Upon This Rock: Part I-The Pearce Name

By
Larry Pearce
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.”

In Part II we’ll discuss the heraldry, or coats of arms, of the Pearce Family.
In Part III we’ll reveal some of the most famous Pearces of the past 500 years.

14 Responses to Upon This Rock: Part I-The Pearce Name

  1. Arline Pearce says:

    Hi,
    I am a daughter of Stanley Arnold Pearce from Massachusetts in which his mothers name was Arline (my grand father passed prior to my birth or right after so unsure of much) .
    I was born with the given (my first name Arline) after my grand mother and her middle name being Leslie. My father also served in the US Military during the Korean conflict. He is very frail at this time.
    I am a female combat Veteran of the US Army having served the imminent area of the Diyala region in Iraq for the OIF 04/05 tour of duty under the 1st Infantry Division (Big Red One) . I have one son and one daughter named Mary Jo Crain and Steven Russell Hunt Jr (Steven has 4 daughters) Mary Jo has no children as of now.
    I have one full brother named John Leslie Pearce (him and his wife have no children)

    • admin says:

      Hi Arline,
      What an impressive family! Seems unusual to find our name spelled “Pearce” in New England. Most famous relatives are spelled “Pierce” up there: President Franklin, First lady Barbara Pierce Bush, etc. They arrived in America much earlier and are closer to the original UK Percy line, I believe. Are you related to any of them? I guess you read where our Pittsburgh area family arrived from England in 1820. Thank you for sharing.
      Larry

      • Arline Pearce says:

        Hi there,
        Thank you for the compliment! Yes, I have heard we are related to a few Presidents to include, the Bushs (I believe my father said first lad Barbara being his 4th cousin. I see there is some note of Watertown and other places I recollect hearing my parents speak of as a child. Interesting.
        My father Stanley has passed on now as of last summer. I am recently a great grandmother, from my eldest sons daughter, Kaitlyn Hunt. The new child’s name is “Kingston” nickamed “Li’l King”.
        I hear the name Pearce begin to change to various spellings back over 700 years ago. Wow!

        • admin says:

          Hi again, Arline. Thanks for the updates. Sorry to hear about the death of your father, but I’m delighted to welcome “Li’l King” to the extended Pearce family. I’m sure there’s be more changes in our family over the next 700 years. Stay in touch,
          Larry

  2. Diane says:

    I am a Pierce and have traced the famous Percy family back to 0160 Finland. A great book to read if you are related to Henry (Hotspur) Percy is “A Bloody Field” by Edith Pargeter.

  3. Barbara Peirce says:

    Very nice read! Thank you. My last name is Peirce, and we pronounce it like ‘purse.’ I wish I could find a clearvexplanation for why–and when–the surname was changed from Percy to Pearce. My ancestors, who spelled their name Pers at that time, came to Watertown, Mass in 1636, and there were Peirce’s directly descended from them in the Arlington/Lexington area, at least ‘patriliniarly,’ until we moved to PA in 1968.

    • admin says:

      Hello Barbara,
      You bring up some questions that I’ve been asking for years. Perhaps one of our readers will have some answers. My “Pearce” family has been in Western PA and Eastern Ohio for nearly 200 years now, having come directly to buy and farm the cheap land. Where are you located?
      Thank you for your inquiry, and hope no one confuses you with our former first lady, Barbara Bush nee Pierce of New England.
      Larry

  4. Christopher Wright says:

    Hi Larry – as a wool-dyed New Englander (and Mayflower descendant) I spent most of my geneological Pierce info on the first immigrants from England. Often in my searches I would get references to Virginia which I inevitably passed on (as us good New Englanders do). After 20 years of doing this, I found myself looking into them.
    The first Pierce in this country was George Percie, a ‘merchant Adventurer’ and brother of Henry, 9th earl of Northumberland. George arrived in the Jamestown area in 1608 as a representative of James I and the merchant adventurers. After him came William, a survivor of the shipwreck of the Seaventure in 1609 – his wife Joan and daughter came the next year 1610 on the Ship Blessing. Williams brother, Abraham, a very rich man, arrived in 1616.

    I could write for a long time but long to short was that Richard Pierce III, 3rd son of Richard Pierce of Pearce Hall in England arr. 1624 on the Treasurer to Jamestown & was the Father to several brothers including several of the first Pierces in RI, and Massachusetts – like Thomas of Wobern. Captain William, Capt. Michael & John of Watertown. It’s a most interesting story and a different slant on who was involved with who.

    My citations are pretty good but have holes I am working on and I am finding some resistance to the concept but it all seems right in line to me. Oh, by the way, my “gateway’ ancestor was Thomas of Wobern. So, if you are interested or bored, let me know, OK?

  5. Kathryn Strzyzewski says:

    Hello!

    I am a Pearce descendant and am curious about whether or not the Pearce Hall in Yorkshire England is still standing? And if so, where is it located? My daughter will be in London in the fall & would like to see it if possible.

    Thank you!
    Kathy Strzyzewski

    • admin says:

      Hi Kathy,
      That’s a good question. A quick Google of your question only reveals that others are asking the same question and lots about our Pearce/Percy ancestors. I suggest going through those many references, and perhaps in the end, e-mailing the Yorkshire Tourist Council for specific directions and information. Please let our readers know what you and your daughter find. Sorry I couldn’t be of more help. Regards,
      Larry

  6. Barb Wray says:

    Hi Mr. Larry,
    I am a novice at this, and ignorant of much about my family. My great, great grandfather was John H. Pearce (born 12/1/840). I have been told he and his brother, William (born 5/23/1842) were both born in Cornwall, England and came to the US in 1854, settling in Hazel Green, WI. He married Elizabeth Ann Ellis in 1863, and they moved to Iowa (Jackson Township, Hardin County – near Owasa, Ia or rural Iowa Falls, Ia) in 1878. I am looking for information of family – his parents’ names and other siblings – in England. Our family – my siblings and I – are of the 5th generation on the John H. Pearce farm.
    Thank you kindly for any help.
    Barb Wray

    • admin says:

      Hi Barb,
      I’m sure we’re cousins as Cornwall and Wiltshire are very close. My GGgf Richard and his sister Sarah came to Pennsylvania in 1820/21, however many of their off-spring migrated west, so perhaps your folks knew my folks. Please start with my Pearce Family Tree ( http://e-gen.info/?page_id=46 ) and the Table of Contents for much more on our roots in England and our branches in America. Thanks for your interest,
      Larry

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