Pierce House History
1630-1664: The First Generation in the Colony: Robert and Ann Grenway Pierce
Robert Pierce and Ann Grenway settled in Dorchester in the first wave of seventeenth-century emigration from England to America, but the circumstances of their arrival are ambiguous. Family legend weaves a tale of a shipboard romance between them on the Mary and John, a vessel in John Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay Colony fleet, but the passenger list for that 1630 voyage does not include a Robert Pierce. John Grenway, a millwright, his wife Mary, and their daughter Ann, however, were passengers on the Mary and John and the Grenways became active residents of the fledgling town. Robert Pierce, who married the Grenways’ daughter Ann, was among the first few groups of Englishmen who left from Plymouth and other western counties of Great Britain to settle the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It is not known whether he sailed on another ship in Winthrop’s fleet, or came later in the 1630s on a ship arriving directly in Dorchester, but genealogists have traced the family to Plymouth, England, where Robert was born around 1600. Genealogists use the year 1635 as the approximate date of Robert and Ann’s marriage and the birth of their first child.
Robert and Ann Pierce settled first in Pine Neck, later called Port Norfolk, an area of upland and salt marsh along the Neponset River and the harbor that took its name from a dense grove of pine trees that persisted well into the nineteenth century. Pierce built their home on six acres belonging to his father-in-law. Like other seventeenth-century fathers, John Grenway arranged for the distribution of property among his male heirs at his death, but the Grenways had six daughters and no sons, so he divided his land during his lifetime among his daughters and sons-in-law.
When the Pierces settled in Pine Neck, they were one of only a handful of families in the area. The most densely settled area of Dorchester remained Allen’s Plain, near the first meetinghouse, in the northern section of the town; this was the location of the Grenways’ home. The intention of the Massachusetts Bay Company and its settlers had been to establish a nucleated town center, with small house lots clustered near the church. One concern was safety, as the colonists feared attacks by nearby Native American tribes, but they were equally concerned that Dorchester remain a cohesive, unified community, with religion at its center. In 1635, the General Court reiterated this intent, ordering that no dwelling be built more than a half mile from the meetinghouse without permission. As evidenced by the Pierces and others, however, settlement quickly spread from the tight, compact village to other parts of Dorchester.
Robert and Ann Pierce eventually moved to a house on a six-acre “home lott” of plowing land in the Eastern Great Lots. An unrecorded deed in the Pierce family papers indicates that Pierce acquired this property from John Smith in 1652, and he had apparently already built a house according to an earlier “verbal agremt” between them, on land which lay along the Lower Road, the “jogging” section of Adams Street that is now Gallivan Boulevard. Pierce owned other land in addition to this home lot. The 1664 inventory of his estate lists the home lot, with the house, barn, and surrounding six acres, twenty acres of land in Pine Neck, five acres of meadow, and thirty-six acres of common land. These land holdings indicate the kind of mixed-use, scattered-field farming typical of New England in the seventeenth century.
Robert and Ann Pierce had three children, and two, Thomas and Mary, survived into adulthood. In his will Robert Pierce provided both for his children and his widow Ann. With only one son there was no question as to whether his property would go only to the eldest son, or be divided among all the sons. In England, due to limited land, primogeniture, a practice which passed real property intact to the oldest son, was the rule, but with the abundance of land in the New World, fathers were able to make different decisions.
Ann Pierce inherited more than the customary widow’s third; rather, she was to have, during her lifetime, one half of Robert’s house, land, and household goods. Although she could do as she wanted with the household goods, her share of the house and land would return to her son Thomas at her death. Ann Grenway Pierce survived her husband by almost thirty years and lived long enough to see the house further north on the Lower Road that her son Thomas and his family moved into in the 1690s — the house that was for so long called the Robert Pierce House.
Thomas Pierce inherited the Pierce lands when his father Robert died in 1664. He had been married for three years to Mary Fry, from Weymouth, and the two of them, with their son Thomas, may have lived with the senior Pierces. However, when his father died Thomas’s independence was still circumscribed, as his mother retained her half share of the property for another thirty-one years. Thomas and Mary had seven more children, four of whom lived long enough to be mentioned in Thomas’s will. Although children frequently died in infancy or in early childhood in the seventeenth century, seven of the Pierce children lived into their early twenties, and the family household during those years was large and multi-generational.
Unlike his father, Thomas Pierce did become a freeman, for he was chosen constable in 1674, and only freemen were eligible to hold that position. His other responsibilities within the town were typical of the seventeenth century. In 1667 he was appointed to view the fences in the Neponset area, and he also served as one of the “sup’visors of county and town highways,’ seeing to their upkeep and repair.
Over his lifetime Thomas Pierce added extensively to the Pierce family holdings, including the homestead now known as the Pierce House and its surrounding twenty acres of upland. Some of Thomas’s acquisitions were in what is present day Dorchester, but he also obtained property in the part of town that was to become Milton and in the New Grant “beyond the Blue Hills.” Together his inherited lands and acquisitions totaled about 230 acres, with at least seventy-five acres south of the Neponset River, and his properties included at least three houses, the inherited Robert Pierce House and two purchases. Thomas’s added parcels included a variety of types consistent with the continuing patter of mixed-use farming.
In 1696 Thomas Pierce also purchased from James Minot twenty acres of upland, “together with all and singular the housing Ediffices, buildings, and Fences standing thereon Yard Garden.” This property, which included the Pierce House, lay along the Lower Road not far from the Robert Pierce House, with the house situated in the northwest portion, on a crest which sloped down hill to the south and east toward the Neponset River. Built in 1683 by a member of the Minot family, the house was part of James Minot’s inheritance from his father, but James, a teacher and physician, had moved to Concord, Massachusetts, in the 1680s. Elegant and fashionable, the house had characteristic First Period detail, including a gabled roof and small diamond-paned windows. A two-and-a-half-story structure, with two rooms on each floor, plus an attic, it was also a large house for its time. With various additions and alterations over the years, it would be the Pierce family home for eight more generations.
With land still so abundant in the seventeenth century, Thomas Pierce also acquired large tracts of land in Milton, which had incorporated in 1662, and in the New Grant, or the land that in 1637 extended the boundaries of Dorchester all the way to Plymouth and Rhode Island. For Pierce these extensive additions to his holdings had several meanings. Land represented the ability to care for one’s family, to provide food for consumption, and to trade for those articles the family could not produce on its own. A farmer needed different types of land, and he needed to be able to plant new fields as older ones became worn out. Land was also a measure of wealth, and when he died, Thomas Pierce’s “lands and housing” represented about three quarters of his estate. Finally, land represented a way of providing for the next generation, particularly sons. In his will Thomas left his lands to his five children, but he continued the English practice of favoring the eldest son by granting Thomas, Jr. a double share, or two fifths; the others — John, Mary, and Sarah — each received one fifth. Except for John’s house and its surrounding acreage, Thomas Sr. did not specify which particular properties were to go to each child, but other documents make clear that John received the Pierce House and twenty-acre home lot.
John Pierce was thirty-eight years old when he inherited the Pierce House and home lot in 1706. He had married Abigail Thompson of Braintree thirteen years earlier, and the couple had five surviving children. By the time of his father’s death in 1706, when John inherited his father’s house, John and Abigail were already well established, with a family and a farm. The couple had two more children, John and Hannah, and all seven children survived their father and inherited property themselves under the terms of John Pierce’s will.
Approximately six years after John inherited his father’s house, he and Abigail expanded the building to accommodate their growing family. Using the same post-medieval design and construction as the original house, the Pierces added two rooms, one on each floor, to the west end of the building. The chimney stack was rebuilt so that there was a fireplace in each of the new rooms, and although cooking still seems to have been done in the original hall, the new rooms provided additional work and sleeping space for John and Abigail’s three teenage daughters (Abigail, seventeen; Mary, fifteen; and Sarah, thirteen) and their four younger children.
