Pearce Lines: Part 1-The Old World

by
Larry Pearce
12/19/01 rev. 5/9/13

If it is difficult to trace the major lines of the Pearce family in England, the home of our ancestors, it is almost impossible to follow the branches once they reach America. In a volume just discovered this week in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, The Genealogy of George Washington Peairs: His Forebears and Descendants from Pennsylvania to Tennessee, author Helen Ruth Renner says, “A multitude of Pierce family histories have been written [see partial list at the end of Part II] no doubt because there were so MANY early Pierce (with all its spellings) immigrants to [America] (1).” She reminds us of the French derivation “Piers” and the “Percy” connection. [see “Upon This Rock.”] Although she doesn’t mention the development of the printing press specifically as the reason for the recording and stabilization of words and names in Europe, she says, “It was not until the 16th century that the name was changed to Pierce and other variations.” The Outline of the Preliminary Survey, by Edwin E. Brandon, is cited as a source for the legendary evolution of the Pearce family name from c. 972 to the 1700’s (18). More linguistics later; the spelling and pronunciation of the name is interesting.

According to Donna Burough Opat, in the Pearce-Brace Family History (1995), one can find eight major lines of Pearces in England, and this is where we shall start in listing some of the American branches that flourished from the 17th century onward and spread across the colonies and what would become the United States. I’m reminded of the grape vines the early settlers brought with them to America. They kept them alive in the fertile soil of wherever they settled. The plants yawned and spread their long arms across the rough wooden trellises to produce much fruit. When the new generations of Americans headed westward from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania to New York and Ohio and southward to North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, they took cuttings of the new shoots for their gardens and vineyards – both the families and the plants eagerly putting down roots amid sometimes harsh conditions to produce the generations to come. The grape vines along my steep hillside came from grandparents on each side of our multi-ethnic family: English, Scotch-Irish, and German. We can’t determine how far back the original plants might have been started, but even the oldest members of our families can’t remember a time when they didn’t have vines to prune, grapes to pick, and juice to can. So, this is an attempt to lay out some of the paths the Pearce family took. Part One deals with the major English Lines and Part Two takes us across America in search of the branches, which are still multiplying. We begin with some notes on the eight British Lines: Northumberland, Somersetshire, Yorkshire, Devonshire, Norfolk, Essex, Warwickshire, and Surrey.

William DePercy (c. 1030-1096), who was an associate of William the Conquerer in 1066, was founder of the Northumberland Line [see “Origins of the Pearce Name”]. The estate that he was awarded for his loyalty once belonged to the Scots. Grandson Richard was appointed one of the 25 barons to enforce the Magna Carta (1215). In 1301 the ninth Baron Percy signed the baron’s letter to the Pope opposing taxation of the clergy. Later, Peirs deGraveston became a favorite of the young King Edward II (1307-27). If Internet sources are correct, this is the line that settled in Massachusetts and Rhoads Island.

In the 14th century the Somersetshire line included Hubert Peres, Ralph Peyres, Adam Pereys, and Richard Perys (1327). That area records a John Pierce as resident of Midsomers Norton around 1570.

The Yorkshire line lists Isolda Peer as a daughter and Magota Peers as a “wyf” about 1378. A century later, in 1485, Peres Peirs fought as a standard bearer for King Richard III in the battle of Bosworth Field. Peter Peirse is listed as living in Yorkshire around 1520, and John Piers, who was Dean of Salisbury and Christ Church, became Archbishop of York in 1589.

A branch of the Pearce family settled in Holsworthy to form the Devonshire line around 1550. Members of that line were prominent in local affairs for nearly 300 years. The Rev. George Peirce was a resident of Tiverton in the early 1500s.

Less is known about the four remaining lines, but sometime before 1560 Robert Piers of the Norfolk line married Anne Dalton and had a son Martyn who settled in Cambridgeshire. John Peers, who lived in London before 1560, represents the Essex line of the family. A Peers or Piers lived in Warwickshire around the same time and began that line. And finally, a Pears or Pierce began the Surrey line just before 1600. One of his sons moved to County Middlesex.

