Friday, November 6, 2009

The Mystery of Crooked Sally

Tyringham, Massachusetts: Heaven for painters and poets.
For farmers, not so much.

Western Massachusetts has never been a terribly practical place to live.  Rocky soil, bad weather, and isolation from large population centers make it inhospitable for farming, and in the days before ours, when "sustainable and local" weren't advertising hooks, but necessities of life, bad farmland could mean starvation.  

In the century following the establishment of Plimouth Plantation, Berkshire County drew many young families, attracted by the prospect of seemingly limitless land.  Few of them lasted for more than a generation, their hopes dashed by the rocks and the cold and the promise of better times in New York or the vast Western Reserve.  Towns and villages, many predating the Declaration of Independence, are sprinkled across the Berkshires, tiny and ancient, like so many municipal bonsai trees. Housatonic and Lenox and Adams and Stockbridge: lovely, but arrested, clipped and miniature.  Few of these places are much bigger than when they were incorporated, two centuries ago.

The Berkshires have always been more hospitable for artists than farmers.  Nathaniel Hawthorne lived here, and Herman Melville.  Edith Wharton's estate, The Mount, is one of the main tourist attractions in Lenox.  Pittsfield, the closest thing to a metropolis in the region, is home to an ancient baseball stadium, Waconah Park, and claims to be the true home of the national pastime, dismissing the folks in Cooperstown as upstarts and usurpers.  Summer in the Berkshires means vacationing accountants and middle aged college professors dressed in old timey uniforms, playing Base-Ball, by the 1858 Massachusetts rules. It also means Volvo loads of Bostonians trekking out to Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony, to eat picnic suppers and listen to the lovely music.  It's a Norman Rockwell Museum, weekend antiquing trip kind of place, and has been for decades.

When Lawrence Southcotte Pearce moved his family from East Greenwich, Rhode Island to Tyringham, Massachusetts, he wasn't searching for his muse.  He was undoubtedly drawn by the twin prospects of ready farmland and a measure of separation from the booming population of post-Revoluntionary War coastal towns.  I have not pinned down a precise date for the move, but based on his children's birth records, it happened after 1786.

Pearce and his wife Leticia Austin had at least six children: Langworthy; John; Mary; Elizabeth; Isaac; and Sarah.  Since most legal records, including census lists, didn't start listing women by name until the middle of the nineteenth century, and since women's surnames generally change after marriage, it's a lot easier to track the Pearce family diaspora through the men.  The records are generally sketchy, but this is what they show:

-- Lawrence left Tyringham sometime after 1810.  He died in the Town of Livingston, New York, on 12 August 1832, at the age of 87. 

--Langworthy married a woman named Sabrina in 1787.  They had ten children together, and both died, apparently of disease, in Niagara, New York, in 1831.

-- John M. Pearce married Sarah Sweet in Rhode Island, about 1793.  Thus far, I find no record of their children.  John died in Kalamazoo County, Michigan, in 1858. 

--Isaac appears to have married Thankful Steadman in Berkshire County, sometime around 1804, then moved to Bennington, Wyoming County, New York, where he died in 1868.  He and Thankful had at least eight children.

Were poor soil and bad weather the only factors driving all of these people away from Berkshire County?  Does the story of Sally Pearce offer insight?

Sarah "Sally" Pearce was the youngest of Lawrence and Leticia's children.  She was born in 1786, when her mother was forty-one years old.  In 1805, at age nineteen, she delivered her first son, Benjamin Stanton Pearce.  The Tyringham birth records list Sarah Pearce as Benjamin's mother; his father is listed as "unknown."  The Pearce's Tyringham is only a few generations removed from Puritan times; the Puritan experience was fresh in Hawthorne's mind in 1850, when, while living in the Berkshires, he penned The Scarlet Letter.  Did shame over Sarah's out of wedlock pregnancy prompt the family's move?

Who was Sarah "Sally" Pearce?  Benjamin was not her only bastard son.  She gave birth to another out of wedlock child, Parvis C. Pearce, on 23 May 1817, in Geneseo, New York.  Another fatherless son, William, had been born earlier, in Rhode Island.  His death certificate, issued in Climax Township, Kalamazoo County, Michigan, indicates he died on 7 August 1875, aged 82 years, 29 days.  This puts his birthdate at 9 July, 1793.  If this is accurate, his mother would have been seven at his birth, clearly an impossibility.  The record also indicates that William was mentally handicapped, an "idiot since birth."  