Property ownership in the eighteenth century was not static; Dorchester farmers, including the Pierces, bought, sold, bequeathed, and inherited a patchwork of lots in the town and its surrounding communities. Although John did not make the same extensive additions to the family landholdings that his father had, he owned almost 150 acres of land at his death in 1744, including seventy acres inherited from Thomas in 1706. Like other eighteenth-century farmers, Pierce would not have worked all his land. In the 1720s his “improved,” or actively cultivated, land included eighteen acres of mowing land, thirty of pasture, and only eight of tillage, or land planted in crops other than hay or grasses; he also had a small orchard of one and a half acres. John’s brother Thomas, who had inherited a double share of their father’s estate, was actually cultivating less land than his brother, including only two acres of tillage, and his farm had nine animals compare to the thirteen his brother John owned. The shortage of labor in New England limited the amount of land that could be farmed at any one time, but farmers such as John Pierce nonetheless continued to accumulate more property to provide for their own and their children’s futures. Although a farmer like his father, John Pierce was also a noted sportsman, and he particularly hunted brants, or wild geese. Pierce’s 1744 estate inventory lists his “armour” and “ammunition," as well as the tools and farm implements necessary to his agricultural labor: the plow, card, pitchfork, rope, hoe, grind stone, axes, and shop tools. Pierce’s animals included a mare, several cows, a steer, and an ox, and besides the barn his outbuildings included a shop, sheep house, and corn barn.
Pierce family lore also notes John as a man of strict religious principles. One story recounts his preparations for the Sabbath. Apparently he habitually shaved every Saturday afternoon, using a mirror that remains in the family’s possession. On Saturday he had only shaved half his face when the sun set and the sky grew dark; rather than violate the Sabbath, he stopped shaving and went to the meetinghouse the next morning with one half of his face clean shaven and the other bristled with stubble. Although the story may be apocryphal, there is a certain consistency to the piety of the John Pierces through the later generations.
When John Pierce died in 1744, he provided for each of his family members. Abigail was seventy-six years old when her husband died, and his will instructed their son Samuel to take care of her, cutting, splitting, and delivering her wood and caring for her cow. During her lifetime Abigail was to have the “Westerly half of my Dwelling House and Cellar,” which was the newer part of the house, and one third of John’s remaining real estate and personal estate, plus "a suit of mourning cloaths;” his silver tanker she was to have forever. The remaining personal estate went to all seven children, with a double share for Samuel the eldest.
Unlike his father, John Pierce willed his lands and buildings only to his sons, Samuel and John, preserving the family holdings intact in two fairly sizable estates. His five daughters received equal amounts of money, in addition to their dowries, to be paid out of the estate by the two sons. Samuel, the elder, received the house lot, dwelling house, barn, and orchard, and four parcels of varied land types — pasture, wood lot, and salt marsh — that totaled about fifty additional acres. His share was greater than his brother John’s, but he also had greater responsibility for his mother, who lived with him for another three years, and he paid his sisters a larger portion of their inheritance.
When Samuel Pierce inherited the family home and approximately seventy acres of land from his father in 1744, he was aged forty, and had been married to Abigail Moseley, also of Dorchester, for twelve years. The couple had four young children; two more daughters were born in the late 1740s. The family had been living in the Pierce house with Samuel’s parents, John and Abigail, and the widowed Abigail continued to live with them until her own death in 1747.
Over the next twenty-five years Samuel Pierce and his son, also named Samuel, made various additions and improvements to the family home and farm. A later family historian, George Francis Pierce, described Samuel as a man of comfortable circumstances and good taste, referring not only to his property holdings, but to such things as a collection of family china, and the alterations to the house reflected these attributes as the dwelling was enlarged and more attention paid to elegant detail. At some point between c. 1712 and 1765 either John or Samuel Pierce added a lean-to across the back of the house, perhaps to create additional cooking space as room usage became more specialized. In 1765, Samuel Jr. constructed a two-story addition onto the eastern end of the house, incorporating newly fashionable Georgian decorative elements. Samuel, Sr. and Abigail occupied these rooms, a lower room with a separate cooking fireplace and an upper bedroom chamber, while Samuel Jr. and his new wife Elizabeth Howe Pierce lived in the older center portion of the house.
Samuel Pierce Sr. also added to the row of outbuildings that stretched eastward from the house itself. This collection of buildings — woodshed, gate, corn barn, pigpen, slop and tool house, carriage house, cowyard, and barn — was depicted in an 1877 painting now in the Pierce-Shaughnessey family’s possession, and it offers a visual image of an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century farm and the variety and complexity of the tasks that farming involved. Primarily a farmer, Samuel was also a sportsman like his father.
Samuel Pierce’s status in the community is reflected in the public offices which he held and in the value and productivity of his property. In the 1740s he served as a town constable, collecting taxes due the British treasury, and during the 1750s he served as a selectman, a position generally held by the more prosperous and respected men in the community. A 1768 Dorchester tax assessment, taken shortly before Pierce died, provides another indication of Pierce’s relative status within the community. Among those who owned property in Dorchester, Samuel Pierce emerges as a man of standing. The total valuation of the Pierce House, the two thirds apportioned to Samuel Sr., and the one-third apportioned to Samuel Jr., was one of the highest for any single dwelling in the town, and the value of Pierce’s other real estate put him in roughly the top ten percent of property holders. In addition, Pierce was a significant creditor. Even his yoke of oxen signified Pierce’s status in the community. About half the farmers had a dairy cow or two, but less than fifteen percent listed oxen, which were necessary for plowing and harvesting; the others would have had to borrow or hire a team to work their land. In addition, in contrast to Pierce, there was in Dorchester a significant group that held no housing or real estate, since the abundant land available in the seventeenth century and in the earlier eighteenth century had been circumscribed by continued land division, private transactions and bequests, and population growth. Some in this group were sons waiting for their inheritance, but others may have worked as agricultural laborers, or perhaps rented land or a shop, without prospects of land ownership in Dorchester.
Unlike his father and grandfather, Samuel added very little land to his estate, and he probably sold his inherited lands in Stoughton. Because he chose to pass his real property only to his two surviving sons, Samuel and Edward, however, he was able to provide adequately for each of them. The bequest to Samuel, Jr. included the Pierce House and outbuildings, the remaining fifteen acres of the homelot, fourteen acres of pasture and meadow, and his share of his father’s salt marsh and woodland.
Samuel Pierce followed his father’s example in the provisions he made in his will for his wife and daughters. His widow Abigail was to have the use of a third of the house until her death; her portion was the eastern addition that Samuel, Jr. had recently completed, in which she and her husband had been living. The three unmarried daughters were to receive equal sums, half at Samuel’s death and the rest when Abigail died; if they married before that, they would receive their entire share immediately. While unmarried, the three girls were to live in the west portion of the house, the addition built by Thomas Pierce, and they had the privilege of fetching water from the well and planting a garden. Samuel Jr. and his family, then, were to inhabit only the central portion of the Pierce House, the oldest section, until he came into his complete inheritance following his mother’s death and his sisters’ marriages. Once again the household included multiple and over-lapping generations.
Samuel Pierce, Jr. inherited the family home and houselot from his father in 1768, but he and his wife Elizabeth had lived there with his parents since their marriage in 1765, and they continued to share the home with other family members until 1778. Samuel and Elizabeth lived in the older middle section of the house, which Pierce also began to update, adding new Georgian style woodwork and a beaufat, or china cupboard, to display some of the family’s finer goods.
After his father’s death, Samuel and Elizabeth continued to share the house with other extended family members. Samuel’s mother, Abigail, lived in the third left to her use until her own death in 1776, by which time Elizabeth had given birth to five children, three of whom survived into childhood. During some of these same years, Samuel’s unmarried sisters also continued to live in the household, in the western part of the house and lean-to. Two of his sisters eventually married and moved into their own households; sister Rebecca did not marry, and lived with her brother’s family until her death in 1778.
Samuel and Elizabeth Pierce raised their offspring in the Pierce House over an extended period of time. Of their eight children, six survived, and their oldest and youngest, both sons, were born twenty years apart. The family unit fell into three “pairs”: the two older boys, Samuel and Abraham; two middle girls, Elizabeth and Ann; and two younger sons, George and Lewis, who were only in their early teens when their mother died. Colonel Samuel continued to provide a home for his children until they married, and even then the younger couples lived for periods of time with their father and mother.
As was common in the eighteenth century, the Pierce household also frequently included non-family members. Over the years the Pierces hired a series of live-in farm laborers and young girls who lived with the family as “help,” a status that was between servant and family member. On other occasions Samuel boarded paupers for the town and may have rented part of the house in his later years. Because the Pierce house was large and divided rather neatly into the eastern, western, and middle sections, over the years Colonel Samuel was able to provide a home for overlapping generations of extended family—from his mother to his grandchildren—and for an assortment of others who shared in the household in various ways.
