By Christine Sampson
William H. Larson’s trip to Sag Harbor in May was less like a vacation and more like a pilgrimage to an ancestral land, one that allowed him to recall childhood visits to his grandparents’ Noyac home near Pierson Pond surrounded by the scent of honeysuckle and the sound of chirping quail.
It’s that surname so familiar here — Pierson — that holds special meaning for Mr. Larson, who along with his wife, Patricia Larson, has spent about 6,000 hours over the last 11 years tracing his genealogical roots back to Sag Harbor and beyond as a descendent of a long line of Piersons.
The Larsons, who live in Salt Springs, Florida, have traveled not just to Sag Harbor but to England and other places to conduct research into what they have fondly dubbed the “Pierson Dynasty,” which they say is populated not just with present-day residents of Sag Harbor but also with notable figures over the course of history.
Mr. Larson, the grandson of Horace Nathan Pierson and Charlotte E. Condit, counts himself among the 16th generation of Piersons. Yes, that’s right — he says he and his wife have traced the family’s lineage back 16 generations to England under the rule of King Edward I.
“I can only say I have been blessed to have the opportunity to share time and place in my life to research this incredible story, which grows each time I start another chapter in the lives and faces of so many who started with so little and ended with so much,” Mr. Larson wrote in a letter to The Sag Harbor Express. “I have experienced emotions of joy, exhilaration and sadness for the faces I’ve seen and writings I’ve read. I have only touched the tip of this historic family.”
The goal, he says, goes beyond a simple fascination with his roots. He is hoping to gather his extended present-day, long-lost East End relatives for a family reunion in Sag Harbor in 2018.
“We have a lot of ground to cover between now and then,” he said.
But it’s safe to say Mr. Larson, a 35-year veteran of the machine tool industry and retired substitute teacher, and his wife, a volunteer naturalist and retired scientist and computer programmer, have already covered a lot of ground.
They have identified the first Pierson to arrive on the South Fork: Colonel Henry Pierson (1615-1680), who was eventually elected for several years to the Colonial Assembly, settled a homestead in Southampton at the time of its settlement in 1640. At one point, Col. Pierson was accused of “holding pirates’ treasure,” according to an account published in 1926 in the East Hampton Town Trustees’ Journal. He handed over the bounty and was later pardoned.
Mr. Larson said his grandfather, Horace Pierson (1869-1948), was a well-respected constable in Sag Harbor for many years.
“He actually had a sidearm, but he never wore it,” Mr. Larsen said. “There were stories of him picking up drunks and taking them home rather than throwing them in jail.”
Before that, Mr. Larson’s great-grandfather, Samuel Collins Pierson (1845-1921), was a noted hat maker in Orange, New Jersey, before retiring and moving back to the South Fork.
A barrage of Piersons descended from different ancestors arrived between 1634 and 1651, settling up and down the colonies from Massachusetts to Virginia. The research, Mr. Larson said, shows Pierson lineage goes back all the way to Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, in the 16th century; to Lord William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, in the 15th century; and even earlier.
“There are pirates, lawmakers, peacemakers. There are queens and kings,” he said.
During their trip to Sag Harbor in May, Mr. Larson and his older sister, Kathleen Hanna, met with Barbara Schwartz, a trustee of the Sag Harbor Historical Society, to which he donated an abridged version of his volumes of research into the history of the Piersons. Ms. Schwartz called it “great information” and “a good resource for the Pierson family.”
“He had a lot of research and it’s well documented,” Ms. Schwartz said Wednesday. “That’s the important thing. I generally don’t see something that well organized.”
Along the way, the Larsons have been dependent not just on digital resources, but have also relied heavily upon primary sources such as letters, photographs, military discharge papers, deeds, newspaper obituaries and more.
One of those sources is the Pierson family Bible, an 1843 Kimber and Sharpless edition printed in Philadelphia, in which family members recorded several generations’ births and marriages.
“In genealogy research, any references that provide corroboration are significant,” Mr. Larson said.
Ms. Hanna is the current keeper of the family Bible.
“It’s contagious when they find these things. Even his daughter is getting in on it,” she said, adding that her side of the family is “absolutely grateful” for the research.
Their findings may very well lead them to investigate other extended family lines, Mr. Larson said, particularly if they can reach long-lost relatives for a reunion. That may include a look into another surname familiar here: Jermain, which is tied to the Pierson line through Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, the well-known Sag Harbor philanthropist who donated the money to build Pierson Middle-High School, among other local landmarks. Completed in 1908, the school was named for Reverend Abraham Pierson Jr., who was the son of Abraham Pierson, who was either the brother or cousin of Henry Pierson. Reverend Pierson was the first rector of Yale University from 1701 to 1707 and an ancestor of Mrs. Sage, who was the granddaughter of Margaret Pierson and Major John Jermain.
“Sag Harbor is full of stories of the Piersons and how they appreciated and respected their neighbors,” Mr. Larson said. “Where can you go and find that? All over the country there are Piersons, but we want to make sure everybody here in Sag Harbor knows. You can look at your DNA and these stories, and you can see yourself in there.”
Local descendants of the Pierson family who are interested in attending an extended family reunion in Sag Harbor in the spring of 2018 are invited to reach out to William Larson. Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.