great-great grandson of
Richard & Susan Austen Pearce,
our pioneer family
Seven years have passed since the 1813 wedding of my great-great grandparents, Richard and Susannah “Susan” Austen Pearce, in “The Queen’s Chapel,” London. Susan’s brother Charles (b.1785) and Richard’s sister Sarah (b.1792) were also married in that same place at the same time. Richard and Charles set the stage for this year’s bicentennial celebration by sailing to America in 1820, buying land with a milling business in Western Pennsylvania, and returning to their families in Wiltshire to prepare for moving everyone across the Pond the following year. Thanks to our “Original Family Narrative (OFN),” we have many of the details. Other of my own articles provide information on The English Pearces of Olde England and several Pearces in America and why they emigrated. But other Pearces, sometimes spelled “Pierce,” more indicative of our Norman beginnings, may be found in the earlier accounts of British-American history. Of course, research continues into these topics. Sometimes somethings are just not able to be determined from recorded history. What is presumed is that after the wedding, life continued in the ways of other middle class Brits in southern England: Richard working as “a miller by trade” and Susan raising the first four of their ten children, Ambrose (b.1814), no doubt named after her father, Ambrose Austen, Sr. (b.1757) and her brother, Ambrose, Jr. (b.1800); Alfred (b.1816), probably named for the Saxon king of Wessex; Frederick (b.1818), possibly named for the Prince of Wales, King George III’s youngest brother; and Maria (b.1819), a variation of Mary, both found in Susan’s Austen and Beard families. While the main purpose of this article is restating the story of the Pearce-Austen settlement in Pine Township, Allegheny County, PA, I want to begin by reminding the readers of other famous Pearce/Pierces in world history. One example is the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock and the first Thanksgiving 400 years ago. These are all reasons celebrate.
Englishman John Pierce represented The Virginia Company, the financial force behind the sailing of the Mayflower to Plymouth in 1620. He also composed the legal document that allowed the Pilgrims to settle in New England. According to Caleb Johnson, member of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants:
When the Pilgrims created the Mayflower Compact, it lacked one important thing — authorization by the English government. The Mayflower Compact was a “quick fix”, but even the Pilgrims knew they would need the authority of the English government behind them if they wanted to continue living at Plymouth. When news from Plymouth returned to England in May, 1620 along with the Mayflower, the Merchant Adventurers (stockholders in the Plymouth Plantation) led by John Peirce went to the Council of New England to get the Pilgrims the rights to live and establish a government of their own at Plymouth. The result was the 1621 Pierce Patent, which in a sense supercedes the Mayflower Compact.
Another Pierce, Captain Willym, sailed the Atlantic many times and was responsible for the second load of Pilgrims to New England and many more after that. One source gives him even more credit by listing a series of firsts:
He brought the first cattle to New England from England (ship Charity, 1624). He brought from the West Indies to New England the first cotton (1633) and the first sweet potatoes (ship Desire in 1636). He published the first bound book in English to be printed in North America – Pierce’s (Peirse’s) Almanac of 1639
Although the first Thanksgiving Day is commonly considered to have been the celebration following the first Pilgrim harvest in 1621, it has been suggested that Captain William Pierce was instrumental in bringing about the first real Thanksgiving observance ten years later!
By Googling the Pearce or Pierce name and subject, you can find many other fascinating articles on our possible family connections. I was curious about what happened during the century between the Pilgrims at Plymouth and our Pearces in Pine Township so I Googled “Historical Events 1720”, I found that a peace treaty was signed between Prussia and Sweden in January, a Spanish military expedition was wiped out by Pawnee Indians in present-day Nebraska in August, and the Ashkenazi Jews were expelled from Jerusalem and their synagogue burned down by Arabs in November. In just the first four months of the following year Johann Sebastian Bach finished his six Brandenburg Concertos, Sir Robert Walpole took office as Great Britain’s first Prime Minister, and an earthquake in Iran killed thousands. As today, the news included both the good and the bad. I also learned from this particular research exercise that by placing just a year in this site’s search box (upper right-hand corner) and clicking, a number of earlier articles containing promising events will appear, such as birth or death years, etc. These reveal what life was like in 18th century Wiltshire, the home of our Pearces. This is a good way to find dates and historical happenings to celebrate.