Eighteenth-century yeomen like Colonel Samuel Pierce performed diverse tasks on their farms and developed complex relationships with the other members of their agricultural communities. The foundation of most eighteenth-century agriculture was interdependence; families achieved their competency, their sense of security in their ability to provide for themselves and their children, not from their efforts alone, but from their relationships within the larger community. Although virtually everyone in towns like Dorchester engaged in agriculture, few if any farm families relied solely on their own crops, and Dorchester farmers traded grain and other food products widely among themselves. Similarly, most individuals had a variety of other skills that they shared within the larger social and economic fabric. Even the town’s more specialized artisans and craftsmen, such as the blacksmith or tanner, did not rely exclusively on their trade for their livelihood, but farmed as well. As his journal and account book attest, Colonel Samuel Pierce and his family lived and worked in just such a matrix of relationships. Primarily a farmer, Pierce produced diverse crops that he traded widely, and he assisted other Dorchester farmers with their agricultural tasks and relied on them for periodic help as well. Colonel Samuel also possessed a range of other skills that he employed both within his own household and farm and within the community network of exchange.
Samuel Pierce inherited the Pierce House and the accompanying string of outbuildings that stretched eastward across his property and that were part of the farm economy: the woodshed, gate, corn barn, pigpen, shop and tool house, carriage house, cowyard, and barn. Pierce was able to continue his family’s traditional pattern of mixed-use farming, because his property included various types of land. Over time, Pierce expanded not only his land holdings, but the scope and range of his activities as well. He looked for new opportunities within such traditional activities as fishing and cider making, and he was alert to the many ways he could make the most of his land, labor, farm animals and equipment, and his own wide-ranging talents.
Colonel Samuel relied on his family, particularly his sons and some extended family, hired help, and the neighborhood network of labor exchange to help him carry out the varied and heavy agricultural labor. Sons were the traditional source of labor on New England farms, within the tension of the fathers’ continuing need for labor and the sons’ desire for land and eventual independence. Because his sons were born so many years apart, Pierce would have had steady assistance from them over a long period of time; he had teen-aged sons from the 1780s through the early 1800s. As Colonel Samuel grew older, he probably performed less of the work, and his youngest son Lewis, who would inherit the house and homelot, took over management of the farm. Supplementing the sons’ labor were various hired hands Pierce employed over the years. Pierce paid them wages, and he also provided room and board and often clothing and shoes as well. Colonel Pierce, his sons, and his hired hands worked not only on the Pierce farm, but for others in the community. Pierce’s relative prosperity and prominence within Dorchester did not exempt him from physical labor, he tilled his own fields alongside his sons and hands and traded his own labor, not simply his capital or the services of his dependents, with his neighbors.
Known to be “very handy at almost anything, Pierce also engaged in a variety of non-agricultural tasks, and this work, like farming, was part of the larger community network. A skilled timber framer, carpenter, and mason, Pierce over the years completed numerous construction and remodeling projects on his home and outbuildings. After building the easterly addition to his house for his parents in 1765, he successively updated the other sections. Pierce was conscious of architectural and furnishing styles, and he incorporated fashionable Georgian elements into his parents’ rooms; when his family bought a clock in 1764 he proudly noted that it was “very mody.” In 1777, after his sisters’ marriages and his mother’s death, Pierce began to remodel the middle room, or parlor, in the Georgian style as well, adding window seats, a second beaufat, and Georgian cornice moldings. Pierce updated the west room in 1785, with new plaster, paint, and wallpaper, and in the 1790s he re-painted the east room and re-worked the fireplace, reducing its size.
Although, like the records he left, Colonel Samuel Pierce’s major concerns focused on the patterns of daily life—farming tasks and cycles, the weather, kin and community relationships, improvements to his family home—he was also deeply engaged by the world around him. Pierce was an astute observer whose commentary on the American Revolutionary era brings to life the events of this crucial period in American history. Participant as well as observer, Pierce made his political sympathies clear. An early supporter of the patriot cause, he resigned his commission in the King’s militia to join the Massachusetts militia and took part in what Dorchester historians view as a crucial step in the United States’ war for independence: the fortification of Dorchester Heights and the forced evacuation of the British troops from Boston in March of 1776. He led his regiment for the duration of the war.
During the ten years between 1765 and 1775, a series of political conflicts between Great Britain and her American colonies contributed to the breakdown of the imperial relationship, the outbreak of armed conflict between patriot and loyalist troops, and the eventual declaration of independence by the new United States. Because Boston was a center of colonial protest, Britain tried to make the town an object lesson in imperial authority, and from nearby Dorchester, Col. Samuel reported his personal politics and involvement in the town’s growing support for the patriot cause. All through New England the Sons of Liberty had formed in 1765 in opposition to the Stamp Act, and Col. Samuel recorded that they met in Dorchester at a “very Grand Entertainment at mr. Lemuel Robinson’s” in August 1769. The Pierce family also held patriotic events at their home, including a “spining match” held “at our house” in June of 1769. Such gatherings were part of the colonists’ campaign to produce and wear their own homespun clothing rather than rely on English imported goods.
From Dorchester Col. Samuel observed the unfolding of events in Boston. On March 6, 1770, the day following the Boston Massacre, he noted “four kild in boston by the Soldiers.” He also recorded the growing support of the Dorchester citizenry for the colonial protest, as evidenced by a town meeting in December of 1772 “to Exclaim against the Duty being Laid upon us & Judges having their Saliry paid from England &c.” Pierce also followed the controversy over the Tea Act of 1773 closely. England had granted what colonial merchants termed an unfair advantage to the East India Tea Company’s virtual monopoly and the fact that Parliament had levied a tax on tea in the first place. Many colonists resolved to boycott tea, but a large supply arrived in Boston late in 1773. “Boston,” observed Pierce in his journal on December 11, “is full of trouble about the tee. . .,” and several days later Boston radicals orchestrated the Boston Tea Party.
By June of 1774, following the passage of the Intolerable Acts, tensions between the colonists and Great Britain had increased. Colonial self-government and the judiciary were reduced, more British troops and warships arrived, and “Boston [was] in a most Deplorible Condition.” In the fall of 1774 Col. Samuel Pierce and others in the provincial militia had resigned their commissions under the crown and received new appointments as officers in the colonial militia. The following March the town of Dorchester voted that all men fit for military duty should be ready to respond to any alarm on a minute’s notice. When actual conflict broke out at Lexington and Concord in April of 1775, Col. Pierce’s loyalties were evident: “April 19. this Day there was a terible battle at Lexinton & Concord between our People and the Soldiers which marcht out of Boston the Soldiers fird on our people and then the Battle Began & there was about 40 of our People kild & 190 soldiers as near as could be Recolected.”
Over the spring and summer of 1775 Pierce observed and recorded activity in Boston as some Tories from surrounding towns moved into the city and patriots fled. He lamented the “Terrable battle fout at CharlesTown”—the Battle of Bunker Hill—and noted various “scirmiges” with the British regulars, particularly on the Boston harbor islands, as each side sought to establish position and to cut off the other’s supply of hay. General George Washington had set up headquarters in Cambridge, with his other troops camped in Roxbury, Somerville, and Dorchester, so that the city of Boston, though held by the British, was surrounded. When the patriot officer Col. Henry Knox arrived with guns and ammunition dragged on sledges from Ft. Ticonderoga, Washington and his advisors decided to act.
Washington’s plan was to fortify Dorchester Heights, now South Boston, and therefore “command a great part of the town and almost the whole harbor.” After careful preparation Colonel Samuel and his troops took part in the expedition that began on the night of March 4, 1776. About 5,000 men and over 380 wagons sneaked onto Dorchester Heights, placing straw along the road to muffle the sound; the men were under orders not to speak above a whisper. The troops carried the tools, materials, and arms for their defense, including bales of hay, barrels of stone and earth, and the heavy siege guns from Ticonderoga. It was, according to Pierce, “the most work Don that Ever was Don in one Night in New England.” When the British commander, General Howe, realized his predicament, he sent word to Washington that if he and his troops were allowed to leave without being fired upon, he would refrain from destroying the city. On March 17, 1776 (still observed in Boston as Evacuation Day), Howe, his 8,000 troops, and approximately 900 loyalists set sail for Halifax. Although Boston had suffered much during the occupation, with buildings destroyed for firewood, troops and horses quartered at will, and hunger rampant, Howe kept his word and did not burn the city. He and his troops left, wrote Col. Samuel, “like so many frited Sheep.” By March 28 patriots were able to “go into boston all freely,” and in Dorchester town meeting pledged in May of 1776, “america Declard Independancy from Great britain.”
