12/21/01 rev. 5/9/13
My Great-great grandparents Richard and Susan Austen Pearce were relative late-comers to the American mid-Atlantic colonies in 1820. Some of the first Pearces [I use this spelling as standard throughout unless otherwise specified] in America, according to the Pearce-Brace Genealogy, were Anthony (1650), Edward (1637), and George (1663), all in Virginia. But, J.N. Hook reminds us that “A List of the Livinge” was published at the Jamestown Colony in 1623 with 1225 surnames names, including “Perse” (43). Ironically, our name is still likely to be pronounced “purse” in provincial Boston even today. Helen Renner says, “There were Pierces in Virginia as early as 1610, three years after Jamestown was founded, viz. Captain William Peirce, a famous sea captain supposedly making more trips to New England from the old country than any other one man; he was captain of the Mayflower on its second voyage.” Abraham Pierce is listed on the 1623 tax rolls at Plymouth (1). [See “Famous Pearces” for the story of his brother John who procured the first grant for land at Plymouth Colony.] Robert Peirce settled with other immigrants at the mouth of the Potomac River, Maryland, within a year of the founding of St. Mary’s colony in 1634. Skordas lists nearly 40 other Pearces as immigrants to Maryland alone over the next 50 years. Renner believes that among the three earliest colonies of Virginia, Massachusetts, and Maryland: “There must have been more than 100 Pearce families [in America before 1680]” (1). In addition, we have discussed in earlier articles that other Pearces continued to settle these and other parts throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries. By the end of the 20th Century, according to Bayley’s Family Heritage Book, the top 10 states containing families with the surname spelled “Pearce” were [the parenthetical comments are mine]:
• California 1,047 (Hawaii is farther west with only 11)
• Texas 922 (Bigger states naturally have more)
• North Carolina 885 (Between North and South)
• Florida 711 (Where the older Pearces go?)
• Illinois 390 (These next
• Michigan 387 five represent
• Pennsylvania 377 the
• New York 375 migration
• Ohio 348 westward)
• Alabama 279 (Other southern states also have high numbers)
So, Part II of this series will attempt to follow a few of the many other Pearce families as they emigrated from the British Isles and migrated across America. Unfortunately, we only have space to mention several westward-moving strands here, including ones from New England (Massachusetts, Rhodes Island, and New York); the Mid-Atlantic (New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania); and Southern (Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas). As with all of our research, we are continually discovering new sources of genealogical information and ask for your input into the process of creating the narrative that will be our contribution to succeeding generations. The fastest and best way I know of to research any particular Pearce family, anywhere in the world, is to read and respond to our constantly changing family message board at HTTP://GENFORUM.GENEALOGY.COM on a regular basis. Now, not knowing exactly where to begin, and having mentioned some of the earliest Pearces in America, I’d like to start in the region that I’m most familiar with – Western Pennsylvania. I promise to return at some time in the future with more information on other, more eastern Pearces.
William Robert Pearce (1803 – ?) was born in Fayette County, Western Pennsylvania, still a thinly settled and heavily forested part of the Keystone State whose famous landmarks now include Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater residence, Ohiopyle State Park, and George Washington’s Fort Necessity. These are near the National Highway, now U.S. Route 40 and I-68. Portions of this route are called Braddock’s Road, after General Edward Braddock’s failed attempt in 1755 to oust the French from Ft. Duquesne at what is now Pittsburgh. Our Pearces traveled the more northern Forbes Road, now U.S. Route 30, or the Lincoln Highway, to Pittsburgh, about 50 miles away from William’s birthplace. It is believed that his father may have been part of that area’s first Methodist Episcopal church in 1790. Later records show Western Pennsylvania’s first Methodist Camp Meeting near Brownsville in 1802. But, by 1821 William Robert and his brothers Joseph and Andrew had moved to Indiana where he is shown to have helped organize an early church in Dearborn County.
