Sparks Bird (1796-1884): One Unusual In-law

Larry Pearce

As a lover of history, amateur genealogist, and teacher of writing, I’m always interested in the human side of the family tree. Aside from those relatives who made the world-famous Pearce Blanket and the well-known doctors such as McLeod Milligan Pearce and Willard Austen, whose ambitious lives and unexpected deaths made the national newspapers, our family has pretty much been the salt of the earth [see earlier stories]. Yes, there have been, and probably still are, family names before and after 1813 both in England and the United States that are recognizable to others for a variety of reasons, but seldom has one come along that instantly peaked my curiosity. Born on the Western Pennsylvania frontier to a famous 18th century American military family, volunteer Indian fighter and road builder, Sparks Bird eventually settled near our family Patriarch, Ambrose Austen, in Ohio, and married three times, once to my Great-great Aunt Charlotte. She was an interesting person also, to say the least, but this story is primarily about the man with the unusual name and the even more unusual life, Sparks Bird, Sr. When I first came across his name in the 1911 Austen-Pearce Genealogy, I was certain that he must have been a Native American. I happened to be working on the recent article involving our family’s connections to the Indians of pioneer days. But, my sources assure me that he wasn’t “blood” to the original settlers, and I was offered me much more to consider. I hope you’ll find his life as fascinating as I have and be proud that we can call him our great-great uncle, a most unusual in-law.

Our Great-great Aunt Charlotte Austen, my Great-great Grandmother Susan Austen Pearce’s sister and the youngest daughter of Ambrose and Susannah Beard Austen, was born on the last day in December of 1798 in Kent, England. The 1911 Austen-Pearce Genealogy apparently errs on the last page in identifying her father as Joseph (32). He would have been her younger brother (b. 1802). Waiting to mention her until the final page also seems to indicate that she married long after all the rest of her siblings, except for younger brother Joseph, who married at age 52. Aunt Charlotte married Sparks Bird at age 37. She died 20 years later, just two weeks shy of her sixty-second birthday, without having born any children. One Internet source lists her husband’s original address as Fayette County in Western Pennsylvania [see earlier article about other Pearce lines there]. Apparently, he later moved to Jeromesville, Wayne County, Ohio, the home of her father and other Austens and Pearces. The Internet reveals some interesting, if contradictory, things about Sparks Bird (note various spellings and dates):
• Sparks Bird married Eliza Long, 1833 Wayne County
• Sparks Burd married Charlotte Austin, 1840 Wayne County
• Sparks Bird married Mary Finley, 1857 Ashland County
• Sparks Burd married Rachel Finley, 1864 Ashland County

One of these sources says that he was born in 1810 in Greene County, a Western Pennsylvania location between Fayette County, PA, and the counties of Ashland and Wayne in Ohio. This site also says that his wife was Rachel Finley. All this could have been if he was 12 years younger than Charlotte and he remarried after her death. Can we solve these conflicts? According to Thomas Wertman, there were two Sparks Birds, whom we shall refer to as Sr. and Jr. The father was born in 1796, which would have made him two years older than Charlotte, and his son, who was born in 1835, to Eliza Long, five years before the father’s marriage to Charlotte. As for that birthday of 1810, sometimes sources, Internet or other, are just plain wrong. On the other hand, we know that Greene, Fayette, and parts of seven other Western Pennsylvania counties were formed the original 1773 Westmoreland County, the first English-speaking county west of the Alleghenies (Swetnam and Smith 234). Also, Wayne and Ashland Counties in Ohio had been once combined.