For the duration of the war, Col. Samuel Pierce remained in the colonial militia, one of the two separate but complementary military forces that fought for American independence. As commander of the South Dorchester militia regiment Col. Samuel Pierce seems to have held a chiefly administrative position. He dispatched men from his unit to serve with the Continental Army near Boston and, later, in the Middle Colonies and other New England locations. In addition to troop deployment, Pierce handled both payroll and provisions. Pierce did accompany his men on two expeditions, one through New York to New Jersey in 1777 and one to Tiverton, Rhode Island in 1779, and he also saw active duty on Castle Island in Boston Harbor. During his absence, Elizabeth Pierce, with the assistance of Samuel’s sister Rebecca, took care of the family and managed the farm. In the later years of the war, with fighting concentrated n the southern states, Col. Pierce detached his men for only limited service, but they maintained their role as patriotic citizen-solders until the war ended in 1783.
As father, farmer, and landowner, Colonel Samuel Pierce had the responsibility to provide not only for his family members’ current welfare, but also for their future. His agricultural labor and his exchange of goods and services with both kin and neighbors provided for his family’s immediate needs and assured them a comfortable competency. In order to guarantee that his sons would in turn be able to provide for their families, however, Pierce had to be sure that his landholdings would be sufficient for their support even when divided among them. Pierce also wanted to ensure his daughters’ future comfort and security through dowries of household goods and, perhaps, land as well. As Philip Greven and others have pointed out, as the pressure on land in colonial New England increased over the generations, a family’s holdings could only be divided so many times before the individual farms became too small to support each son, along with his wife and children. In many families some children moved away to settle on the frontier, be that Maine or Connecticut or New York or Ohio, where land was cheaper and more abundant. The Pierces, however, had been remarkably persistent over five generations, and they had succeeded in settling their sons on family land.
Previous generations of Pierces had been able to keep their children nearby in part because they had few sons and also because they continued to add to the family’s land holdings. Col. Samuel Pierce adopted this same strategy and acquired various tracts of land in Dorchester to accumulate sufficient property to bequeath to each of his children. With four surviving sons, more than any of his Pierce House predecessors, his need was particularly acute. During the 1780s, before his older sons reached maturity, Pierce purchased a series of land parcels. This additional land represented a variety of types - marsh, upland, orchard, and meadow - and several included buildings. The Pierces also understood that by the late eighteenth century their children’s futures could no longer depend on farming alone. Even as he accumulated more agricultural land, Pierce prepared some of his sons for artisan trades, and he helped both his sons and his sons-in-law establish themselves in shops as well as farms.
Col. Samuel Pierce was able to provide for each of his adult children. Although New England sons had traditionally not achieved their independence until their fathers died, this pattern was slowly changing. The interdependence of the generations persisted, as fathers continued to need their sons’ labor and sons relied on inheritance to obtain property, but there was a gradual “weakening of parental control” and a tendency for sons to achieve practical if not legal independence at an earlier age. Marriage, more than a father’s death, was gradually becoming the marker of independence, an independence secured nonetheless with considerable parental assistance.
Col. Pierce’s oldest son Samuel set up shop as a currier, a person who prepared tanned leather by scraping and stretching it into varying thicknesses to be used for shoes, gloves, harnesses, and other leather products. Elizabeth Pierce married Reuben Blake, who worked as a courier with her older brother Samuel. With help from Col. Pierce, they established their own home. Second son Abraham also became a tanner. George Pierce seems to be the son who was least dependent on his father to help him achieve economic competency as an adult. George followed a path that was different from his brothers but common for many other New England farmers’ sons who moved west or to the nation’s growing cities: he left Dorchester as a young man to be apprenticed in Boston and does not appear to have returned to Dorchester.
Lewis Pierce, the youngest son of Samuel and Elizabeth Pierce, inherited the family homestead at his father’s death in 1815. Oldest son Samuel had died, Abraham had his own house and shop at the time the will was written, and George had moved out of Dorchester, making Lewis the logical choice to remain in the family home. At age twenty-nine, he had been working the farm with and for his father as Colonel Samuel aged. Lewis had started to take over the kinds of tasks his father had previously performed in the community: carting bricks, providing shingles and nails, supplying meat and vegetables. Lewis married a young Dorchester woman, Sarah Moseley, in February of 1809. A month after their marriage a tearful Sarah left “the dearest of parents” and moved into the Pierce homestead with her new husband, sharing the house with Col. Samuel, sister-in-law Ann, and Ann’s sixteen-year old son Samuel. Although he was the family patriarch, Col. Samuel insisted on sleeping in “the little bed room at the North East corner of the old House, not in one of the upstairs chambers,” and he died there as well.
Col. Samuel Pierce, then, had at his death divided his landholdings among his four surviving children, but he had not after all succeeded in settling them in Dorchester and providing a secure livelihood for each of them. By increasing his property while he was alive, he had been able to help his children establish their own houses and shops when they reached young adulthood. Although they continued to rely on their father for support to varying degrees, sons Samuel and Abraham had not had to wait for their father’s death to establish independent households, and Pierce aided his daughters Elizabeth and Ann and sons-in-law Reuben Blake and Jesse Hawes as well. Members of this next generation of the Pierce family had turned to artisan trades to earn their livings, as even Pierce’s substantial holdings would not be sufficient to support them all on separate farms. During the more prosperous years of the 1790s his children had begun their trades as tanners and curriers and had purchased property, but after the turn of the nineteenth century they were subject to the economic uncertainty and recession occasioned by the successive wars between Britain and France. Col. Samuel Pierce’s sons and sons-in-law struggled to maintain the ownership of their properties, as the various mortgages, land sales, and debts indicate; except for Lewis, each of them eventually sold their Pierce landholdings, and by 1820 none of the properties that Pierce had bought during the 1780s remained in family hands. Nonetheless, Col. Pierce was able to keep the fifteen-acre homelot intact for his son Lewis, who would in turn find new uses for the family land.
1815-1874: Lewis and Sarah Moseley Pierce
Lewis Pierce, like most men of his generation, was a transitional figure in New England history. His father, Col. Samuel Pierce, had been a man of multiple interests and talents—carpenter, teamster, mason, soldier—but he was primarily a farmer or husbandman, with all that implied about his responsibility for fields, livestock, garden, and orchards. Although Lewis, Col. Samuel’s youngest son, described himself as a farmer throughout his long life, his father’s life pattern was not possible for Lewis because the farm he inherited along with the family homestead at his father’s death in 1815 was no longer large or productive enough to sustain a family. Although Dorchester, and Neponset in particular, retained a rural character for much of the nineteenth century, families like the Pierces, whose farms had passed to the sixth generation, could no longer provide their children with enough land to support a household.
Rather than dividing his home lot, Col. Pierce left the entire parcel to his youngest son. Lewis continued to live on the family farm and to cultivate at least some of the land until his death in 1874, but by the time he died, he and his sons had literally redrawn their expectations for land use; they had begun to divide the family farm into a subdivision with streets and small lots designed for suburban dwellers. By the 1870s they had sold off a number of lots and had built and sold homes on others. While they continued to depend on their land for family sustenance, they had begun to see land as a different kind of commodity. By mid-century, farmland was being sold and divided into varying sized house lots across the villages that constituted Dorchester in a process of urbanization that continued into the twentieth century. Over the course of his life Lewis Pierce both witnessed and participated in the process that changed the occupational and ethnic composition of his community.
Although Lewis took over his father’s account books in the last decade of Col. Samuel’s life, his daily activities are much less clear than those of his father. During this period Lewis took over his father’s work as a teamster, carting bricks to Boston, particularly South Boston, which had been more extensively developed after its annexation to Boston in 1806. Like Col. Samuel and other members of his family, Lewis also did much work connected to the building trades. Compared to previous generations, early nineteenth-century men like Lewis were likely to spend more time away from their families as New England towns, especially older towns near Boston, began to operate in a cash-based rather than a barter economy. Artisans and farmers alike became drawn into the growing city’s orbit and began to focus on supplying goods and services that would support its burgeoning economy. Lewis probably engaged in both agricultural market trade and non-farming activities that separated home and work in new ways.
Nonetheless, the Pierce homestead remained a small working farm, although its output declined, and Lewis, like his father, apparently labored in the fields himself, even into his eighties. In 1850, when Lewis was sixty-four, he harvested corn, potatoes, hay, and, like other Dorchester farmers who had begun to grow specialized crops for the nearby Boston market, vegetable and orchard crops; he also kept a horse, a “milch” cow, and swine. His products, however, would have been insufficient to support his large household of family and hired help; his sons and boarders worked as brickmasons to contribute to the household economy. By 1860 Lewis had sold off about twenty percent of his land, and, although he still had a milk cow and a pig, he produced only twenty bushels of potatoes and twenty tons of hay. By 1870 Pierce no longer had any animals, but he still harvested some hay and potatoes and a small apple crop.