Isaac Peairs (1730-1810) [probably one of several born in Maryland or Pennsylvania and not to be confused with Isaac Pearce, Son of Alfred, who served in the American Civil War about whom a future article is planned] is listed as a 1772 resident of Tyrone Township, Bedford County, which a year later became Westmoreland County and 10 years after that Fayette County, PA. Renner believes that several Peairs families came from Virginia and Maryland, along with their slaves, to settle along the Redstone Creek, a tributary to the great Monongahela River southeast of Pittsburgh. She cites the abundance of game, the immunity of Indian aggression, the fertility of the land, and good water. Above all, Braddock’s Road (now Rt. 40 and I-68) from Baltimore and Cumberland to Pittsburgh made access easy. They settled near Uniontown (3). Ellis’ History of Fayette County, PA states that “an Isaac and Jonathan Pearce, two brothers, came to this county with the earliest settlers and each took up a considerable tract of land (673). The “Quarter Sessions Docket,” Westmoreland County, April/July 1773, identifies an Isaac Parce as a juror in the King Vs. Baltzer Shilling Trial. A Lewis Pearce is also mentioned (6). Again, in 1785, Isaac is listed as a witness for the State in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania vs. John Patrick for Assault and Battery. Renner’s work lists several other interesting references to old Isaac, known as Captain Isaac because of his commission before Governor Patrick Henry in 1778 to lead a Virginia militia [remember that this land was under dispute between Pennsylvania and Virginia before the famous Mason-Dixon Survey] (an Elisha Peairs, probably his brother, also took an oath that day). She says:
During the spring and summer months of 1781, the Pennsylvania frontier was sorely disturbed by the efforts of General George Rogers Clark to raise troops for an expedition against the British post at Detroit. General Clark was needing supplies and the farmers were harassed for provisions. [Isaac’s] family probably lived in a log cabin that had loop holes for rifles for this was a time of many Indian raids. Hannastown, the county seat of Westmoreland when Isaac was living there [an now a state historical site], was destroyed by Indians July 13, 1782. This was the hardest blow inflicted by “savages” during the Revolution within the limits of Pennsylvania settlements. (5)
A tract of 320 acres, which was originally surveyed in 1769, was finally patented to Isaac in 1785 under that name “Discord.” The Ellis account says that Isaac ran a distillery there, which is significant because the Peairs family later operated a similar business when they moved to Sumner County, TN. In her book Over the Mountains, Evelyn Abraham says that many farmers in Western Pennsylvania were very unhappy over the government excise tax on whiskey. Converting corn and rye to alcohol was a profitable way of transporting grain to market then. The general discontent lead to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, the only time newly elected President George Washington ordered Federal troops against American citizens. Today, the adjacent county of Somerset, where I live, still commemorates that action with an historic military reenactment. But there was probably another reason why Isaac and the Peairs might have been ready to move back down south. In 1780 the Pennsylvania legislature passed the “Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” declaring that all “colored” persons born after that date were considered free men after they reached age 28. The 1790 Fayette County census registered Isaac’s household as “1 white male, 16 and older including the head of the family; 3 free white females; 2 other persons; and 3 slaves.” In the fall of 1790, local deed books show Isaac Pierce selling his property in Pennsylvania. He and his family, and presumably the slaves, moved to Sumner County, Tennessee. Mrs. Renner includes many letters from across America in her genealogy supporting her theories. One dated 1881 from S.A. Wilson of Zanesville, Ohio, is especially interesting:
My father, David Wilson, late of Allegheny Co., PA, was a son of Margaret Peirce. She was a daughter of Joseph Pearce, who came from Jersey [UK] to Penn[sylvania] about 1703. She and her brother John were brought across the Allegheny Mountains in baskets which were fastened over a mule. Joseph was my great grandfather. I remember seeing him once when he came to visit my grandmother. I remember him as a tall spare old man. He came driving a black horse called Jolly attached to a spring wagon. I can think of only two of my [great uncles], John and Robert. Robert was killed by a large stump of a tree falling on him. I have a little history of the family which I will give you. About 1696 Ruth Waldren, daughter of Lord Resolve Waldren (1612 – ?) [originally of the city of Harlem in Holland who came to America in 1652 and obtained a patent to what is known as “Harlem Commons” in New York City] married and had a daughter named Mariah or Maritzas. The said Mariah married John Pearce June 3, 1716. Joseph Pearce, my great grandfather had six brothers and the names of these I know were John, Elisha, and Isaac. One [Isaac] died in Sumner Co., TN. I know too that the Pearces in PA and Ohio are all related. There is a John and William Pearce living near Elizabethtown [now Elizabeth-Forward Township], Allegheny Co., PA. (14)
Read more about some of these Pearces in a more recent article entitled, “Two ‘Jersey Settlements’: Possible early connections to our Western Pennsylvania families.” The suggestion that all area Pearces are immediately related is, I believe, doubtful. For example, Elliot C. Pierce (1861 – ?), of nearby Greensburg, Westmoreland County, began as a tent and awning maker in Philipsburg, Clearfield Co. His father was James (1824 – 87), a schoolmaster and publisher’s representative from Clarion Co. His grandfather was William, but we don’t know his origins [see earlier article on Pearces of “Portage” and “Clearfield”]. However, another turn-of-the-20th Century source covers John Rowland Pearce (1876 – ?) as “prominent in [Westmoreland Co.] financial and social circles . . . descended from one of the old families of Pennsylvania who trace their ancestry back to England and Scotland.” His father James A. was a druggist in Avonmore and the town’s Postmaster. The grandfather, John C., owned a clothing store in historic Saltsburg, Indiana County. It’s important to say here that, although many of these towns are in different counties in Western Pennsylvania, they are not far apart, perhaps less than 50 miles from Pittsburgh.
Still another unrelated family belongs to Carl Freeman Pierce, MD (1881 – ?) of Greensburg, whose biography mentions some incredible ties: John Pierce of Plymouth Colony 1621, John Piers who fought at Bosworth Field for King Richard III, and brothers from the early part of the last millennium, William and Serlo dePercy. Supposedly, his family printed the first newspaper in America (1699) and owned prosperous leather and lumber companies in early Vermont. Indeed, the First Census of the United States (1790) lists many Pierces as heads of families, including:
Caleb and George, Lower Chichester, Delaware Co. near Philadelphia;
Thomas, a hair dresser from Philadelphia; and
David and Joab, Unity Township, Westmoreland Co.
In addition to old Isaac, mentioned earlier, the 1882 Westmoreland County History lists Jeremiah, a ruling elder of the Laurel Hill Meeting House (1793) and John, who in 1825 owned 400 acres with 1 home, 1 gristmill, 7 people, 3 horses, 6 cows, and 4 sheep. As if this were not enough activity, John registered with the county medical society in 1859 to practice medicine. Who said Pearces couldn’t stay busy?
Of course, we’ve covered the Blanket Pearces of Harmony, Greenville, and Latrobe, our distant cousins of the Bourne line. Virtually all of the historical volumes I’ve read pay tribune to their contributions. [See my article on The Pearce Woolen Mill]. But, the unrelated line of General James Pierce, a Pittsburgh coal and iron tycoon, is also mentioned often in local history books. With his sons, James and Frank, he bought land containing a portion of the Pittsburgh to Lake Erie canal as a proposed spur of the Pittsburgh, Shenango, and Lake Erie Railroad in the 1880s, which never materialized. The canal lift there, constructed in 1835, is known as the Pierce Lock “Number 10.” This well-preserved fete of early American engineering was in service from 1844-1871 and is located in Sharpsville, Beaver County, just north of the Ohio River. Today, the towpath is used by the Bessemer and Lake Erie Railroad.
We are currently researching the John Pierce (1755-1851) family of Butler County, PA, although we’re certain they are not related to us. Born in New Jersey, he served for that state during the Revolutionary War. He lived for a time in Turtle Creek near Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, before moving to Butler.