To which line do our ancestral twins Richard Pearce and Sarah Pearce Austen belong? Cousin Caroline (Austen) Pinkers provides proof through county records that they were christened in Wiltshire on January 2, 1787. If this is true, then the Bourne referred to in the Original Family Narrative (OFN) is probably what today is known as Aldbourne and lies between Oxford and Salisbury quite a ways west of London [see WWW.WILTSHIRE-WEB.CO.UK]. Indeed, the writer of the OFN says that she had a Great Aunt Charlotte (Pearce) Hale who “at one time lived in Wiltshire.” If, as the OFN claims, Richard was “a miller by trade,” an occupation probably requiring a family apprenticeship and thus discouraging much geographic mobility, then our Pearces were probably originally part of the Somersetshire line, the second oldest as indicated above. This group also lived the closest to what is now Wales, which affirms the OFN, the Internet information, and scholarly sources cited in earlier articles linking our Pearces to the Old Britons who found refuge from the advancing Romans and Saxons in Wales. [For a fascinating account of the struggle for this part of the British Isles see the first section of John Davies’ A History of Wales (1993).] One Internet source insists that Pearces were first found in Somerset County, England, “where they were recorded as a family of great antiquity seated as Lords of the manor and estates in that shire”. This makes me almost as proud as the fact that my household is the only Pearce family now residing in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Yes, we have Pears, Pearsons, Piers, Pierces, Piersons and other variants, but we’re the only Pearce listed in the local phone book. This Somerset County was settled mostly by Germans such as my wife’s Miller, Baer, and Krause families. I’m told that 90% of homes here spoke some German before World War I, during which there was a great rush to disavow any connection to the Old Country.

The rest of Central and Western Pennsylvania was settled mostly by families from the British Isles including a few Pearces of Welsh and Irish descent [see articles on “Portage, Cambria County” and “Clearfield County” Pearces]. One old Irish Pearce farm on the Emerald Isle, located at Glencanny on Hillwater two miles from Enniskillen, was still owned by Pearces as late as 1883. Edward (1701) married Francis Brassington in Dublin, the daughter of Marmaduke, and later (1737) sailed to Philadelphia with his wife and three children, two of whom died at sea. They worked farms in Delaware and Chester Counties in Eastern Pennsylvania. Their descendants farmed there for several generations. Back in Ireland, Patrick Pearse or Pierce, probably a cousin and the President of the Provisional Irish Republican Government, was executed by a Royal British firing squad for his part in an Irish uprising on Easter Day, 1916. The repercussions are still being felt today in that part of the world [see “Famous Pearces” article].

As we said at the outset, it is difficult enough to trace family lines in America, let alone try to go back half a millennium or more in England. But, we have provided a basis to which we might refer as we cross the Atlantic and pickup the story on the other side. I am presently writing to a researcher in Crewkerne, Somersetshire, who is very familiar with the Pearces there, and we’re planning another trip to Great Britian in several years. So, perhaps we’ll be able to fill in some of the gaps in our story before long.

Before we go, however, please allow me to cite several additional sources that have been helpful in understanding where our family name came from. William Bowman in The Story of Surnames says, “Piers or Pierce, the variant of Peter, was a common font name [first name, always Christian, given at baptism or christening] in the middle ages, but it has not made many contributions to the list of surnames [other than] Pearce, Pearse, Pears, and Pearson” (73). He explains that, on the other hand, the original “Peter” has many surname derivations. For example, the French “Pierre” might have been heard and spelled as simply “Pier” in Early English. The letters “S” and “C” were added interchangeably, as we said in an earlier article, to indicate “the son of” someone. Bowman reminds us, “The name was freely used in the scanty literature of the period by William Langland and the unknown author of Peres, The Ploughman’s Crede [a.k.a. The Piers Plowman], and others” (82). [See also WWW.BRITANNICA.COM. Remember that our Richard Pearce was a “miller by trade” (OFN) and, though a native of Wiltshire, probably had a few things in common with our family from Kent. Don’t forget also that the Austens were from near Canterbury]. According to Ewen, a silent “E” was added to the end of Piers or Pears around the 16th century, probably from the French nominative singular as in the common name “Jacques” (135). Thus, we have Pearse or our name Pearce. Originally, Austen came from St. Augustine, and that “E,” though not at the end of the name, was also originally silent – pronounced “AH-stn.”

In closing, records indicate that Oxford University lists a W. Pearce as attaining a B.A. in 1601, one of the earliest official sources using this spelling. I wonder, was he from our immediate line? We’ll probably never know, but isn’t it fun to think about? As Helen Renner says in her introduction to the Peairs genealogy, “In developing a family history, there has to be a point of beginning . . . I feel confident that all spellings go back to ONE family and ONE spelling.”

Selected Works Cited

Bowman, William Dodgson. The Story of Surnames. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1968.

Ewen, C. L’estrange. A Guide to the Origin of British Surnames. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1969.

Go to Pearce Lines: Part II – The New World

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