Lewis had married Sarah Moseley in March 1809, when he was twenty-three, an event which Sarah recorded in her journal. “This evening Mr. Pierce and myself have joined our hands as our hearts have long been,” she wrote, “we are one forever.” Sarah, age twenty-one, was Lewis’s second cousin and also from Dorchester, and the couple had courted for several years, playing cards, taking walks and carriage rides, and visiting over tea.
Although the young couple shared the Pierce House with Col. Samuel, his widowed daughter Ann Pierce Hawes, and Ann’s sixteen-year-old son Samuel, Sarah often felt lonely. Lewis was frequently away in Boston on business, and Sarah continued to miss her parents and siblings. Pregnant when she married, Sarah gave birth to a son, Lewis Francis, four months later. Over the years Sarah and Lewis had two more sons, Charles Henry, born in 1821, and William Augustus, born in 1827. They also had two daughters. The first, Eliza Moseley Pierce, born in 1817, was named after Sarah’s beloved sister Eliza, the “sister of my soul,” who had died four years earlier. The second, Sarah Elizabeth Moseley Pierce, was born in 1833, when Sarah was forty-five, five months after their daughter Eliza died. Sarah and Lewis named the last child after Sarah’s beloved mother, also named Sarah, and their first daughter.
Like generations of women before her, Sarah called her family home her father’s house and referred to her husband as Mr. Pierce - both symbolic statements about patriarchy - but her warm expressions of attachment to her family and children represent a new attitude about the family as an emotional unit and motherhood as women’s primary role. Deeply attached to her family, Sarah was devastated at the many losses she suffered: her sister, daughter, and mother, and her brother Elisha, who also died at a relatively young age. Like other nineteenth-century women, Sarah allowed herself to express such emotions in private, using her journal as a repository for pious thoughts, sentimental reflections, sad commemorations, and poems of lamentation as well as a place to keep track of important events. Sarah’s public demeanor, however, was more circumspect; her great niece, Mary Virginia Hawes Terhune, a noted nineteenth-century author, admired her Aunt Sarah’s “gentle” ways and described her as “one of the loveliest women ever brought into a world where saints are out of place.” In a society where women were expected to cheerfully perform their household duties, support their husband’s efforts to make a living, and focus on their children, the seeming inconsistency between Sarah’s public and private behavior was not surprising.
While Sarah focused on her family, Lewis, like his forebears, was both farmer and citizen. He served in the War of 1812 and was active in his church and in his community, holding a series of positions, some of which may have paid small salaries. He served as town assessor in 1834 and a surveyor of highways in 1835; he also chaired the committee that oversaw a school rebuilding and improvement program in 1837. Elected as a town meeting moderator and a local justice of the peace, he was also a representative to the state legislature. In addition, Lewis perpetrated the family interest in music; he became the “song leader” at the First Church on Meetinghouse Hill and in 1858, a charter member of the Handel and Haydn Society. In 1856, Virginia Terhune described her great uncle as a clean-shaven “man of imposing presence” who drove a “low-hung phaeton, drawing by a horse as portly and well-set-up as his master.” Terhune saw Lewis as a “sturdy old representative of Puritans,” a feisty man of strong opinions and somewhat conservative politics.”
Although Terhune clearly viewed her great uncle as somewhat old-fashioned, she shared with him an appreciation of the family’s long New England heritage. Like him, she enjoyed retelling the family’s tales about their forebears, and the Pierce House and its colonial details were featured in her own writings. Lewis was not an author, but he was proud of his family’s status as one of Dorchester’s oldest families and aware of the historic importance of the house, and he found ways to highlight the family history. Lewis had inherited a piece of “bread” from his father, a relic that the family maintained had come from England on the “Mary and John.” Col. Samuel Pierce had shown the “bread” to a cousin, John Pierce, in 1807. It was, John Pierce related, “a biscuit, which is probably more than 100 years old, kept by him in his chest, and a cob of corn, which he used, for many years in shelling corn. The biscuit is quite honeycombed by the worms.” In 1835 Lewis’s cousin, John Clapp, made a special mahogany box, with a glass insert, for the bread and corn cob, and Lewis proudly displayed it for both family and visitors. When local historian Ebenezer Clapp published his History of the Town of Dorchester in 1859, Lewis allowed him to include long sections of his father’s journal, mostly relating to Col. Samuel’s involvement in the Revolutionary cause. This sense of the family’s history also influenced decisions Lewis made about updating the Pierce House. Although he enlarged the stair hall and added some new detail that reflected current fashion, such as mantels in the parlor and east room, Lewis made no alterations to the form of the dwelling. Like the bread, the house was an important artifact of the family’s past.
Lewis’s pride in his family’s long history, however, did not cloud his view of the changes in his community, a view which would have been reinforced by his experiences as a public official and by his sons’ connection to the building trades. As Neponset Village grew, Lewis may have foreseen that his land would likely appreciate in value and that he could use it in a new way to provide for the next generation. Lewis’s land transactions (which totaled more than fifty) were more numerous and more complicated than the relatively straightforward sales and purchases of his forebears. Because he was, over time, property owner, mortgage holder, builder, and mortgagee, he treated his land as a commodity rather than as an agricultural resource.
By the late 1860s the Pierce family was involved in speculative development of the family’s own properties, not merely the sale of their land to other builders. Between 1867 and 1872 nine houses were built on Lewis’s fifteen-acre home lot. Although Lewis Pierce’s name appears on all of the deeds and mortgages, his sons, Charles, William Augustus, and Lewis Francis, probably spearheaded the development, since Lewis was by this time in his eighties. Brick masons, they may have participated in the actual construction of at least some of the homes along with Elias Perkins, a housewright from nearby Quincy.
Lewis financed his development and construction through a series of successive mortgages and property sales, following a pattern typical for small nineteenth-century builders. The proceeds of successive sales and mortgages provided the funds to construct the additional houses; Lewis either sold each newly built home outright or mortgaged it before it was sold. In either case, he then had new capital to finance construction on yet another of his lots, and the proceeds from that development helped to support yet another building project. Still standing, these nine houses built within the boundaries of the old Pierce farm were similar in style, mostly two-story, mansard roof dwellings with Italianate details. Some of their residents worked nearby, but most of them commuted via the nearby railroad line. Middle-class families with young children, the Pierces’ new neighbors clearly belonged to Dorchester’s new suburban, residential future, not its rural and agricultural past.
The Pierces operated during this period as a closely connected multi-generational unit, not only in their joint real estate ventures but also their living arrangements. The house that Lewis Francis and his family moved into in 1846 was only a few yards away from the Pierce House. William Augustus and Charles continued to live, off and on, with their parents in the family home, and both probably continued to contribute some portion of their wages to the household economy. In 1850 the household included Charles and two masons of similar ages, William Jenkins and William Douglas, who may have worked, as well as boarded, with the Pierces. In 1860 William Augustus, recently married, was living, along with his wife Antoinette Read Pierce, with his parents. Charles, who had married Sarah Hayden in 1850 and had been widowed in 1852, also lived there with his nine-year-old son Henry, whose grandmother and aunts could help raise him. By 1870 William, Antoinette, and their daughter, Antoinette Louise, had moved to their own house nearby on Adams Street (near Ashmont), but Charles remained, and Henry, at nineteen, was continuing the family trade as a brick mason. Elizabeth Pierce, Lewis’s thirty-seven-year-old daughter, had not married, and she also remained in the household. As in previous generations, the Pierces lived as an extended family, probably splitting the house into separate household areas under the one family roof.
In addition, Lewis Pierce’s household during these years seems to have generally included laborers and domestic servants. The ethnicity of these workers changed over time, along with the ethnic composition of Boston’s working class as a whole. Earlier in the century Sarah Moseley Pierce listed in her diary several servant girls, probably young women from local families. By the 1840s, however, local “help” was being supplanted by Irish immigrant labor. Starting in the 1850s, both Lewis and Lewis Francis hired a succession of Irish-born servants and laborers to work in their homes and on their land. By the 1860s and 1870s, the new middle-class residents of the houses built on the Pierce land also employed Irish domestics to assist with the tasks of cleaning, cooking, laundry, and childcare.