In Northeastern Pennsylvania, Pike County, along US Rt. 6 near Milford, stands a road marker dedicated to famous American philosopher, logician, and scientist Charles Saunders Peirce (1839-1914). He, along with William James and John Dewey, is given credit for the truly American Pragmatic movement in philosophy. Peirce, a scientist and native of Boston, believed that the scientific method could be applied to philosophical problems. Direct, cooperative interactions may be applied with sensible effects. His Pragmatic Maxim calls for four elements: the senses, experimentation, public perceptibility, and future-orientation. He lived and wrote in Pennsylvania, but we assume he was related to the New England Pearces of the Percy line.
The “Pearce Surname Message Board” (posted by Jim Kiser at WWW.FAMILYHISTORY.COM) contains an interesting Pearce story involving Percy J. and wife Ada Hall Pearce who left Belmar, New Jersey in the early 1900s for Pittsburgh. He became a chauffeur for the wealthy Lockhart family whom he had met when they vacationed on the Jersey coast. He drove Pierce-Arrows and Maxwells. He was responsible for repairs, and at times, had to machine special parts. Both for the wealthy Lockhart family whom he had met when they vacationed on the Jersey coast. He drove Pierce-Arrows and Maxwells. He was responsible for repairs, and at times, had to machine special parts. Both Percy and Ada are buried in the family plot at Glendola Cemetery, Belmar. Incidentally, many of the descendants of our Pearce Blanket family moved back east to New Jersey and Delaware after the mill was sold in the late 1920s, but we can find no connection between Percy and our family. Another group of Pearces to whom we can find no immediate connection are the ones in Cecil County, Maryland. It is possible that they came from the very early St. Mary’s colony mentioned earlier. We write to one of them occasionally.
Another Pearce family settled in Gainsville, Florida, around 1831 after leaving Camden County, Georgia for Bladen County, North Carolina. This southern Pearce family included the Rev. James Cain and wife Francis Mizell Pearce and parents John (1760 – ?) and wife Ann Cain Pearce. It is believed that John may be from the famous New England Pearces of Rhodes Island. [See Little Compton Families by B.F. Wilbour.) His family includes William and Anna Pearce, James and Martha Wilbore Pearce, George and Alice Hart Pearce, and Richard and Susannah Wright Pearce, all of whom seem to dominate Ancestry.com.
Moving westward, and thanks to cousin Marge Austen of Ohio, we know about another Isaac Pearce from Washington County, just over the line from southwestern Pennsylvania [again, not to be confused with our Civil War Isaac whose story is yet to come]. It seems that before Ohio became a state, there was a commission of judges working in a primative court system (1788). Isaac was appointed as an assistant justice at the first session held at Campus Martius. We don’t hear from him again, nor do we know if he is directly related to the Pearces of Pine Creek, only 100 miles away.
Nineteenth Century Pearce Marriages in Wayne County, Ohio, where several Pearces and Austens settled after leaving family back in Pine Creek, Near Pittsburgh, include: John to Rebecca Johnston (1822), Israel to Mary Fetherstone (1827), John to Sarah Cox (1827), George to Sabina Stewart (1877), William to Minnie Fisher (1887), and Calvin to Ella Simons (1891). These are also provided by Marge Austen, but we aren’t certain of any direct relationship to our family. We do, however, know we are related to Albert and Annie Pearce, former owners of the general store still operating in McKay, Ohio, and their children Russell, who operated a family vending truck; Loyal, a veteran who farmed nearby; Charles, who ran a candy store in Pittsburgh; and Bertha, whose husband, Rev. Harold Lees, ministered at Newcomerstown, Ohio. Clarence, who worked as a carpenter for the H.J. Heinz Company in Pittsburgh, had a son Craig, who was a pharmacist in Pittsburgh, and a grandson Gary, who manufactures cedar furniture for outdoor use in Malvern, Ohio. Another distant but direct relative is directing funerals in Eastern Ohio. We hope to contact him soon. Many Pearces moved even farther west, emigrating to Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas. Their stories, along with the ones from family who eventually reached the western seaboard, may be presented at some future time. But, one very generous unrelated Pearce, Charles Sumner Sr. who was born in Milwaukee to a line from New York, eventually settled in Texas. He supposedly inherited his ranch in the Lone Star State.
