Pearce Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Pearce Surname Meaning

The surnames Pearce and Pierce have the Biblical Peter (from the Greek Petros meaning “a rock”) as their origin, although this name usually arrived in medieval England through the French form Piers. Piers Plowman was a narrative poem written in England by William Langland in the late 14th century.

There were many different early spellings of the surname. The first recorded was Gilbert Perse in the London pipe rolls of 1198. But two spellings emerged and stayed, Pearce and Pierce, while an earlier spelling Pearse continued in some places.

Pearce Surname Resources on The Internet

Pearce and Pierce Surname Ancestry

  • from Southern England and Wales
  • to America, Canada and Australia

England.  There is a north/south divide between Pearce and Pearson, with Pearson stronger in the north and Pearce stronger in the south. Each have their alternative spellings, Pearson with Pierson and Pearce with Pierce. Pearce has outnumbered Pierce in England by about seven to one. Pierce has mainly cropped up in the southeast and in Lancashire.

SW England. Pearce has been a common name in SW England. It ranked as the sixth most common surname in Cornwall in 1861. Early spellings were Pears and Pearse.

One Pearse family traces back to Plympton in Devon in the 1550’s and another to Heddington near Devizes in Wiltshire around the year 1600. The latter Pearses were clothiers in Wiltshire for several generations before moving to London.

John Pearse was a wealthy yeoman on his death in Roche, Cornwall in 1732. Generations of Pearces lived at Polperro on the Cornish coast from the 17th century onwards. The Pearces of Holsworthy across the border in Devon date from John Pearce, surgeon there in the 1650’s. Tom Pearce featured in the Devon folk song Widecombe Fair.

SE England. Pierce, on the other hand, has been more a name of SE England. Adam Pierce was recorded in the Sussex subsidy rolls of 1327. Pierces have been at Newick in Sussex from the 1650’s; and John Pierce was born at Jevington in the same county sometime in the 1630’s. The Pierces of Mayflower fame who came to New England at that time were from Higham in Kent.

There has been speculation that some Pierces may have derived from the ancient Percy family of Yorkshire. But there is no real evidence to that effect.

Wales. Pierce in Wales was from the patronymic ap Piers (or Pirs or Pyrs) and was principally to be found in north Wales. The early Pierces in America were said to have had Welsh blood in them. Dr. Evan Pierce, mayor of Denbigh in the 1860’s, is remembered in the town by the memorial gardens which bear his name.

Ireland. From an English Pearce family from Glynde in Sussex came General Edward Pearce who settled late in his life in Dublin with his two sons – Thomas, Governor of Limerick in 1715, and Edward, an architect whose vision lies behind the face of Georgian Dublin today.

The Irish nationalist Patrick Pearse, executed after the Easter Uprising of 1916, was born in Dublin on what is now Pearse Street. He was the son of an Englishman who had moved there in 1850.

America. Pierces outnumber Pearces by four to one in America. John Pierce, the ‘patentee’ of the Mayflower, and William Pierce, his brother and its captain, may have helped set the spelling. Other Pierces of this family settled in New England.

Pierces. Captain Michael Pierce, who was said to have built at Scituate the first saw-mill of the new colony, died fighting the Indians in 1676. Subsequent Pierces of this family were well-to-do landowners in Scituate.  A descendant was the writer and jack-of-all-trades John Harwood Pierce. He fought as a young man in the Civil War and settled in later life in California.

Thomas Pierce, related to these Pierces, settled in Woburn. From his line came US President Franklin Pierce and, later, First Lady Barbara Bush (born Pierce).

Pearces. There were Pearces as well in America. Edward Pearce, Scots Irish, came to Pennsylvania in 1737.  His grandson Cromwell was a colonel in the War of 1812. The Pearce Company, one of the nation’s oldest woollen blanket makers, was begun in Harmony, Pennsylvania during the 1830’s by Alfred Pearce, an immigrant from Wiltshire in England.  

“The Pearce Company, which remained family-owned until Joseph Pearce sold it in the 1960’s, produced blankets during the Civil War, carpeting for early automobile manufacturers, and blankets again at the time of the Korean War.”

One line of Pearces began in Virginia with Stephen Pearce in the late 1600’s. He was followed by descendants who settled in North Carolina and by William Pearce, an early pioneer in Rapides parish, Louisiana in 1808. There they were to remain for the next hundred years. 

Canada. John Pierce, an Anglo-Irishman who had fought at Waterloo in 1815, came to Canada where he had been given a free grant of land.  He settled in 1822 with his wife Catherine in Goulbourn township, Ontario.

A later arrival was the Pearce family from Gloucestershire. They arrived in New York in 1852 and then made their way by land to Aymer, Ontario. Their family correspondence was re-discovered in the 1960’s and published by David J. Porter in the book From Almondsbury to Aymer: The Pearce Letters.