Lewis Pierce died in 1874 without a will. Although most of his houses had been sold and Lewis’s debt on them cleared, Lewis owned one unsold house, at 28 Plain Street, with an outstanding mortgage, and he had mortgaged a number of undeveloped properties. He also had a mortgage on his own family house and some 50,000 square feet surrounding it. Lewis and his sons may have intended to begin another round of speculative building and development, as they had done in the late 1860s, but the lingering effects of the Panic of 1873 and then Lewis’s death interrupted their plan. Because Lewis’s primary asset was his undeveloped land and because he had so many outstanding mortgages, his four children could not pay his debts out of his estate. Lewis Francis, administrator for the estate, petitioned the probate court for permission to partition and sell the remaining property.
Francis’s plan was to divide the remaining undeveloped homestead land into house lots, each about 10,000 square feet, along Pierce Avenue and an extension of Oak Avenue that Lewis himself had proposed before his death. A street plan and land survey, in addition to the timing of Lewis and his sons’ land dealings and house construction in the late 1860s, suggest that the family may have been hoping to capitalize on Dorchester’s annexation to Boston in 1870. Francis had followed his father’s example by becoming involved in town government, even identifying himself on the 1860 census as a “town officer,” and he would have heard the predictions of economic growth associated with the annexation movement.
In preparation for selling the property and settling Lewis’s debts, his heirs commissioned another land survey, which subdivided the land into forty separate lots, plus the eleven previously developed properties. This surveyor’s plan of 1876 signals the end of the two hundred year history of the Pierce farm. The “Old House” was put up for public auction, but William Augustus Pierce, Lewis’s youngest son, was able to keep it in the family by purchasing the 10,000 square foot lot “with the dwelling house thereon standing in which said Lewis Pierce resided and died.”
When the Pierce House came up for public auction along with the rest of Lewis Pierce’s land in 1876, William Augustus Pierce, Lewis’s youngest son, was the highest bidder. Valued at $500 at Lewis’s death in 1874, the house and its 10,000 square foot lot were sold to William Augustus for $1,400. Given the family’s close ties, their long residence in the Pierce house, and the fact that Lewis Francis Pierce lived right across the way, it is not surprising that the Pierce heirs would pre-arrange William Augustus’s purchase. Proud of their family’s history and heritage, the Pierces would have been loathe to permit an “outsider” to purchase the house. Family members even provided financial assistance; Lewis Francis Pierce agreed to pay or obtain the release on an existing mortgage on the property, and a cousin and neighbor, Frederick Leeds Pierce, loaned William $1,000 toward the purchase. Without a directive from a will, which in most previous generations had provided for the disposition of the house and houselot, Lewis’s children settled the issue among themselves before the auction.
Although William Augustus Pierce, like his father, grandfather, and brothers, settled in Dorchester into the family trade of masonry, he also explored other careers and even other parts of the country. At the age of twenty-two he became one of the original “forty-niners” who arrived in San Francisco in September of 1849 in the early wave of the California Gold Rush. William remained in California for six years, and although he did not make his fortune in gold, he returned with other souvenirs, including the rattles from the tail of a rattlesnake he had killed and the claw from a grizzly bear that he killed in the Sacramento Valley in 1850.
In 1860 Pierce married Antoinette Read, whose family had moved from Maine to Boston; her father, Phillip Read, was the inventor of a patented horseshoe. Like the Pierces, the Reads had migrated to New England in the 1630s, settling in Rehoboth, where they became substantial property holders. Over time family members moved to Livermore and then to Edgecomb, Maine, where Antoinette was born in 1827. At the time of their marriage William Augustus was a mason, but during the next decade he worked as a wine and fruit dealer in Boston, and he may also have been involved with his father and his brother’s plans to develop the Pierce farm.
By 1870, however, William Augustus had again established himself as a mason, and his account book from the 1880s offers both a record of his numerous projects and a general picture of the practice of masonry in the late nineteenth century. Pierce worked locally, chiefly in Dorchester, Milton, and Boston, and he generally engaged in residential construction, new buildings and also renovations and additions; his clients included architects, developers, and individual homeowners. He also worked on some institutional construction projects, including a library, factories, two Dorchester schools, St. Mary’s Infant Asylum, and St. Ann’s Parish in Neponset. Although Pierce also did plastering, most of his projects were masonry work—digging and laying foundations, cesspools, and pipe; pouring concrete cellar floors and building cellar partitions; setting stone window lintels and sills; and constructing brick chimneys and laying hearth tiles. The work was arduous and labor intensive, and Pierce, who was in his late fifties in the 1880s, employed others to work on these projects with him. Unlike his father Lewis, his brother Lewis Francis, and his nephew George Francis, he does not seem to have taken on many civic and community roles, and in contrast to his cousin Frederick Leeds Pierce, who owned extensive properties and became a successful developer, William Augustus remained more craftsman than businessman.
In the first years after William Augustus moved back into the family house, he would have observed few changes in his surroundings, despite the breakup of the Pierce property. Although Oak Avenue had been extended from Plain Street to Adams Street, the street was a dirt carriage way, and the new landowners were slow to develop their lots. By 1884 only three new houses had been built. The Pierce barn and outbuildings, on lands no longer belonging to the Pierces, were torn down, but the sense of the fields and orchards remained. Twenty years later, however, the lots had begun to fill up and the sense of the neighborhood had changed. Between 1884 and 1904, twenty-one additional houses were built on the old farm property, bringing the total to thirty-five, including the Pierce House. Although some open areas remained, these new houses were more densely spaced. William and Antoinette’s new neighbors were mostly artisans and their wives with young families, and almost a third of them were of Irish descent, reflecting the changed demographics of Boston and Dorchester.
The changing face of the Pierce neighborhood reflected demographic changes in late-nineteenth-century families as well. Like their neighbors, the Pierces had many fewer children than their forebears; middle-class children were regarded as emotional rather than economic contributors to the family unit. In the Victorian family children were to be educated rather than apprenticed, and the family was expected to live as a nuclear unit. William and his wife Antoinette had only two children; their son, William Alvin, died as a baby, and the couple lived in their house with their only daughter, Antoinette Louise, rather than with the multiple generations of family, boarders, or hired help who had shared the Pierce House over many earlier generations. After Antoinette’s marriage in 1883 to George Frederick Pierce, the son of Frederick Leeds Pierce and a neighbor and distant cousin she had known all her life, Antoinette moved to a nearby but nonetheless separate household. By 1900 the senior Pierces, both aged seventy-three, were, unlike any previous generation, living alone in their ancestral home. When they died in 1904 and 1905, they left the Pierce House to Antoinette, but she and her husband chose to live in his parents’ elegant Victorian home rather than her ancestral one. For the first time in more than two hundred years the Pierce House would, for the next two decades, not be occupied by lineal Pierce descendants.
Antoinette Pierce holds a unique position in the Pierce family history; she was both the only daughter to inherit the Pierce House and the only heir not to live there as an adult. Until the age of five or six Antoinette lived with her parents William Augustus and Antoinette Read Pierce, and her grandparents Lewis and Sarah in the Pierce House, but by 1870 William Augustus and Antoinette and their daughter were renting a house nearby on Minot Street. The family moved in 1872 to the corner of Adams Street and Ashmont Avenue, still not far from the family homestead, and Antoinette’s later recollections and her affection for the “Old House” suggest that she spent considerable time there. Antoinette moved back to the Pierce House with her parents after Lewis’s lands were broken up in 1876, when she was thirteen. Antoinette attended Dorchester High School, where she was the valedictorian for her class in 1881, and two years later she married her distant cousin, George Frederick Pierce, who was descended from Robert and Ann Pierce through the Thomas line. Antoinette, or “Nettie,” and George Frederick, or “Fred,” had known each other since they were children, and they grew up together as neighbors and playmates.
After their marriage the young couple lived briefly with Fred’s widowed father, Frederick Leeds Pierce, in his home at 827 Adams Street, not far from Antoinette’s family, but by 1886 they had built their own home next door, on Frederick Leeds’ property.
Antoinette had inherited the Pierce House when her father William Augustus died in 1905, but she never returned there to live. Instead, Antoinette rented the Pierce House to a series of tenants over the next twenty-five years. Her first tenant was a cousin, Edmond Pierce, and during the 1920s, she rented the house to several families, all named Kendall and probably related. Elmer H. Kendall, a laborer and city watchman, occupied the house for seven years, and for at least three of those years he and his family shared the house with Waldo H. Kendall, a laborer and cemetery caretaker, and his family; as many as twelve people lived in the house in 1920. During three other years Elmer E. Kendall, a painter, was Antoinette’s tenant. In 1929, Antoinette’s oldest son, Roger Pierce, and his family moved into the house, and for a while he also paid his mother rent; however, when Frederick and Antoinette mortgaged the property to fund a series of repairs and renovations, Roger assumed the mortgage payments.
