4/7/01 rev. 5/9/13
How many variations of the surname “Pearce” can you think of? Look below. Have I missed any?
Pers, Peers, Pears, Peares, Peires, Perez, Pearse, Percy, Pearcy, Pearcey, Pearch, Perse, Perrse, Pearl, Peart, Peers, Peerce, Pierce, Pieres, Peirce, Peirse, Piers, Pierse, Pierre, Pirse, Piece, Peace, Pairs, Pearson, Pierson, Pearsall, Peters, Peterson . . .
The list goes on and on. Chances are that you have many of these families living right in your neighborhood. Their origins are probably Italian, Spanish, French, or even Scandanavian. While the original Greek word for “rock” is “petros,” as when in the Bible Christ says to Simon, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18), the word appears in the Romance languages as follows:
Latin – petra,
French – pierre,
Spanish – piedra,
Italian – pietra,
Russian – Petrarc, and
Portugese – pedra. (WWW.FREETRANSLATION.COM)
[Incidentally, the word “rock” appears no less than 19 times in the Bible, each time standing for the concept of a firm foundation or something very solid].
Most of the “what’s in a name” plaques or printouts one can buy in gift shops in Britain or over the Internet (WWW.GENFORUM.GENEALOGY.COM) agree that the English root word is “Pear” or “Pier,” meaning “Peter,” from the Greek “petros,” or rock, although there are some other opinions cited below. According to Lora S. LaMance, “The first [Pearce] name-bearer was a devotee of St. Peter, who had taken, it is supposed, some special vows or obligations before the shrine of the saint. The [Pearce] family was of noble blood.” The American Genealogical Research Institute states that there are more churches dedicated to St. Peter in England than to any other Apostle. Isn’t it ironic that the oldest and largest church in Bourne, Lincolnshire, the town from which we supposedly originated, is named for St. Peter. When we add “se,” “ce,” or “s” to the root “Pear,” the meaning becomes “son of,” or in its entirety “son of Peter” or whatever the father called himself. Root words in proper names have four origins: fathers’ names, occupations, places, or physical or personal characteristics. Virtually all languages have suffixes to denote the father-son relationship. For example, in Russian it’s “sky,” as in Tchaikovsky, and in Slovakian it’s “sic,” as in Petrusic (incidentally, also translated “son of Peter”). While exact origins are almost impossible to determine, and can be the source of much disagreement, Halbert’s World Book of Pearces says, “The surname Pearce appears to be patronymical in origin, and is believed to be associated with the Welsh, meaning “descendant of Peter.”
Other possible origins of our name include the Percy Forest in Normandy, in the northern French province of Maen, which Manfred the Dane invaded around 922 AD. No doubt the name was inspired by the rocky soil there. Arthur’s Etymological Dictionary of Christian Names (1857) suggests that “Pearce” may have come from “pirsen,” Teutinic for hunting, or even “percer,” French for penetration. Nevertheless, a descendant of Manfred, William de Perci (c.1030-1096), or literally “of the Percy Forest,” became the military companion to William the Conqueror who captured England from a host of earlier settlers in 1066 [see a previous article about opposition to the Normans from Hereward the Wake of Bourne, the supposed place of origin for our family]. De Perci is listed in the famous Domesday Book, a type of census record taken in 1086. Col. Frederick C. Pierce, in his book Pierce Genealogy, claims that the Percies provided the subject matter for many minstrels. For example, Galfred, the son of Manfred, is immortalized in “The Hermit of Warkworth:” Brave Galfred, who to Normandy with vent’rous Rolla came; And, from his Norman castles won, assumed the Percy name.
In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, the lead proclaims: Oh, that it could be proved that some night tripping fairy had exchanged in cradle-clothes our children, where they lay; and called mine – Percy, his – Plantagenet. (Act 1, scene 1)
For his deeds, de Perci was awarded a large estate in Northumberland County. Alnwick Castle was constructed in 1309 and is still standing today. It is considered the second largest family-occupied castle in Britain. A famous de Perci descendant from Alnwick, George Percy (another spelling), came to America landing in Jamestown, Virginia with Captain John Smith in 1607. A century before that, around 1500, members of this family built Pearce Hall in Yorkshire County to the south, from which the colonial Massachusetts Pearces emigrated shortly after the time of the Pilgrims. [For the full line, Google “Percy genealogy from Manfred to Richard III.”]
