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Home > Publications > Historic New England Magazine > Summer 2004 > Living with the Pierce Family

Living with the Pierce Family


ABOVE LEFT  SPNEA's Pierce House. 1683. Dorchester, Massachusetts.
ABOVE RIGHT  Col. Samuel Pierce's journal juxtaposes notations on daily activities with comments about extraordinary events.

When Colonel Samuel Pierce (1738-1815) of Dorchester, Massachusetts, noted in his journal on August 19, 1797, "a clear day it's a rarity," he was expressing his frustration at a long spell of bad summer weather that had a deep impact on his economic welfare as well as his mood. On July 14, there had been "a terible storm of Hail which tore the corn garden to pieces and Brok a Vast deal of Glass in the windows," and, in addition, the rain had continued for weeks, delaying his seasonal mowing. Samuel Pierce's journal, along with hundreds of other documents recently acquired from the Pierce family, has had a deep impact on SPNEA's preservation and interpretation of the Pierce House and made it possible to develop innovative new programs for children and adults.

The Pierce family papers contain an extraordinary collection of material that breathes life into the daily world of this middling family-from early land records of the seventeenth century to the account book in which the last owner recorded his daily expenses in the 1920s and 1930s. The earliest documents reveal the process by which the family accumulated land in Dorchester. Eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century diaries, account books, and correspondence demonstrate both continuity and change. Taken together, this collection paints a detailed picture of middle-class life in Dorchester over the centuries.

ABOVE Sarah Moseley Pierce's memorandum book describes an early nineteenth-century young woman's life. This excerpt notes her wedding to Lewis Pierce on March 26, 1809.

Visitors to the newly refurbished Pierce House see a three-hundred-year-old building that was lived in by ten generations of the Pierce family. Built in 1683, the house had two major additions, one built around 1712 and the other in 1765. The exterior of the house (which had taken on much of its current appearance by 1765) has been restored to circa 1930, when the last owners, Roger Pierce and his family, completed repair and landscaping work. Inside, the east parlor of the house reflects the period when Colonel Samuel Pierce, the farmer and Revolutionary War militia leader who built the 1765 section of the house, lived there with his wife and children.

The Pierces were active participants in and commentators on the world around them. Letters, orders, commissions, and tax records show how family members served their community and their country as public servants, elected officials, and military officers in wars-including the French and Indian War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. But the records are most complete for the era of the American Revolution, when Colonel Samuel Pierce lived in the house with his wife Elizabeth Howe Pierce (1744-1797), and their six surviving children.

ABOVE LEFT East parlor, Pierce House.
ABOVE RIGHT Col. Pierce built the beaufait in the middle parlor to display the family's best goods.

As a child, Samuel Pierce began to record his observations on the world around him by annotating almanacs. As a teenager, he practiced his writing and mathematical skills in his lesson book. In 1761, he began to keep both a daily journal and a detailed account book. For the next forty years Pierce would document his work and his world in writings that open a window into the eighteenth century and reveal much about Pierce's character, family, home, and the rhythms of daily life in a period of great turmoil. Pierce also preserved dozens of broadsides, orders, and letters relating to the war including letters to his wife and a military order written by Paul Revere-papers that bring the operations, costs, and pathos of the war alive in vivid detail.

Pierce worked primarily as a farmer, but he was constantly trying to "improve" his farm and his income through a variety of entrepreneurial pursuits. He wove a seining net and stretched it across the river to catch thousands of shad; he expanded his apple orchards to increase cider production; and he sold both products in the burgeoning local market. An early supporter of the revolutionary cause, Pierce resigned his commission in the King's militia to join the newly organized Massachusetts militia. On April 19, 1775, he reported "a terible battle at Lexinton & Concord between our People and the soldiers which marcht out of Boston. The soldiers fird on our people..." In March 1776, he proudly described how "380 teems and about 5000 men" built two forts on Dorchester Heights on the same night, "the most work Don that Ever was Don in one Night in New england."

ABOVE LEFT Col. Pierce expresses his patriot sympathies in his journal entry for April 19, 1775.
ABOVE RIGHT Col. Pierce's account book reveals his close economic relationship with his brother, Edward.
BELOW Samuel Pierce's lesson books. The ship doodles reflect the sea's importance in New England life.

The papers have also helped SPNEA learn about the house. Pierce's journal records how he helped his brother Edward, a house carpenter, and other neighbors construct their homes. He employed these building skills throughout his life, exchanging his labor for other goods and services, and also put them to work in the Pierce House. In the 1760s, he began to enlarge the family home. By the time Samuel Pierce married in 1765, his elderly parents had their own living space-a new wing with two rooms, a cooking fireplace, and a separate stair. Pierce was concerned enough about style to comment that the clock his father bought in 1764 was "very mody" [modish] and he continued to update the older sections of the house (and record his work) after his parents died and his sisters left home. Pierce's remodeling projects, like his life, reflected a careful balance between embracing change and valuing the past; he added fashionable woodwork, but he also retained seventeenth-century details.

Later generations of Pierces also kept journals and account books, and they were careful to preserve them along with correspondence, other records, photographs, and ephemera. Some of these documents, including an early nineteenth-century "memorandum book" kept by Colonel Pierce's daughter-in-law, Sarah Moseley Pierce, and a late nineteenth-century account book of one of his grandsons, William Augustus Pierce, who worked as a mason, provide particularly interesting perspectives on various aspects of Dorchester life. As SPNEA continues to work on programming for the Pierce House, this collection will make it possible to personalize the major events of American history by linking them to the stories told by this Dorchester family.

-Susan Porter
Research Manager

Living with the Pierce Family