Although Antoinette chose not to live in the Pierce House as an adult, she took great pride in its long history and in her family heritage and wanted to preserve and pass along both the house and family memories it held. She and George Frederick chose Grenway as their son Roger’s middle name, an indication of their tie to family tradition, and Antoinette wrote an eighty-four stanza poem, “The Rhyme of the Old Pierce Tree,” that traced each Pierce generation. The poem emphasizes the importance of the family connection and continuity and captures intimate details of the Pierces’ history: a little girl licking the cookie bowl, the ticking of Colonel Samuel’s clock, the foxglove and larkspur growing in Aunt Melissa’s garden. Antoinette, who was born in 1863, even remembered the “old barn and the hay-mow/ Where she jumped from the beams,/ Walked rickety-fences,/ and climbed on the teams.” These recollections reinforce the transitional nature of the Pierces’ experience in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, the overlap of traditional agricultural life with modern property development and new careers, and the nostalgia for rural life that continued even after the balance had permanently shifted.
In addition to preserving family memories, Antoinette wanted to preserve the family homestead and to share its history with others. In 1929, as regent of the Old Blake House Chapter of the D.A.R., Antoinette led a tour of the Pierce House, with chapter members attired in colonial dress. The D.A.R. chapter historian noted that, although the house had been updated to meet more current heating and plumbing standards, it “still retained much of its old time charm and atmosphere.” Antoinette was well aware of the house’s status as a Dorchester landmark, a tangible reminder of the town’s colonial past in a rapidly changing present. Antoinette also returned to her ancestral home to observe milestones in her own life. In 1933, although they had moved to Milton, Antoinette and George Frederick feted their fiftieth wedding anniversary at the Pierce House, where her son was then living, and the event was a celebration of the house, its history, and the family’s history as well as the couple’s own marriage.
In her will Antoinette formalized her vision of the Pierce House’s historic as well as family importance. George Frederick Pierce had died in 1934, and Antoinette, like previous generations of Pierces, divided her property among her sons at her own death in 1937. She left her house in Milton and the cottage in East Harwich to her unmarried son, Frederick William, and after making specific bequests of prized furniture to each son, she distributed her remaining personal estate, which included significant savings, among them. However, Antoinette was determined to save the Old House as family property, specifying that Roger and his family remain in the house. To that end she bequeathed to Roger “the land and buildings located at 24 Oakton Avenue. . . , a property which has been owned and occupied by members of my family for about eight generations past, together with all articles of furniture, ornamentation, and personal property,” items which included such treasured possessions as John Pierce’s shaving mirror and the oak chest and piece of “Old Bread” said to have come from England on the “Mary and John.” Antoinette’s poem had conveyed her pleasure in the continuity of generations in the house, with her images of children asleep in the old bedroom, the family antiques carefully placed where she recalled them from her childhood, and the family stories passed to a new generation. Now her will formally passed the weight of family responsibility to Roger and, looking into the future, to his children. If any of them proved unwilling or unable to stay in the house, Antoinette desired that it be given “to some museum or historical society which will keep it up…” and also display the family’s prized antiques and heirlooms. Having witnessed threats to other historic houses, such as Dorchester’s Blake House, and the demolition of other houses in her neighborhood, including Edward Pierce’s house and Lewis Francis’s and George Francis’s former family home at 31 Oakton Avenue, which was replaced by a school in 1926, Antoinette clearly sought to avoid a similar fate for her beloved Pierce House.
1937-1968: Roger Grenway Pierce and Marjorie Curtis Pierce
Anne Grenway Pierce Shaughnessey and Robert Shaughnessey
In the twentieth century, as before, the Pierce House was home to multiple generations of family members. Although Antoinette Pierce, who owned the house between 1905 and 1937, lived elsewhere during her adult life, her eldest son, Roger Grenway Pierce, and his family took up residence in the Pierce House in 1929. He inherited the house when his mother died. Forty-one years old when he moved into the “Old House,” Roger raised his own family there and remained there the rest of his life. In the years following World War II his two children, Curt and Anne, married and settled into their own houses, but when Roger suffered a heart attack in 1950, his daughter, Anne Pierce Shaughnessey, and her husband Robert returned to Anne’s childhood home to care for him. With the births of the Shaughnessey children, the Pierce House once again sheltered a three-generation household.
Antoinette’s decision to move Roger and his family into her house seems to have been determined by a number of factors. “Nettie,” as Antoinette was called, was an energetic and strong-minded woman, keenly interested in the house and its history. After her father, William Augustus Pierce, died in 1905, she rented the house to a series of tenants, but concern for the building’s physical condition may eventually have led her to decide that a family member would be more responsible about upkeep and more respectful of family tradition. At first Roger Pierce also paid his mother rent, $40 per month, but by the early 1930s he had assumed the payments on a mortgage his parents had taken out on the property in 1929 to finance some overdue repairs and renovations. As part of his arrangement, with Antoinette, Roger and his wife, Marjorie Curtis Pierce, supervised this construction work soon after they moved in. Marjorie knew a carpenter, Charles Rogers, from her hometown in Maine, and Rogers lived with the family for a time and did the restorative carpentry and painting that, in Anne Shaughnessey’s words, “brought the ‘Old House’ to life.” Their pride in their ancestral home, its traditions, and its heirlooms inspired the family to hire noted Boston photographer Leon Abdalian to take a series of interior and exterior photographs of the Pierce House when the work was finished in the spring of 1930.
Although he had never before lived in the Pierce House, Roger Pierce had grown up nearby, and his maternal grandparents, Antoinette and William Augustus Pierce, resided in the house during his childhood. Roger attended Mechanic Arts High School and Dartmouth College, from which he graduated in 1910. During the pre-war years Roger’s brothers, who all became successful businessmen, were involved with the leather business, and through them Roger at some point became a leather buyer for Sears Roebuck. After the United States entered World War I in 1917, Roger enlisted in the United States Naval Reserve Force, serving as an ensign. In spring 1918 he was posted to San Francisco and then assigned to the USS Edgecomb, stationed in Tacoma, Washington. The Armistice signed in November 1918 effectively ended the war, and by the next February Roger was re-assigned to shore duty on the east coast, first in Norfolk, Virginia, and then New York City. He was discharged in April 1919, although he remained in the inactive naval reserves, and he returned home to Dorchester.
Roger married while in the Navy. While working for Sears Roebuck he had made frequent trips to Maine to purchase leather and to check on shoe production, and on visits to a mill in Sanford, Maine, Roger met Marjorie Curtis, a native of Richmond, Maine, whose family also had roots in colonial Dorchester. An honor student at Nasson College, in Springvale, Marjorie boarded at a local home since the college had no dormitories, and Roger also stayed there when he was on the road. The couple was married in Marjorie’s family church in Richmond on February 26, 1919, after Marjorie’s graduation, and toward the end of Roger’s active military service. After his discharge in April, Roger and Marjorie lived in Boston and then moved to Chicago for a brief period; by early 1921 they had returned to Boston, and Roger worked as a clerk and salesman, including another position with Sears. Roger and Marjorie’s first child, Roger Curtis, known as Curt, was born in 1922, and their daughter, Anne Grenway Pierce, followed two years later in 1924.
Like so many other Americans, the Pierces were adversely affected by the economic swings that led to the Great Depression, and at some point Roger may have lost his job. For a period in the 1920s he and Marjorie moved to Richmond, Maine to work with Marjorie’s parents in their family bakery and sweet shop. While Curt went with them, Anne remained behind in Dorchester with her Pierce grandparents. By 1928, however, Roger had a job in Boston as an insurance adjuster, and he, Marjorie, and Curt joined Anne and his parents on Adams Street. The decision to rent the Pierce House to Roger a year later may have been designed to solve Roger’s housing needs as well as to provide better maintenance for the house; while they would continue to benefit from family assistance, the young family could also experience greater privacy and independence after periods of living with parents and in-laws.
