Disputing the “Facts”

Week 1: #52Ancestors – Start

By Eilene Lyon

My favorite pair of jeans is getting so threadbare on the thighs and knees that holes are starting to appear.  It almost certainly is not an attractive garment, so why do I keep wearing it?  Because they are super comfortable.  What does this have to do with history?  Sometimes a story about a historical “fact” keeps getting repeated because it’s well-worn and comfortable.

In researching for a piece of historical non-fiction, we often turn to work by earlier scholars.  It’s best if we can find primary sources (photos, letters, and records created at the time of an event), but that isn’t always possible.  For example, it’s rare to find a birth or death record created in the mid-1800s.  Instead we rely on family Bibles, gravestone inscriptions, and the like.  But these do have errors.  Personal memoirs – when written many years after the events they describe – are also prone to factual misstatements.  Family lore has proven, in my experience, to be almost wholly unreliable.

One of the subjects of my current research is a Mexican War veteran named Elias D. Pierce.  Pierce is of interest to historians for several reasons, most notably for his ascent of Mt. Shasta in 1854 and for discovering gold in Idaho in 1860, an event that contributed directly to the creation of the state of Idaho.  In 1950, a graduate student at the University of Idaho, Ralph Burcham, Jr., published his thesis on the life of Elias Davidson Pierce (for whom Pierce, Idaho, is named).  Burcham’s thesis gives a detailed account of Pierce’s birth family and place in Monaghan, Ireland.  The problem?  It isn’t true.

It’s time that people who research and write about Elias D. Pierce stop repeating this comfortable, but worn out, tale.

Burcham relied on two sources for the story of Pierce’s birth in Ireland: a lecture by his history professor, and a handwritten story passed down through Pierce’s wife’s extended family – a document that never mentions anyone named Elias Pierce.  (Pierce was married to Rebecca G. Jones and they left no descendants.)  Though Burcham collected an impressive amount of documentation on Pierce, long before we had access to online archives, he ignored the evidence in it that contradicted the Ireland theory.

Pierce’s own memoirs were published by the Idaho Research Foundation in the 1970s.  The editors were not swayed into believing the “born in Ireland” tale, fortunately.  Pierce himself does not mention his family anywhere in the book, but he does state “I left my home in Harrison Co. Va. on the 15th day of Sept. 1844…” at the age of 20.  Of course, that does not mean he was born there, only that he was living there prior to September 15, 1844.  He also mentions “my native hills in ‘old Dominion,’” a well-known nickname for Virginia.  This is a stronger argument for his having been born there.  But more evidence is needed.


1870 Photograph of Elias D. Pierce (W. B. Ingersoll, Oakland, California)

One secondary source genealogists rely on heavily, though also containing errors, is the United States Census.  In 1840, the census only listed heads of household, and Elias would have been just 16.  There is no record of a 16-year-old male in a house headed by anyone named Pierce in Harrison County (which later became part of West Virginia).  There is a boy under 15 in the household of a widow named Sabina Pierce.  She may or may not be Pierce’s mother.  If she was his mother, it’s possible the census taker put the tick mark in the wrong column, or he may have been living as a laborer on another farm.

Pierce began to be listed under his own name with the 1850 census.  At that time, he was living in Yuba City, California, and his roommate was Samuel Kise (aka Keese), listed as the head of household.  His birthplace is given as “Ind” for Indiana, his home back east.  We know this is the correct E. D. Pierce, based on his memoir.  However, we do not know who provided information to the census taker, Kise or Pierce, but it was more likely Kise, since he was listed as the head.  Pierce should have been enumerated in the special California census of 1852, particularly since he was a state assemblyman that year, but he was a man on the move and no conclusive record has come to light.

In 1860, Pierce was living on his own farm in Walla Walla, Washington.  He is listed as the head of household and living with Samuel D. Reese.  He gives his birthplace as Virginia.  He was counted twice in 1870 in California, once on July 23 and once on August 29.  Both times he is listed with his wife, whom he married in 1869, and other relatives, and both times his birthplace is listed as “Va.”  In 1880, Pierce was still living in California, this time with his brother-in-law.  His birthplace is listed as Virginia and his father’s and mother’s birthplaces were also noted: England and Virginia.

The census records are not absolute proof, of course, but they show good consistency.

The strongest piece of evidence I’ve located, so far (the search continues), is Pierce’s discharge from the Army after the Mexican War dated in 1848, when he was 24.  Pierce enlisted in Co. H of the 5th Indiana Volunteer Regiment in October 1847.  He returned from Mexico in July 1848 and was discharged on the 28th at Madison, Indiana.  This document states clearly that he was born in Harrison Co., Virginia, and gives his physical description.  The discharge is accompanied by an “Oath of Identity” signed by Pierce on July 29.

Discharge Papers

Not one official U. S. Government document found to date supports the theory that Elias D. Pierce was born in Ireland.  All of his statements, in his memoir and to the federal authorities, point to his birthplace being Harrison County, West Virginia.  Why does it matter?  We are products of our environment and upbringing.  Knowing where Pierce was born helps us to understand the cultural forces that led him to become the man he was.  Elias D. Pierce was an American original.


Gravestone of Elias D. Pierce in the Hillside Cemetery, Pennville, Indiana. (E. Lyon 2017)

Sources Cited:

Burcham, Ralph, Jr. 1950. Elias Davidson Pierce, Discoverer of Gold in Idaho: A Biographical Study. A Thesis. University of Idaho, Moscow.

National Archives and Records Administration. Bounty Land Files. Elias D. Pierce, 1848. Can 2034, Bundle 311.

Pierce, E. D. 1975. The Pierce Chronicle: Personal Reminiscenses [sic] of E. D. Pierce as transcribed by Lou A. Larrick. Edited by J. Gary Williams and Ronald W. Stark. Idaho Research Foundation, Inc. Moscow, ID.

Roster of First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Regiments Followed by Roster of Mounted Riflemen, Indiana. 1908. Page 467. California State Library. Ancestry.com. U.S., Adjutant General Military Records, 1631-1976 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.

Year: 1850; Census Place: Yuba City and Vicinity, Sutter, California; Roll: M432_36; Page: 55A; Image: 109. Ancestry.com. 1850 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009.

Year: 1860; Census Place: Dry Creek Precinct, Walla Walla, Washington; Roll: M653_1398; Page: 277; Family History Library Film: 805398. Ancestry.com. 1860 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009.

Year: 1870; Census Place: Oakland, Alameda, California; Roll: M593_68; Page: 240A; Family History Library Film: 545567. Ancestry.com. 1870 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009.

Year: 1870; Census Place: Brooklyn, Alameda, California; Roll: M593_68; Page: 51A; Family History Library Film: 545567. Ancestry.com. 1870 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009.

Year: 1880; Census Place: Georgetown, El Dorado, California; Roll: 65; Family History Film: 1254065; Page: 31B; Enumeration District: 050. Ancestry.com and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 1880 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2010.

6 thoughts on “Disputing the “Facts”

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  1. Do you think this is the same Pierce-Pearce as ‘Captain John Pierce’ in the ‘History of Siskiyou County 1881’, a miner and merchant in Fort Jones and Yreka and also noted as the first to climb Mt. Shasta?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes. Wells continually gets the two men mixed up. John B. Pierce (who never went by “Captain”) was a different man entirely, who happened to live in Yreka at the same time. Elias D. Pierce was the first to ascend Shasta and had the store in Fort Jones (probably closer to Scotts Bar) and later in Yreka, with partners. See my post: https://myricopia.com/2018/11/24/solving-a-166-year-old-crime/
      What is your interest in Pierce? I am working on a biography.


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