered Indian territory as late as 1785, with most likely remnants of Shawnee, Delaware, or the Six Nations, which included the Iroquois. The first permanent white settlers in the North Hills were the Rodgers, Mallerson, and Gibson families in the 1790s [The first two from Britain and the last from Derry County, Ireland]. Today’s Pine Township, where Pearce Mill Road is located, was founded in 1796 (GNH Free Press). The Grubbs family [Susan Austen later married John Grubbs in 1832] reported riding out nearby Perry Highway (Rt. 19) from the safety of Pittsburgh [founded in 1758] during the day to work on their log home but having to return at night for fear of the Indians (P. Press). All three modern highways from Pittsburgh north to Erie, Routes 8 and 19, and Interstate 79, were once portions of trails used by Native Americans and early white fur traders. The most notable was the Venango Trail (Courstal).
Richard and Susan Austen Pearce arrived at Pine Creek in late May or early June of 1821. They had landed in New York City, exhausted after nine weeks on a sailing ship. The Original Family Narrative (OFN) says that the ship was at times lost at sea, running dangerously low on provisions. Richard was in his late 30s and Susan was in her late 20s [None of our three sources agree on their actual ages: the 1911 family genealogy, Internet data, nor dates on tombstones]. They had four of whom would eventually number 10 children with them: Ambrose (6), Alfred (4), Frederick (3) and Maria (1) [This is an addition to an earlier commentary]. Arriving a few days later at Pine Creek were Richard’s twin sister Sarah (late 30s?) and her husband Charles (36), brother to Susan. They had all been married the same day in the same church in London nearly eight years earlier. Charles and Sarah had with them the only children they would ever have: Susan (7), Thomas P. (5), and Charles, Jr. (3).
Richard was a “miller by trade” (OFN) and Charles was a military veteran and “gentleman” sheep rancher (B. Austen). According to the original account, the brothers-in-law had scouted out the area the year before and had agreed to purchase several hundred acres of property along Pine Creek, 12 miles north of the city, from the caretaker, whom they had met on the stage from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. However, we haven’t found a record of their passage from England in 1820, and the only land transfer found is dated 1821. Perhaps, if they had come to America earlier, the agreement was only a handshake. The narrative says that the first year Richard took the side of Pine Creek with the old gristmill and immediately began to repair the operation. Charles apparently took the other side and began to cut trees to build a cabin and fix fences for cows and sheep. The writer of the narrative says that Charles “found it very hard work to farm and was much discouraged and was on the point of going back to England several times,” although neither man had “done much labour work in England.”
Austen family research indicates that additional land had been purchased by some members of the family [probably by Charles’ father Ambrose, but perhaps also Charles and/or even Richard] near the National Road [later the Lincoln Highway and US Route 30] in east-central Ohio before 1820 [see “Ambrose Austen” article]. This was previously Indian Territory, presumably Mohican. Some members of both the Austen and Pearce families later left Pine Creek to settle in that part of Ohio.
Richard and Susan were not the first Pearces in Western Pennsylvania, let alone among the first in America. Records show descendants of the first British Percys in the new world: George Percy at the Jamestown, VA, settlement in 1607 and another Richard Pearce at the Massachusetts colony in the1630s. Other spellings of the Pearce name figured prominently as landowners in early Philadelphia and Washington D.C. [see “Upon This Rock: Famous Pearces” article]. In Western Pennsylvania a Rachel Pearce (b.c. 1754) married Benjamin Sparks (d. 1801) and had at least 7 children near Pittsburgh. An Andrew Pearce was recorded in Forward Township [near what is now Squirrel Hill, Allegheny County) as early as 1769. By 1790, a Mary Perces (or Parces) was also living there. Allegheny County records show a Robert Pearce in 1793. Amos and Eleanor Pearce settled in Ohio Township (Beaver Co?) in 1814. We don’t know if any of these are related to each other or our family. Perhaps the most popular in terms of their place in local genealogical records were Samuel and Sarah Pearce who came from Nottinghamshire [adjacent to Bourne, Lincolnshire], England to settle in McKeesport along the Monongahela River, upstream from Pittsburgh, around 1865. Their son Harry became a prominent hotelkeeper. After moving north to Elk County to run a canal and a coalmine, he moved to Wyoming but returned to the Pittsburgh area in 1873 after a close call with Indians (Cushing). Our family was not recorded in the 1850 census, but by 1870 census takers had reached the wilds of what is now suburban Pittsburgh, and all of the Pearces of Bourne are listed. Others include six from the city (Charles, Ella, two Elizabeths, and two Samuals) and several from surrounding counties (Butler, Indiana, and Clearfield – more on possible connections in articles on Pearces of Clearfield and Cambria Counties).
We know very little about life at the mill on the east side of Pine Creek, and we know even less about what happened on the Austen side. There is not a trace of the Austen cabin today. The hillside where it once stood is re-forested; the Austen descendants have moved on as far as Oregon [We’ll trace several who remained in the Pittsburgh area at a later time]. The majority of the Pearces, however, apparently stayed in Western Pennsylvania, and later the mill operation at Pine Creek was separated from the farm to provide more employment opportunities for the family, as we’ll see in the next article. So, as the family narrative says, “Both Richard Pearce and [Charles] Austen lived to a good old age [Richard lived to be 79 and Charles was 71 when he died according to their tombstones] and were gathered to rest, and both are buried in the old grave yard at the Cross Road[s] Presbyterian Church, where they and their families were wont to worship” [more on their religious practices in a future article]. Susan Austen Pearce died at the close of the Civil War at the same age as her brother, 71, while Sarah Pearce Austen [though her name is spelled “Austin” on her tombstone] outlived them all, dying at age 80. One remark seems appropriate here, from a collection of biographies of 1918 relating to the Pearce Woolen Mill of Latrobe, PA [see “Keeping the World Warm”]: “The Pearce family is noted for longevity. Most live over 80 years” (Old & New Westmoreland County 311).
Several Works Cited
Cassady, John C. Somerset County Outline & Supplement. Scottsdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing, 1932.
Courstal, F.C. “From Venango Trail to Interstate 79.” Carnegie Magazine Nov. 91.
Cushing, Thomas, ed. History of Allegheny County, PA 2 vols. Baltimore: Clearfield Co., 1889.
Greater North Hills Free Press 19 Dec. 83.
Oliver, Judith A. “North Park rockshelter reveals amazing secrets.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 23 Feb. 1997: VN -2.
Go to PART II
Go to PART III