Autobiographical sketches of Parvis and Benjamin only raise more questions.  Benjamin achieved some measure of success in farming, owning a large portion of land in Wheatfield, New York.  He appears to have had nothing to do with his mother after about 1815, and for a time appears to have lived with another family who left western Massachusetts, the Millimans.  His wife, Vashti, was the daughter of Abriam Milliman and the granddaughter of Abram Milliman, the men who seem to have been Benjamin's benefactors.

According to his biographer, Parvis and his mother moved from Geneseo to Niagara in 1830, where twelve years later he married Eliza Kelly.  Looking for "rich and cheap" farm land, he moved to Climax, Michigan, and after some years of struggle (and ten children) he managed to acquire more than three hundred acres in farmland:

There is something uniquely American about this story, two children whose arrival was met with societal disapproval managing to overcome all obstacles and establish themselves as genuine success stories.

That doesn't answer my question: who was Sarah "Sally" Pearce?

She was a known figure in the little town of Tyringham.  Records of the time refer to her as "Crooked Sally", owing to some sort of physical deformity.  She was a single mother in an age a century and a half before that phrase was coined.  She appears to have borne some sort of handicap, in an age where terms like "lunatic" and "idiot" were part of official parlance.  The fact that her nickname is recorded on town records indicates that she was known to town officials.  Did she have run-ins with the law?  Where were her parents?  Was she rebellious, or did they abandon her?  Were her sons' fathers  her lovers, her clients, or her abusers?

Sarah Sally Pearce is my great-great-great grandmother.  I am here because of what happened to her, in that sleepy little town in Berkshires.  Did she hate what had happened, despise the town and resent the baby?  Or was she not aware enough to even understand what was happening?  

I have constructed a reality for her, isolated, alone, victimized.  I've even written a song lyric about her, which I may post someday.  Is any of it anything close to reality, or is it all just dinosaur skin, acceptable because it's plausible?

One of the truly beautiful promises of Mormon theology is that one day, we will know things "as they really are."  In that Great and Final Day, when the lines of folks wanting to talk to Lincoln and Caesar and Amelia Earhart are stretching as far as the eye can see, I'll be searching for Sarah "Sally" Pearce, learning her story.


  1. I must confess: I'd be more curious to meet and talk with her than Amelia Earhart. At least Sally accomplished more in her life than getting lost. Good story, Cort.

  2. It doesn't seem that you've been to this blog lately but I see that you have another on Blogspot that is current, so I hope you get this comment.

    I'm writing because I've been trying out a few different theories about my ancestors and Sarah Pearce/Pierce figures into some of them. Specifically, my G3 grandfather has no known parents. Due to 23andMe as well as Ancestry DNA, it seems that I'm related to folks who are related to Sarah. Is it through her? I don't know.
    Lately, I've been wondering about a woman (Anne Beckwith) who would have been born about the same time as Sarah's son Benjamin and born nearby in Dalton Mass.

    I'd been wondering if,perhaps, Benjamin might be the father of my G3 grandfather.

    The story you have is intriguing and suggests that he may not be. I do have a question but first thought I would send some information that I found in a facsimile of a town record from Tyringham that shows Langworthy and Sabrina's family, perhaps in its entirety.

    Patience Elizabeth Pearce (21 Jan 1787-?) or (1788) b in RI
    Mary Pearce (6 Aug 1790-?) b in RI
    Sarah Pearce (31 Dec 1791-2 Mar 1856) b in RI
    Lawrence Southcut b. 1793
    Lettice (11 Feb 1795-2 Mar 1858) or (1796) b in MA
    John b. 1797
    John Manchester b. 1799
    Langworthy Jr b. 1801
    Isaac b. 1803
    James b. 1805
    Levi Ackley b. 1808

    My question, if you might be able to answer it is based on your mention of a William born to Sarah early on. My G3-grandfather is William R Beckwith and I wonder if this William could make sense as a father.

    Do you happen to have any more information about him? Could you please point me to any resources you may have used?

    Thanks in any case,

    Richard Beckwith

  3. Well, I don't suppose anyone is reading or replying to comments here but...

    I've been doing a bit more digging in the past six months (since the previous comment) and now suspect that my William R, born in 1823, may be the son born out of wedlock of a woman named Anne Pearce, who some documents say is from Rhode Island, the same state as Sally. I haven't been able to find Anne in the Pearce records yet and wonder if you might know anything of her.

    Thanks in any case,