Australia. George Pearce was convicted of housebreaking in Dorset and transported to Australia in 1817. Ten years later he was a free man and set off for virgin land in the valley along Cox’s river in the vicinity of Goulbourn, NSW. He started off as a cattle duffer and later began to farm.  He left his name to Pearce’s Creek and Pearce’s Mountain in the region.

James Pearce, a London laborer who emigrated to Australia in 1858, was the father of a remarkable Pearce rowing family that was to compete over three generations in sculling at world championship and Olympic levels.

Pearce and Pierce Surname Miscellany

Pearces of Holsworthy in Devon.  The first record of this family was in 1652 when John Pearce, surgeon, married Jane Palmer at Holsworthy. Son Edward was also a surgeon, as was grandson Parmenas.  Edward and his wife Grace signed the Devon loyalty oath in 1723.  Parmenas was survived by his widow Martha and his two daughters Susannah and Grace.

Later Pearces via Parmenas’s brother Edward included Thomas Pearce the banker and his son Edward who was the mayor of Bodmin in Cornwall in 1836. 

The Pearces of Polperro.  Generations of the Pearce family lived on the Lansallos side of Polperro in Cornwall from the 17th century onwards, some later settling at Crumplehorn, the hamlet just inland from the harbor. One of these was Joseph Pearce, born in 1754, who, like many other seafaring young men at the time, played an active part in the privateering and smuggling activity that went on.  He was among the 70-strong crew of the Good Intent, a three-masted sloop fitted out for privateering voyages, when she captured a valuable Spanish prize vessel in 1781.

The Pearces remained at Crumplehorn until the 1850’s when Joseph Pearce enlisted in the army and went off to fight in the Crimean War. When he returned, he and his wife Philippa emigrated to Australia, sailing from Liverpool aboard the Arabian with 377 other emigrants. Three months later they arrived in Melbourne where they settled.

Reader Feedback – Pierce in Cornwall.  My family from Sy Just in Penwyth had the name Pierce as a second name for their boys in the 19th century. Their surname was Bone.

My cousin who holds the family memory has said that my maternal great grandmother’s maiden name was Pierce and that she was from Polperro.  She was born in the early 19th century.  Thus my great uncle had Pierce as his second name and not Pearce.

Susan Smith (

Nathaniel Pearce, London Goldsmith.  Nathaniel Pearce came to London from Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire in 1699 as a young man.  He took an apprentice there as a goldsmith.  He obviously prospered in this profession as, in 1720, a grant of armorial bearings was made to him and his descendants – “he being a person of good reputation, loyalty and affection for His Majesty and Government and having a sufficient estate to support the condition of a gentleman.”  He had in fact raised a regiment of foot to defend London “against the advances of the old Pretender.”

In 1723 his banking business failed, shortly after the collapse of the South Sea Bubble which had undermined business confidence at the time.  He and his family then moved from Lombard Street to Brampton in Northamptonshire where they took up residence in Brampton House.  He and his descendants were to remain there for the next hundred years.

A later descendant, Colonel Edward Pearce, emigrated to New Zealand in 1861.  He became a prominent merchant and politician in Wellington.

Tom Pearce of Widecombe Fair.  The first verse of the Devon folk song Widecombe Fair goes as follows:

  • “Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce, lend me your grey mare.
  • All along, down along, out along lea.
  • For I want for to go to Widecombe Fair,
  • With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
  • Peter Davy, Daniel Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
  • Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
  • Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.”

Whether Tom Pearce or Tom Cobley ever existed is uncertain.  Local historians have attempted to trace them in and around Dartmoor in Devon.  The main claimant has been the village of Spreyton where a Pearse family ran the local mill in the mid-19th century.

Pearces and Pierces Today.  The table below shows the approximate number of Pearces and Pierces around today.

Numbers (000’s) Pearce Pierce Total
UK    53     7    60
America    11    44    55
Elsewhere    26    13    39
Total    90    65   154

Pierce’s Welsh Ancestry and American Lines.  The Pierce brothers who arrived in New England in the early 17th century may have had Welsh blood in them.  This Welsh line began  sometime before 1500 when a young Welsh woman of the Pierce family married an Ithell and their son was called Pierce Ithell.  His grandson married a Huguenot refugee daughter named Meirbe Lascelle.  From this line came several generations of daughters called Anteress, one of whom married a Pierce in Higham, Kent sometime in the 1570’s.

Anteress had five sons – Azikam, Ebenezer, Thomas, Michael, and Edward.

From Azikam Pierce came:

  • John, the owner ‘patentee’ of the Mayflower that first came to New England in 1620
  • William, its captain on its second voyage to New England (William was said to have sailed the Atlantic Ocean more than any other man of his time)
  • Robert and Michael, settlers in Massachusetts
  • and (from the next generation) John of Watertown, Daniel of Watertown and Newbury, and Richard of Rhode Island.