At some point during the seven years between the Pearce and Austen wedding and the brothers-in-law coming to America, they apparently felt a calling from the New World. Was it the seemingly unlimited opportunities here, if the stories could be believed that had found their way back to the Motherland via letters carried by the periodic arrival of trans-Atlantic, slow-moving ships? Or were there other influences? One rationale which has been discussed by my son Matthew in an article relating to his maternal Swiss-German ancestors as the “Push-Pull Theory.” Let’s consider this idea in light of the Pearce-Austen migration. If cheap, abundant land and seemingly unlimited opportunities were the Pull, then according to the article “Finding Your Immigrant Ancestors” on Ancestry. com, crop failure, poor living conditions brought on by the Industrial Revolution, even forms of religious persecution had inspired the Push of what is called the “Second Wave” of Europeans coming to America. Did the fact that our Pearces were religious nonconformists influence their move? As with most other immigrants, the reason(s) for the move was probably multifaceted. I’m sure we’ll never know exactly.One source that may help us understand the political climate of England in that day is entitled 1820: Disorder and Stability in the United Kingdom, by British historian Malcolm Chase (Manchester University Press, 2013). He calls it “a year of European revolution,” with an assassination in France and unrest in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece. Chase describes “popular uprisings in Scotland and northern England,” mutiny in London’s Brigade of Guards, and a conspiracy to assassinate the entire British Cabinet. As if that weren’t enough, King George IV divorced Queen Caroline, which inspired a media frenzy. This was the national atmosphere in which our Pearces apparently decided to make a geographical change in their home life.
We said earlier that the Pearce’s Original Family Narrative identified Richard’s professional as that of running a mill. If his purchase of the Phillip Sarver grist mill in Pine Township, Allegheny County, is any indication, he was a grinder of grain. In fact the area of southwest England where the Pearces lived, Wilshire, was an agricultural area, and grist mills abounded. The county of Kent, south of London where the Austens lived, was populated by lots of sheep, and accordingly there were woolen mills. Charles Austen was a rancher, and the second and ninth Pearce heirs, Alfred (b.1816) and John (b.1831) had acquired interest in and eventually full ownership of what was to become the famous and very productive Pearce Woolen Mill in Western Pennsylvania.
So, the health of agriculture in southern 19th century England was all important to our families. But, even today, physical effects on one side of our planet usually affect the other side. Historians remind us of several world-wide tragedies in the second decade of the 1800’s: first, in April of 1815, Mount Tambora on an island in the Indian Ocean erupted, propelling billions of tons of gas and debris into the atmosphere for more than two weeks. The results were the blotting out of the sun and polluted air causing the choking deaths of perhaps hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. Scientists believe that the results lasted over a year. That summer was much cooler than usual. They call what happened next a “volcanic winter,” sub-freezing conditions similar to what we know today as a ‘nuclear winter.” By mid-1816, survivors were calling it “The year without summer.” As much as six inches of snow were reported in America’s Northeast on June 6, 1816. Heavy frost and unusually wet conditions caused crop failures and famine around the world. A cholera epidemic killed millions around the world. In the often frightening yet sometimes amusing article entitled “15 Facts About ‘The Year Without Summer,” author Dennis Mersereau reassures us with somewhat tongue-in-cheek style that good things also came of Tambora’s anger: Mary Shelley began her classic creation, Frankenstein, and John Polidora wrote The Vampyre, which later influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Incredible volcanic sunrises and sunsets inspired several famous paintings. Because some individuals could no longer afford to keep horses for transportation, Karl Drais was led to invent the “Laufmaschine,” translated “running machine,” to get from place to place. But, unlike our modern two-wheeler, with no pedals, the operator had to flap his feet, like Fred Flintstone. Ironically, the cooling of most of the world caused the earth’s arctic regions to become warmer, causing the clearing of sea ice and leading British explorers to the Arctic looking for the illusive Northwest Passage.
Another theory mentioned in the above article is that the volcanic conditions may have lead to Mormonism. Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s family was one of many that left New England in the summer of 1816, probably seeking warmer climes. Settling in Western New York, the young Smith discovered the plates that inspired the Book of Mormon. Ironically, his followers traveled west through the northwest corner of Pennsylvania near to where John Pearce had moved his woolen mill. Surely no link there, because John had married a Lutheran, some theological distance from both the Mormons and the influence of Evangelist John Wesley, whom we believe had earlier inspired the Wiltshire Pearces to become non-conformists to the Church of England before coming to America. We explore the Pearce-Wesley connection in a recent article.
The question remains, did this infamous volcano cause a disruption in agriculture in southern England, upon which our Pearces and Austens depended? Was this a factor in their decision to come to America? Were their living conditions deteriorating? How ironic that this bicentennial year of 2020-2021 is replete with the Covid-19 pandemic, but rather than emigrate to another land, we have been ordered to quarantine in our own homes.
According to our “Original Family Narrative,” the Pearce and Austen brothers-in-law met a man on the stage coach traveling from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, from whom they purchase the farmland and milling business along the Pine Creek just north of the city. It’s probable that the two had originally intended to visit Charles’ father Ambrose, who had settled farther west several years earlier in what was the Ohio Territory. After spending the summer months in Pine Township, Charles clearing land on the west side of the creek for raising sheep and Richard doing some repairs to the mill and both meeting their new neighbors, they returned to New York and sailed back to England. Properties there were sold and their families were prepared for the great adventure that lay ahead. Again the “Original Family Narrative” offers some details, some wonderful and others harrowing.