During the 1930s Roger continued as a broker and later as a claims adjuster for Gordon Boyd, an insurance company in Boston. Although Roger faithfully worked for the insurance firm for many years, his daughter recalled that his real loves were his avocations—the water, his garden, and family history. Roger loved to sail and navigate, and he logged sailboat races for many years. In 1939 he joined the United States Power Squadrons, a community-based educational organization that offers boating safety courses at various levels. After completing the entrance exam in coastwise navigation and pilot rules, Roger went on to qualify for further positions as advanced pilot and navigator in the 1940s. During World War II he served as a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary Temporary Reserve Unit, along with other members of Flotilla 152 of the South Boston Yacht Club. Roger Pierce also created a landscape around his home that was admired by the neighbors and by the teachers at the Kenny School across the street. He had a grape arbor and made wine—which he served only to “choice visitors”—from the grapes, and he distilled liquors from the fruits of his big Bartlett pear tree and two sickle pear trees. A lilac hedge defined one border of the property, and Roger planted a large rose garden; he also grew various perennials and annuals, including iris, money plants and pansies around the garage, and jonquils and geraniums in the front. In the mornings, dressed for work, Roger would putter in the garden, and he sometimes cut flowers for teachers on their way into the Kenny School. After he retired from his position at Gordon Boyd in 1961, Roger continued to devote himself to his garden.
Roger’s other continuing interest was the family home and his family’s history, and, according to his daughter, he was more keenly aware than his brothers of the importance of preserving this past. When his parents moved from Adams Street to their smaller house in Milton, they gave some furniture and other family possessions to Roger, and he later obtained the family papers that Antoinette and her cousin George Francis Pierce had collected.
The neighborhood that the young Pierce family moved into in 1929 was quite different from the one William Augustus had lived in at the turn of the century. In 1900, although the Pierce farmland had been subdivided and many new houses built, Neponset was still on the urban periphery. By the 1930s, however, the streetscape had changed dramatically. The land behind the new Thomas Kenny School had been subdivided into several blocks of densely situated homes. New roads had been cut parallel to Plain Street, including Flavia, Rosaria, and Glide Streets, and each held a single or two-family house. The lot just to the east of the Pierce House remained vacant, and a few other empty lots served as play spaces for the Pierce children in the 1930s, but these lots were increasingly rare. The Neponset, or Adams Village neighborhood, as it was now called, had begun to experience a building boom in the 1910s and 1920s as better transportation and improved services made the area a “streetcar suburb.” City water had arrived in 1894; by 1918 there were streetcar lines along Neponset Avenue, Adams Street, and Dorchester Avenue, and by 1930 rapid transit lines ran to the new Fields Corner station, where connecting trolleys and buses transferred passengers to all parts of lower Dorchester.
However, the housing built in this neighborhood distinguished it from some other parts of Dorchester. Although the impact of increased population and greater density was similar, single-family homes and duplexes proliferated, rather than the three-deckers of Meetinghouse Hill, Upham’s Corner, and Wellington Hill. The construction of the Kenny School in 1926 met the needs of a growing neighborhood, but the new houses and the school dramatically changed the view from the Pierce House, which for centuries had had an unimpeded view of the water. Rather than the hilltop center of an extensive farm, the house was now just one of many small buildings in a dense suburban neighborhood.
By the 1930s the population of the neighborhood had also changed; Adams Village had become a predominantly Irish community. Fairly evenly divided between renters and home owners, many of the newer residents were municipal employees, who could maintain a steady income even through the Depression years, and many lived in two-generation households. The relationship between the Pierces and these neighbors is complex. While Anne characterized her mother as broad-minded and respectful of others, Anne also realizes in retrospect that her mother encouraged her to spend time with other Protestant girls, like her best friend Marion. Still, Anne had Catholic friends as well, like her “pal” Fran, who intended to be a nun but ended up with nine children and thirty-two grandchildren. Anne recalls that while she preferred to have a few close friends, her brother Curt, who loved sports, was always part of a large Irish-American “gang.” They played whatever sport was in season, often on the school grounds across the street, and Marjorie and Roger welcomed them into their home.
Robert Shaughnessey, who lived around the corner on Glide Street, was one of Curt’s many friends. The son and grandson of firefighters, Bob also lost his mother, a nurse and supervisor at the Catholic Carney Hospital in South Boston, at an early age. Anne had known Bob since childhood, but they reconnected after high school, and their relationship changed. Anne attended Nasson College in Maine, her mother’s alma mater, for one year, and then trained to be a nurse at Presbyterian Hospital in New Jersey. Bob was in the Navy and wrote Anne regularly, and he also visited her at nursing school when he had leave. Sometime after his discharge from the Navy, they became engaged. Ann’s minister at the Second Church, Dr. Richards, performed the ceremony in her home, and, like many other generations of Pierces before her, Anne and Robert were married in June of 1948 in the middle parlor of the Pierce House.
After their marriage Anne and Robert Shaughnessey moved to Melrose, where Anne was a head nurse at Melrose Hospital. Robert had been a Boston firefighter since 1947, but they lived in Melrose because it was closer to Anne’s job. Curt Shaughnessey also was married after World War II, to Mary Tansey, whose family owned a successful lumber business. He went to work for their firm, Holt and Bugbee, and spent time in the northwest to learn about forestry and lumbering before returning to the company offices in Boston and later Tewksbury. Curt eventually became the company president. By the late 1940s Roger Pierce, who had not remarried, was living alone in the Pierce House, but when he suffered a heart attack early in 1950, Anne and Robert Shaughnessey moved into the house so that Anne could care for him.
The move was also well timed for other reasons. As a Boston firefighter Bob was expected to live within the city limits, and he was glad to return. In addition, Anne was pregnant with their first child, and Bob, who had strong memories of coming home to an empty house as a boy, did not want Anne to work after their children were born. As in generations past, combining the two households eased the economic pressure on the young family and provided care for the older generation.
Anne and Bob Shaughnessey’s son Bobby was born shortly after their move, followed by twin daughters Jean and Joan in 1956, and the three generations continued to live in the house together until Roger’s death in 1968. Bob and Anne added some modern improvements, such as a new washing machine and a second bathroom, but they shared the family sense of history and place and made no substantial alterations. Their children enjoyed the hiding places of an old house and played in the lean-to and attic and crawl spaces of the old chimneys and closets. Roger Pierce had his own room, the east room, and also an attic “hide-away,” an office and workshop that served as a haven from the noisy family of three young children. He valued his independence, and Anne made sure the children respected his privacy, but the children, especially the quiet Joan, had a special relationship with their “Bumpa.”
The surrounding neighborhood remained predominantly Irish Catholic, as it still is today. Bob’s family, his father Kerin and other Shaughnessey aunts, uncles, and cousins, continued to live around the corner on Glide Street, and the families celebrated holidays together and remained in contact. Anne Shaughnessey recalls the neighborhood as a friendly environment, but, following her mother’s advice, she kept some distance. Although she knew her neighbors and her children’s friends, for example, Anne relates that the neighborhood women did not often visit in each other’s homes. The children went to the Kenny School, as had Anne, and they also had friends who attended the local parochial schools. Anne remained a member of Second Church, where her children were baptized and attended Sunday school.
In 1967 the aging Roger Pierce deeded his property to Anne and Curt, and when Roger died in 1968 the family chose to accede to the terms of Antoinette’s will. They sold the Pierce House, along with some of the family’s furniture, antiques, and memorabilia, to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, now Historic New England. The Shaughnessey family moved to Milton, where Anne’s grandparents and other Pierce relatives had lived. The Shaughnesseys lived in Milton until Bob’s retirement from the fire department in 1981. They then moved to Harwich on Cape Cod, building a new year-round house that replaced Anne’s grandparents’ summer cottage. Bob enjoyed retirement and spent much of his time on the golf course until his death in 1997. Combining community volunteer work with her previous professional interests, Anne worked for the Cape Cod Hospital Auxiliary and its Governor’s Board, which, in addition to a general consulting role, raises over a million dollars a year for such projects as modern oncology equipment.
In 2004 Anne moved to Florida to live with her daughter Jean, but she maintains her strong connection to her Pierce family roots. Like her father, her grandmother, and her great uncle George Francis, Anne has always taken pride in the Pierce House and its history and has a keen interest in the story of her family and the story of their community. Like her father, she believed that eleven generations of the Pierces, including her children, had lived in the house, starting with Robert and Anne Grenway Pierce, and it was important to her that the property be preserved. By 1968 she saw ownership by Historic New England as the best means of doing so, especially since her brother was less interested in the house and its history and the interests and needs of her own nuclear family seemed to be drawing her away from the area. She had become a Shaughnessey, as she put it. To Anne it seemed appropriate that “Ann Grenway Pierce was the first woman to live in the house. And Anne Grenway Pierce Shaughnessey was the last.”