The Virginians

Week 25: #52 Ancestors – Broken Branch

By Eilene Lyon

Family branches become detached from trees for a variety of reasons. In many cases, a member decides to migrate from the ancestral home, either within a country or to a place far away. The migrant may remain in contact with the stay-at-home relatives, but their children, who perhaps might never have met those people, do not maintain the connection.

Other breaks are done on purpose. A black sheep fleeing a dysfunctional home, for example. My second book project, a biography of Elias D. Pierce, evolved from my first project about the California gold rush. E.D. Pierce left a memoir, but he deliberately expunged his family past from the narrative.

Pierce’s memoir, transcribed by Lou Larrick, was published in 1975 by The Idaho Research Foundation, Inc. – Title page.

Pierce, who was functionally illiterate, dictated the memoir to his wife’s niece, Lucetta “Lou” (Jones) Larrick. He could sign his name in a childish scrawl, but his correspondence was always written and read by other people. It’s astonishing that he spent time as a law student in Indiana. He had an ample supply of audacity!

A graduate student at the University of Idaho attempted to uncover Pierce’s genealogy in his master’s thesis, completed in 1950, but he followed the misdirection insisted on by the Jones family that Pierce had been born in Ireland. He found Pierce’s mother in western Virginia, but mistakenly figured her to be an aunt.1 A few years ago, I uncovered the source for this Irish legend.

Lou Larrick’s transcribed Pierce memoir is about 250 pages long. But she left over 600 handwritten manuscript pages, including transcriptions of news articles and other things.2 One item was copied from a booklet written and published by an Irish immigrant to Canada. She even put his name, E.M. Morphy, on her copied version, but the Joneses persisted in attributing it to Pierce.

Lou Larrick’s transcript from the UI microfilm. (click to enlarge)
Opening chapter from E.M. Morphy’s booklet, “A York Pioneer’s Recollections of his Youthful Days in the Emerald Isle.” (click to enlarge)

Unfortunately, Lou never wrote anything about herself or her own family, such as her father, Dr. Benjamin H. Jones, which would have been a real boon for me! (How thoughtless of her.) Another item in her papers she did attribute to Pierce is a poem titled, “California.” The third of five verses reads as follows:

I know now that Pierce was named for his paternal grandfather, Elias Pearce, but unfortunately, that is as far back on that line as I’ve been able to go. (The spelling of the last name was quite fluid until the Franklin Pierce presidency in 1853, when E.D.’s family settled on the “Pierce” spelling, thus complicating my computer searches.)

Elias Pearce claimed his tomahawk rights* to 400 acres west of the Allegheny Mountains in what was then West Augusta, Virginia, and today is Monongalia County, West Virginia. He appears to have arrived in 1773 and he selected a spot along the banks of the Monongahela River and Prickett’s Creek.3 During the Revolution, he served in the local militia, more to protect the settlers from Indians than to fight the British.4

My research leads me to believe that the land in the red circle is the land patented by Elias Pearce in 1781 on the Monongahela River and Prickett’s Creek. (click to enlarge)

About 1779, he married a woman known as Amy. County records were destroyed by a fire in 1796, so no record of the marriage seems to have survived.5 Ancestry trees supply the maiden name of Davisson, which my research supports, but does not prove. It would account for E.D. Pierce’s middle name of “Davidson.”

Of several Davisson brothers who settled in old Monongalia County (which included today’s Harrison and Marion Counties), only Andrew Davisson owned land near or adjacent to Elias Pearce.6 An unsourced family history indicates Andrew had a daughter, Emelia, born in 1749, making her just the right age to be Amy Pearce.7 One of E.D. Pierce’s sisters had the given name of Amelia, adding credence to this theory.

Though there were a number of other Pearces, Pierces, Pearses, and Peirces in Monongalia and surrounding counties in the late 1700s, I’ve not been able to conclusively connect any of them to Elias Pearce. Nor have I found any record to indicate where he moved from or who his parents might be. So, even though I have managed to find E.D. Pierce’s family, despite his efforts to obscure them, this remains a broken branch.

*Tomahawk rights were so called because a settler would find a spring and then use his tomahawk to blaze a ring of trees surrounding it to claim the property, sometimes as much as 1000 acres.

Feature image: Prickett’s Fort (a reconstruction, now a state park) lies next to Prickett’s Creek, across from the land patented by Elias Pearce, E.D. Pierce’s grandfather. The fort was an important safe haven for the nearby settlers in colonial days. (Wikimedia Commons)

  1. Ralph Jr. Burcham, “Elias Davidson Pierce, Discoverer of Gold in Idaho: A Biographical Study” (Master’s thesis, Moscow, Idaho, University of Idaho, 1950), 5, University of Idaho. 
  2. Elias D. Pierce, “E.D. Pierce Reminiscences.” (n.d.), UI Library Microforms Collection 3rd Floor, Film 24, University of Idaho. 
  3. Monongalia County, “Elias Peirce (Pierce) – Claims to Unpatented Lands Title Adjustment,” May 1, 1781, Adjustments of claims to unpatented lands 1773-1785> Film 008219291 images 368 & 396, Family Search,
  4. Mary Davis Atkinson, ed., Monongalia County, West Virginia 1776-1810, n.d., 90. 
  6. See Note 3, image 368 under listing for Amey and Hannah Trader. 
  7. Russell Lee Davisson and Pierre Bergem, The Davissons: A History and Genealogy : Twelve Generations, 1630-1992 : Davidson, Davison, Davisson Families (Parsons, West Virginia: McClain Print. Co., 1993), 95. 

24 thoughts on “The Virginians

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    1. I believe that when his father died (he’s was almost four), that his mother had to indenture him, or at least informally give him to a foster family. I expect it embittered him to his family. As far as I know he never communicated with them, and despite this poem, never returned to West Virginia.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Yes, his memoir is a page-turner, if not always a full accounting of reality. It seems one of his favorite activities was “chastizing” Indians (yes, including murdering them). But in the 1890s, when he wrote it, that was still a very acceptable occupation, and racism was at a peak. It makes it difficult for me to put myself into his cultural “shoes” as I write the biography.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It was entirely a problem of my own making. In trying to reduce spam, I added some words to the list that inadvertently sent some people’s remarks to Trash.


  1. I bet you and I are related if we go back far enough. My 5th great grandfather, John Goolman Davidson, was an early settler in Tazewell County, Virginia. His son, my 4th ggfandfather, Joseph Davidson, was a well known figure in what’s now Bluefield, WV. There’s lots of lore related to the Davidson family. Supposedly John Goolman D. was murdered by Indians. We think he was Scots-Irish. He immigrated to the colonies from Ireland but have not been able to find paper proof of his origins.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I expect we can all find connections if we go back far enough. I’m only related to E.D. Pierce by marriage. His wife is a cousin of mine. One of Pierce’s relatives was believed to be killed by Indians. I’m sure he grew up hearing the story.

      Liked by 1 person

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