The Internet also alludes to another Sparks Bird in Tennessee. Sparks Bird is an unusual name, and several of those early Fayette County Pearces later moved to Tennessee, so we wonder if there could be a connection. According to cousin Sue Lee, our Sparks Bird may have descended from Col. James Bird/Burd of the Pennsylvania forces during the pre-Revolutionary War era. Remnants of Fort Burd, built in 1759, remain along the Monongahela River, at the mouth of Dunlaps Creek south of Pittsburgh near Redstone Old Fort, now called Brownsville, along the National Pike (U.S. Rt. 40). Ironically, this is not far from the county seat of Uniontown, which was defended in the 1770s by what was known as Ft. Pearce [read about Captain Isaac Pearce/Peairs in “Pearce Lines: Part II”]. But, Burd is perhaps best know for reinforcing Fort Loyal Hannon, today known as Ft. Ligonier just east of Pittsburgh, a staging area for General John Forbes’ assault on the French Fort Duquesne, known as Fort Pitt after the British conquest in 1758. These military orders survive in the following letter:

20th November, 1758
Sir, It is General Forbes orders that you immediately detach two hundred of your best men, with a proper proportion of officers, to take part at this camp, in order to strengthen convoys of provisions and coming to the Army, and keep the communication open. They are to be serv’d with eight days provisions at Loyal Hannon and remain upon this duty til it is expended, and not to break in upon any of the provisions coming up to the Troops. This camp I compute to be about 22 miles from Loyalhannon, by nature extremely strong, and fortified with four Reduts, so they cannot be at a loss for the post. I am you most obedient humble servant,
Francis Halkett. (258)

In The Writings of General John Forbes, the Brigadier General, apparently pleased with Burd’s leadership abilities, writes to Col. Henry Bouquet about how to get information on the strength of Fort Duquesne, “I am told that Col. Burd has an Indian with him who’d be a proper person to employ” (165). We wonder if there’s a connection to William Byrd III, the British commander of the Virginia troops and Fort Cumberland, Maryland, during the French and Indian War and referred to even more frequently in Forbes’ writings [see “Sinful Savages”]. Also, is it too far a stretch to think that our Beard surname could have been misconstrued to be “Bird?” There are several Beards buried near the Austens and Pearces in Wayne and Ashland Counties.

According to Australian cousin and family researcher Brian Austen, Sparks Bird was born in Redstone, Pennsylvania. Though not on most maps, this town, probably the aforementioned Redstone Old Fort, was monickered for the copper-colored outcroppings of rock along a small creek of the same name. The stream also gives its name to one of the first presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church, USA. Redstone Old Fort is near enough to the Fort Burd mentioned above that Col. James is possibly the father of Sparks. But, excerpts from Hill’s History of Ashland County (Ohio), provided via e-mail courtesy of William J. Nelson, claims that Sparks is descended from John and Cassandra Bird in 1797 [Hill, unfortunately, gives some conflicting information pertaining to Spark’s life later in his account, page 285]. Could John have been a brother, son, or other relative to Col. James? We don’t know, but the Colonel would have been considered elderly when Sparks was born. It’s almost certain that Sparks was from a military family. Hill’s account says that the family moved to Jefferson County, Ohio, when the lad was age 7. This sparsely settled land around Ft. Stueben, now Stuebenville, was just across the Ohio River and safe from Indian attack. Hill says, “The Delaware yet remained along the Tuscarawas River in large numbers and ranged the forests in quest of wild game. They often visited the cabin of the parents of Mr. Bird, but offered no threats or intimidation” (152). When Sparks reached the age of 18 his wanderings took him further west and north to Massillion, Ohio, but the next year he moved just down the road (now U.S. Rt. 30, the Lincoln Highway) to Wooster, the home of his famous uncle, General Beall. Sparks was hired to help on the crew that constructed the road westward from Wooster, through Jeromesville, Ambrose and Charlotte Austen’s home after 1821, and beyond [for the story of the Indian attack, see “Sinful Savages”]. Beall owned most of the farmland around Wooster, and most of the farmwork Sparks found himself doing was clearing and plowing. The Wyandot Indian Trail passed through Wooster, and Hill remarks:

It was not uncommon to see hundreds of red men from the northwest pass and re-pass the settlement about the blockhouse every week for four or five years after the war of 1812; but the spirit of the red man had been completely broken, and the hostiles had generally removed to Canadian soil, while the Montours, the Armstrongs, the Jonacakes, the Dowdees, and the Lyons still continued to range the forests of what is now Ashland County in search of game. (152)