The ship carrying the Pearce and Austen Families arrived in the Port of New York on August 12, 1821, having taken nine weeks, over twice the usual time at sea. It’s unknown if Capt. Samuel Candler got lost, ran into foul weather, or both. Susannah was apparently pregnant with daughter Sarah and lost her in the year following the settlement in Pine Township. Perhaps it was the extra time at sea, the stage coach ride west, or some stress of the new environment. Susan, as she was called in Pennsylvania, went on to have five more healthy children, including number 10, my Great-grandfather Charles, named for her brother.
One of the most interesting stories I’ve researched covered the day-to-day operation of the Pearce mill in the 1920s, just before the sale of that property in 1927 to create North Park under Allegheny County’s Right of Eminent Domain. I combined personal stories from my late father, Ralph Pearce (1917-2002), who was born in what is now the Park’s Administration Building and spent his younger days around the mill, with technical information from a local mill site that is still in operation. While the old mill is gone now, the Pearce house/Park Administration Building still serves the citizens of the county. As we’ll see below, it’s important to keep the history of our family and homestead alive.
A search on EventsHistory.com for our fourth century reminds us of the peace treaty officially ending WW I and the fading out of the 1918 Spanish Flu. The first meeting of the League of Nations, predecessor of the United Nations, was held in Geneva. But, these years also saw the first commercial broadcast in a new medium called “radio.” Station KDKA in nearby Pittsburgh relayed the results of the presidential election of 1920. Perhaps most meaningful event to our family was the annual Pearce Reunion held at a family farm with many in attendance. If the medium of radio is fleeting, and I worked in all levels of it for 20 years, the regional newspaper captured the history and ambiance of that special family reunion for all times. While you probably can’t read the visual below, there are some details of the 1920 Austin (as it was spelled here) Pearce Reunion and other gatherings at this link.
We’ve gone back 400 years in search of persons and families with the surname Pearce or Pierce (not necessarily directly related): 1620, 1720, 1820, and 1920. Even as I’ll continue to review previously presented information at this site, I hope your curiosity will take you further into these events. But certainly, the best is yet to come as we observe and celebrate.
I’ve written a great deal about life on the farm and mill in a three-part series entitled “Settlement at Pine Creek”and other shorter articles. At this time the relocation of our Austen descendants is mostly unknown, with a few exceptions. And, unfortunately, after 107 years, the Pearce’s time at that location came to and end when North Park was established in 1927. But, Richard and Susan’s hundreds of descendants relocated and today are found all over the United States and perhaps around the world. This website has been dedicated to telling and retelling the stories and researching the Vitals of these Pearces and associated families for two decades. May I share two dreams I have for my Pearce families:
1. A Pennsylvania State historical marker to be placed in front of what is now the Administration Building for Allegheny County’s North Park, similar to the above, to mark the many years that our family lived in and served Pine Township; and
2. A bicentennial reunion of as many Pearces and members of associated families as can be located sometime in the months to come. Ideally this would include food, fellowship, and certainly historical presentations in the Pearce Grove. Perhaps, in light of the pandemic, a “virtual” meeting would substitute until an actual in-person picnic could be held. Meanwhile, other virtual experiences may be enjoyed, like visiting the graves of our ancestors via FindaGrave.com.
Finally, with all that has been happening in 2020 and surely will be happening in 2021, I want to express my pride and delight in the administration of this family webpage, E-gen.info . With four main families and over 200 associated families, we have heard from readers around the world since its launch 20 years ago. It’s fitting that we celebrate this site and and opportunity to share my research and writing and communicate that of these readers, most of whom are “cousins.” Fortunately, the mission of E-gen is not over – not even close. It seems that each time I go back and re-read an article, I have found additional information to include in a revision. At some point I am planning to revise 20 years of articles, then print them, and put them in binders by families which will be donated to the various libraries and history centers in Western Pennsylvania that have our genealogy and family history in their mission statements. This donation will include precious heirlooms if interest hasn’t been expressed by family. New information and writings will be forwarded by addendums to the appropriate binders along with additional momentoes. My ideal would be to have younger family members come forth and express interest in carrying on this work. I have asked my Powers of Attorney to keep the website up for at least six months after my demise and finish, as possible, the editing and creation of binders. My time in this old body on this earth is limited, but with new technology being introduced constantly, the fun of family history will never end. In fact, as I have found, genealogy is habit forming. Please respond with your comments below and continue to send new information on our families as you discover it. I look forward to working with you.
Last revised 1/23/21