After the Normans conquered England, the French language became the official language of the court and public transactions. This lasted 300 years. It wasn’t until Henry IV in 1399 that a British monarch could speak English. Eventually, the French spoken in that new land evolved, along with dozens of other languages, into what is known as Middle English, which was finally stabilized in spelling and pronunciation with the advent of technology such as the printing press and the linguistic work of Bourne’s Robert Manning [A.K.A. Robert de Brunne discussed in the last article]. There are some wonderful stories of our English language in Bill Bryson’s book The Mother Tongue: English & How it Got That Way. He tells a story by the first British book publisher, William Caxton, in Eneydos (1490), of London sailors heading down the River “Tamyse” for Holland and finding themselves stranded and hungry in the county of our Austen ancestors, Kent. Meeting a housewife, one of them “axed for mete and specially he axed after eggys.” The woman answered him that she “coude speke no Frenshe.” Bryson says, “The sailors had traveled barely 50 miles and yet their language was scarcely recognizable to another speaker of English.” By the way, at that time in Kent, the word for eggs was “eyren.” Also, the earliest writers of English used no punctuation. They simply ran everything together; it was up to the reader to decipher what was meant.
The first recording of our name, using the English spelling, was in the 12th century when a Gilbert Pearce was listed in the Pipe Rolls of London (1198 AD). These ledgers provided proof of payment to the monarchy by county on an annual basis. Henry I (1100-1135) began this practice of taxation. The Hundreth Rolls, a unit of government detailing citizens of a given area until the 19th century, also lists the name Pearce. Early church records show the marriage of George Pearce toAnna Padget at St. Michaels, Corhill in 1692.
Harvey Cushmand Pirece, author of Seven Pierce Families, says:
Before the English orthography (or spelling) was finally settled in the 18th century, the name was written in many ways, according to the writer’s idea of what spelling most clearly represented its sound. In the oldest pronunciation the vowel sound appears to have been the same as in “pair” or “there.” Later the pronunciation was modified to “purse,” which is still heard in New England. The spellings “Pierce” and “Pearce” were most in use.
Long before the invention of the typewriter in the late 19th century or the development of the computer in the late 20th century, public and private records were at the mercy of a clerk’s hearing and handwriting. In fact, the word “clerk” comes from the word “cleric,” usually an older, learned man of the cloth who could read and write. Each town in the church-state had at least one who could write letters and record deeds and contracts. Imagine the confusion on the other side of the Atlantic, at the ports of New York, Philadelphia, or Baltimore as the East Europeans poured into19th century America unable to speak any English at all. They probably understood that the person at the dock would ask their name, but what they didn’t know was that he would write down whatever he thought he heard, and the immigrants would carry that with them on all their public documents for generations to come. An example is the City of Johnstown near to where I live. The founder, Joseph Schantz, was a Swiss immigrant whose name was recorded simply as Johns, and today his legacy is Johnstown rather than Schantztown. In some cases names were shorted or Anglesized, or made to sound like something English. You are invited to tour the new Bottleworks Ethnic Arts Museum in Johnstown, which features such stories of the European immigrants who came to the mills and mines of Western Pennsylvania over the past 200 years (see WWW.VISITJOHNSTOWNPA.COM).
The federal government, in the late 1930s, devised a system to categorize and index the various names from the US censuses according to way they sound. In other words, no matter how a name is spelled, it is grouped together with all other names that sound alike. This is known as the Soundex System, and “Pearce,” number P620, is in the company of over 400 other names, alphabetically from “Paracca” to “Pyrz.” In researching Internet and original family databases of Pearces before they came to America in 1820, one is liable to find any number of spellings. Great Britain is small geographically compared to American or Australia, so there is a high probability that families with similar root names from similar locations were somehow related. Oftentimes, genealogists proceed on the assumption that there is a relationship, just to see where it takes them. For example, there is only about 150 years, or about 6 generations, between the 18th century Pearces of Bourne and the 17th century Percys of Alnwick, which as we said earlier dates back to Normandy 922 AD. What are the chances of some genealogical relationship there? After all, the geographical distance from Bourne, Lincolnshire, north to York is less than 100 miles and from York north to Alnwick is only another 100 miles. But, we haven’t uncovered any records to fill the gap, timewise or geographically. What fun it will be when/if we do! One thing is for sure, the Internet has sped up the process immensely, at least the process of reporting our discoveries. Maybe you’ll be the one who connects the “rocks” – the Pearces, that is.
Note: For additional information, see WWW.FAMILYTREEMAKER.COM “Descendants of Henry De Percy” and HOMEPAGES.ROOTSWEB.COM “Origins of the Pierce Family” or WORLDCONNECT.ROOTSWEB.COM “Tonya’s Genealogy.”