From Thomas Pierce, an early settler in Woburn, came US President Franklin Pierce and, later, Marvin Pierce, President of the McCall publishing company and his daughter Barbara Pierce who subsequently became First Lady Barbara Bush.

William Pierce, Mayflower Captain.  William Pierce, sea captain, brought many colonists to Plymouth Rock, including those on the Mayflower on its second voyage to the New World.  For a while Captain Pierce lived in Jamestown, Virginia.  He is listed there in their census of 1624 as having over 30 servants.  But he returned to New England and was later instrumental in the celebration of the first Thanksgiving.

“The winter of 1630-31 was severe, game was scarce, the corn supply was nearly gone, even acorns and ground nuts were concealed by heavy snows.  Women of the colony were set to digging clams and a ration of five kernels of corn a day for each person was ordered. The colonists were on the verge of starvation and had designated February 22, 1631, as a fast day of prayer.”

However, Captain Pierce arrived on February 5 on the Lyon with supplies and a public thanksgiving was substituted for the public fasting.

The same captain authored Pierces’ Almanak in 1639, the first printed book in the colonies, and he brought cotton and sweet potatoes to the colonists from the West Indies.  He died in 1641 on a voyage to the Bahamas. 

Captain Michael Pierce’s Death.  Captain Michael Pierce met his death in 1676 in conflict with the Narragansett Indians during King Phillip’s War.  His death was recorded at the time as follows:

“Sunday the 26th of March, 1676 was sadly remarkable to us for the tidings of a very deplorable disaster brought into Boston about five o’clock that afternoon.  Captain Pierce of Scituate in Plymouth Colony, having intelligence that a party of the enemy lay nearby, had set forth with 63 English and 20 Cape Indians and, upon their march, discovered rambling in an obscure woody place four or five Indians.  Our men had pursued them but a little way into the woods before they found them to be only decoys to draw them into an ambush.

All of a sudden, they discovered about 500 Indians who furiously attacked them.  Then a fresh company of about 400 Indians arrived and the English and their few Indian friends were surrounded and beset on every side.  Captain Pierce cast his 63 English and 20 Indians into a ring for the fight. However, overpowered by the numbers, Captain Pierce and 55 of his English and 10 of their Indian friends were slain upon the place.”

Nine of Pierce’s men were captured and taken to a place in Cumberland, Rhode Island, now known as Nine Men’s Misery, where they were tortured to death.  Arriving too late, a relief force found and buried the bodies of the nine.

There is a Captain Michael Pierce monument and a Captain Pierce Road in Scituate today.

The Pearce Skullers.  James and Ann Pearce had come to Sydney from London with their young son Harry on the Herald of the Morning in 1858.  They settled in Double Bay in Sydney’s harborside district where James worked as a fisherman and ran a boatshed.

Young Harry Pearce was the first to show the Pearce family’s rowing prowess.  Successful in light skiffs and heavy watermen’s boats, the wiry, close-knit Pearce began to attract notice as a possible champion sculler. He sculled against Ed Trickett and had beaten William Beach before Beach went on to win the world championship in 1885.  After he retired from competition, Harry was one of the leading fishermen and boat-owners in Sydney harbor.

Harry had five sons and seven daughters.  Eldest son Harry was a sculling champion during his father’s lifetime, while Sandy was a national rugby league representative who toured with the 1908 Kangaroos and was inducted into rugby league’s Hall of Fame.  Daughters Alice and Lily rowed successfully against a visiting Maori team in 1911.

The line from Sandy included Cecil, a sculler, who represented Australia at the 1936 Olympics, and Sidney who played rugby league for Australia.  Cecil’s son Gary would row in three Olympic games from 1964 to 1972.

But it was Harry’s son Bobby who was the star of the show.  He won the gold medal in the single sculls both at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam and the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.  A year later he won the professional world sculling championship, a feat he repeated in 1934 and 1938.  He was also a winner of the Diamond Sculls at Henley Royal Regatta.

One story particularly endeared him to the sporting public.  In the quarterfinal of the men’s single sculls at the Amsterdam Olympics, the 22-year-old Bobby Pearce was leading France’s Victor Saurin in a two-boat race.  Pearce heard shouts from the bank and looked back to see a duck and her ducklings crossing the race course just ahead of him.  Pearce stopped his boat and waited for the ducks to cross.  Saurin meanwhile took the lead, but not for long.  Pearce soon passed the Frenchman and moved away to set a new course record.

Pearce and Pierce Names

  • William Pierce was the sea captain who brought the Mayflower to New England in 1620.
  • Edward Lovett Pearce was an early 18th century Irish architect, called the father of Irish Palladian architecture and Georgian Dublin.
  • Franklin Pierce was the 14th President of the United States, serving from 1853 to 1857.
  • Sir William Pearce was the British shipbuilder who made Govan on the Clyde the largest shipbuilding place in the world in the 1880’s.

Pearce and Pierce Numbers Today

  • 60,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 55,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 39,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

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Written by Colin Shelley

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