In an unusual and puzzling sidelight, Brian Austen echoes Hill’s writings saying, “Unfortunately, [Sparks] also became acquainted with John Driskel, a notorious leader of desperadoes involved in horse-stealing, incendiarism, and house-breaking. The boldness of their crimes created terror wherever they appeared.” It is not clear what the word “acquainted” implies, but apparently Driskel was not considered a bad man when he first came to the settlement at Wooster. However, under the influence of corn whiskey, he was afraid of no one. Once in a fight with Andrew Poe, he had the end of his nose bitten off. After this, Hill says, he was “repulsive in appearance.” The Law finally caught up to the gang, but most eventually escaped. A posse of volunteers from the area, after Driskel had reorganized and began again to terrorize, let it be known that the citizens would no longer tolerate his actions. He was recaptured and bound for the state prison in Columbus, but again, he escaped and fled westward to Illinois. This time, according to Hill, “The Driskels finally expiated their crimes by being shot or hung by the regulators” (152).

In the fall of 1820, about the time that, according to the Austen-Pearce family narrative, Richard Pearce and Charles Austen were sailing back to England to sell their property and retrieve their families for spring passage back to America, Sparks Bird joined a surveying party that set off for Saginaw Bay, Michigan. Apparently, they crossed the Great Lakes on the way home and a terrible snowstorm forced them ashore. Escaping the shipwreck they proceeded by land to Cleveland, cold, wet, and exhausted. Sparks apparently returned to his parents’ farm near Stuebenville about the time, 1821, that Ambrose Austen was settling his family, including the lady who would be Sparks’ future wife, Charlotte, in Jeromesville.

By 1823 Sparks had returned to the town of Lake in east-central Ohio, where he had earlier filed for a land patent. He cleared a farm of his own and built a small cabin. His brother William and family settled nearby, and Hill says they “commenced pioneer life in earnest—clearing, making rails, fencing, log-rolling, and raising cabins among the new settlers, being the main employment” (152). The story goes that the Bird brothers had arranged to pick up a flock of chickens from a neighbor one evening, about a mile and a half up the road. The job of collecting the fowl was apparently easier after the birds had gone to roost. A short distance after starting for home, the boys heard the howling of wolves and took off running at full speed. Sparks was the smaller, lighter, and faster of the two, but he tripped over a root or a stone in the path and fell into a bush. After a bit of suspense, the brothers escaped the hungry animals, and Hill humorously concludes, “[Sparks] is of opinion that he must have made excellent time, for the voracious howlers remained about his cabin all night, in hope of dining on his favorite poultry” (152).

Sparks had the reputation of being a good hunter and he often competed with the local Indians for venison, turkey, rabbits, and bear. Wild Honey was always a treat when it could be found. He had no trouble providing for his new family after he married Eliza Long (1814-1835) in 1832, the mother of his only children, Sparks, Jr, and Sarah. His neighbors thought quite a lot of him, electing him twice to the office of Township Trustee in 1838 and again in 1849. With the premature death of Eliza, Sparks married our Charlotte Austen in 1840. They had no children, but she took care of young Sparks, Jr. and Sarah from the first marriage. Upon the death of her father, Ambrose, in 1843 she inherited a house and Lot 63 in the town of Jeromesville. The couple apparently sold the property and used the cash to improve their own estate. After the death of Charlotte, and at the height of the Civil War in which Sparks, Jr. became a Sergeant Major, Sparks, Sr. married a third time. This time he chose the youngest daughter of Alexander Finley, the first white settler in Mohican Township. Her name was Rachel.

Hill’s history was published in 1880, just four years before Sparks’ death, but he closes his account of this interesting man by saying, “Although far advanced in years [84 at the time], [he] possesses a good deal of mental and physical vigor, and may survive to relate his pioneer experiences for many years” (152). Sparks Bird died at age 88. He, his three wives including Aunt Charlotte, his son Sparks Jr., and Jr.’s wife Mary Finley, are all buried in the same family plot at the Old Sixteen (also known as Pioneer) Cemetery in Green Township southwest of the Mohicanville Dam near his original farm. Yes, Junior married Mary Finley in 1857. That solves the mystery of those four Sparks Bird marriages listed in the beginning, but was she related to Senior’s last wife, Rachel? That raises some interesting possibilities. Like his father, Sparks Jr. died at an advanced age having served his country in war and his family in peace. He died in 1914 at age 79.