Charles S. Pearce, the former CEO of Colgate Palmolive, in 1996, donated his enormous Civil War collection to the Navarro College Library in Corsicana, TX. The 700 letters, diaries, documents, and memorabilia are valued at over $1 million.
Let me close with a very brief summary of an amazing story by Paul Muller entitled “Rattlesnake Ridge” that was e-mailed to me in June of this year as part of RootsWeb Review. He opens by saying, “Sometimes luck can accomplish more than years of research.” In the process of putting together a book on his family, Paul was attempting to locate cemeteries and photograph tombstones near Montgomery, Alabama, where his mother’s family had settled in the early 1800s. His 4th Great-grandfather Stephen Pearce was to have been buried in the Pearce Cemetery in Autauga County. After hours of driving and searching and asking locals, without success, he decided to head back to the campground where he was staying. First, though, he stopped to buy gas and asked the attendant if he’d ever heard of any old unmarked cemeteries in the area. To his surprise and delight, the man scratched his head and remarked how, years ago, he and a friend used to hunt around some old grave markers off in the woods. He often wondered what life must have been like for those early settlers who had to hunt to survive. Then he remembered a name: Stephen Pearce! The gas station operator put him in touch with a childhood friend who helped him find the lot and clear away the thick underbrush. They located a stone that said, “Sacred to the Memory of Stephen Pearce,” and the dates matched. Muller says, “What an exciting moment for us. Never mind the fact that we were searching an area called ‘Rattlesnake Ridge,’ and both [my wife] and I would end up with numerous chigger bites.” To this day he shakes his head in disbelief saying, “I am quite convinced that I would never have found it had I not stopped for gas. And to add to the improbability of it all [that childhood friend of the attendant] was about the only person outside his family who knew of the location of the cemetery.” Whether luck or Providence, he says, “It shows that you never can tell when, where, or how your next genealogical discovery will be brought to light.”
Selected Works Cited
Biography & Historical Cyclopedia of Westmoreland County. Philadelphia: Grantham & Co., 1890.
History of the County of Westmoreland, PA. Philadelphia: L.H. Everts & Co., 1882.
History of Westmoreland Co., PA. Vol. III. New York: Lewis Publishing, 1906. 103.
Hook, J.N. Family Names: How Our Surnames Came to America. New York: MacMillen, 1982
Old & New Westmoreland. New York: American Historical Society, 1918.
Opat, Donna Burough. A Pearce-Brace Family History: From Pennsylvania and New York to Indiana, Kansas, and Beyond. [publisher unavailable], 1995.
Pearce Family Association. “Pearce Family Newsletter.” Lindsborg, KS, 1998.
Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. Guide to the Historical Markers of PA. 4th ed. Harrisburg, 1975. 125.
Renner, Helen Ruth. Genealogy of George Washington Peairs: His Forebears and Descendants from Pennsylvania to Tennessee. Montgomery City, MO, [pub/date unavailable].
Smith, Helen, and George Swetnam. A Guidebook to Historic Western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh: U. Pitt Press, 1991.
William James, Charles Peirce, and American Pragmatism. Audiocassette. Nashville: Knowledge Products, 1996.
Suggested Sources from Helen Renner:
[additional information unavailable]
Pearce, Marvin J. Pearce Pioneers in Kentucky.
Pearce, Stewart. The Pearce Family.
Pierce, Clara. The Pierces and Their Posterity.
Pierce, Frederick C. The Pierce Family.
Pierce, Harvey Cushman. Seven Pierce Families, 1936
Skordas, Gus. The Early Settlers of Maryland.
Whitcomb, William. Memorial of the Whitcomb and Pierce Families.
Winslow, Mrs. Watson. History of Perquimans County, 1974.
Return to PART I: The Old World Pearces
NOTES ON NEW DISCOVERIES (Send to [email protected] ):
Last revised 1/5/19 with change in E-mail address 3/25/22