We believe that the story of Sparks Bird, Sr. and his family is not only interesting but representative of the hardships the early settlers of Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio had to overcome. It includes all the elements of a modern action drama: defending one’s family and community from hostile forces, wild animals, danger from the elements, and of course, lots of romance. Our hero even has an unusual Hollywood name, “Sparks!” Its connotation from American folklore is that of passion and romance. But, best of all is that the storyline is altogether true, and I’m proud that we’re distantly related through marriage. So, as our title proclaims, from his name to his productive and exemplary life, Sparks Bird, Sr. was “one unusual in-law.”

Several Works Cited

Hill’s History of Ashland County, Ohio, 1880.

Swetnam, George, and Helene Smith. A Guidebook to Historic Western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh: U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1976.

Thanks to these sources

Brian Austen
Marge Austen (1932-2009)
Sue Lee
William J. Nelson
Bill Pearce
Caroline Pinkers (1931-2014)
Thomas Wertman

Last revised 10/16/19

6 Responses to Sparks Bird (1796-1884): One Unusual In-law

  1. Micjael Gilleran says:

    I am a great-great-great grandson of Sparks Bird, Sr. Sparks Bird, Jr. had a daughter Nora Bird who married Cameron Crow. They had a son named Glen Crow. Glen Crow and Rachel Kensett had (have) a daughter named Anne Crow. She married Peter Gilleran. I am Michael Crow Gilleran.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for writing. That’s all good information about his descendants. Do you have any stories about this colorful character? I’d love to share them. Are you all still in Ohio?

  2. Martha Crow says:

    I enjoyed your article, which I scanned very quickly. (I will try to take a more careful look later.) I am Michael Gilleran’s aunt and I’m embarrassed to say he has his grandfather’s name misspelled: It was Glenn Frank Crow (2 “n”s). For that matter, I believe Norah Bird spelled her name with an “h.” At any rate, the Burds, later Birds, were from Scotland. Their ancestral home near Glasgow was called Ormiston Mansion and a Burd son gave that name to his summer place in Philadelphia. It is still there in the park behind the Philadephia Museum; the city now owns it. Perhaps you are close enough to Philadephia to visit the house; however, it’s never been open when I’ve been there. Have you been to Pioneer Cemetery? Cheers, Martha Crow

    • admin says:

      Our son lived in Philly but we never visited either attraction you mention. I think it’s interesting how similar the Bird name is to Baird and Beard, other Pearce-associated families from Scotland. Thanks you for your response.

      • Martha Crow says:

        I don’t know why I suddenly got your email just now–it is dated 6/5 and today is 6/12! Anyway, sorry if I gave the impression that the Pioneer Cemetery is in Philadelphia. It is in Ohio. I believe it’s at Mohicanville (in Ashland County); the cemetery’s on a picturesque hillside in the country. I would have to ask around to find it now. (There is a beautiful state park nearby in Loudonville–Mohican State Forest, a hillly setting with a deep gorge that has hiking trails developed by the CCC of the depression era.) The Bird family also lived around McKay, which, like Mohicanville, is barely a crossroads. It’s interesting to visit those old cemeteries. The first Sparks Bird’s first two wives and several children are buried there. Both of those wives died in childbirth, I believe. The second Sparks Bird was mayor of Loudonville and was reported to ride about town on his manure-spreader. One of the Sparks had an insurance agency thereabouts.

        • admin says:

          Those are the mysteries of the internet! Thanks for sharing such interesting tidbits about Sparks. We get out to the Ohio Territory every few years. I had a Pearce cousin who owned the general store in McKay. What a thrill years ago to take my late father there and find that it was still open. Please write again.

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