John Pierce: International Man of Mystery

Heather Carlquist Walser
A modified early 19th century cartoon of a sailor standing on a dirt road. He has a question mark over his face and his speech bubbles says

Detail of “An Enquiry after Stretchit in Gloucestershire, or the Sailor’s Reply,” ca. 1800–1810, modified by the editor. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

When I started writing the piece that became my JER article, “Mourning a Murder: The Death of John Pierce, Local Politics, and British–American Relations,” I had a very different—and what I now consider idealistic—conception of what the end product would look like. As a young graduate student with fairly limited experience with in-depth primary research, I imagined an article that not only redefined our understandings of local politics, international relations, and federalism, but one that made John Pierce a household (or at least a classroom!) name once again and captured the life of Pierce, the young American sailor, not just Pierce, the political symbol. I fancied that, because I cared about John Pierce as an individual, with just a little bit of sleuthing I would be able to uncover the details of his life, tell a beautiful and powerful story, and give him, and his descendants, the closure they deserved. Did I mention I had lofty goals for the article? Instead, I learned that as historians we often end up telling stories about people we do not really know anything about.

I spent much longer than I should have searching for John Pierce in New York City in the early 1800s. In fact, when I began writing this piece for Panorama, I returned to the same rabbit holes I had been down so many years earlier, hoping that some newly digitized source base or over-eager genealogist had uncovered my John Pierce and this companion piece could be the perfect epilogue. Sadly (but with a tiny sigh of relief that my research skills were not so underdeveloped as an early graduate student that I had missed something obvious), John Pierce remains an enigma. I know he was on the sloop owned by his brother, Jesse Pierce, on April 25, 1806, where an errant(-ish) British cannonball killed him. I know the city organized a large public funeral for him, after which he was interred, with the “assent” of unnamed relatives, in St. Paul’s Churchyard on Monday, May 5, 1806.[1] But that is all I know for certain about John Pierce. There is a chance he lived at No. 55 Mulberry Street and he might have been married on April 25, 1805, at the same St. Paul’s where he would be buried a year later, but neither of those things can be confirmed and, in any event, they offer us little more information about Pierce’s life.[2] Was he a sailor by profession or just helping his brother out? Was he married? Did he have children? Was he a Federalist or Democratic-Republican or not engaged in politics at all? Who was John Pierce?

Despite my best intentions, my article in the JER is not a story about John Pierce. Nor does it redefine early American politics and diplomacy or understandings of federalism—though it does offer useful insight for both of those topics. As much as it pains me to say that Pierce the political symbol mattered more to my essay than Pierce the man did, that is often the reality of historical research. So often the individuals that we build our stories around function as windows into the worlds we study and we have to try and balance their humanity alongside the arguments we make. As historians of the state continue to follow Andy Shankman’s call for a “social history of federalism” or Gautham Rao’s appeal to examine the “perspective of those persons who experience federal authority,” we will find ourselves telling more stories about people that we really do not know beyond what others have said about them.[3] Continuing to tell their stories, even if we cannot know much more about them than the circumstances of their death, in a way that preserves their humanity is fundamental to writing and teaching histories of the state.

Perhaps the most apt example of the tension between the piece I envisioned and the article I actually wrote is found, or more accurately, lost, in St. Paul’s Churchyard. While I know the leaders of New York City interred Pierce at St. Paul’s, I do not know where his grave actually is in the cemetery. Maybe a grave marker was never made, or the location never recorded, or just as likely, perhaps Pierce’s remains were removed at a later date when the memory of him and his political symbolism faded; St. Paul’s is a small cemetery, and they certainly could have used the space. Even in the one place I thought for sure I would find John Pierce—his final resting place—he is nowhere to be found.


[1] [title?] Daily Advertiser (New York), Apr. 28, 1806.

[2] I am fairly certain this source is in fact my John Pierce, but unless in some cruel irony he died on his first anniversary, I wonder if this source might be recorded incorrectly. Maybe Mary Tingley was not John Pierce’s bride on April 25, 1805, in Trinity Church Parish (of which St. Paul’s is part of), but instead, she was the unnamed relative that assented to his burial at St. Paul’s on April 25, 1806. Or maybe, and perhaps just as likely, another John Pierce married Mary Tingley at St. Paul’s exactly a year before a man with his same name would be killed and buried at the same church.

[3] Andrew Shankman, “Toward a Social History of Federalism: The State and Capitalism To and From the American Revolution,” Journal of the Early Republic 37 (Winter 2017), 615–53; Gautham Rao, “The New Historiography of the Early Federal Government: Institutions, Contexts, and the Imperial State,” William and Mary Quarterly 77 (Jan. 2020), 97–128.

8 March 2023

About the Author

Heather Carlquist Walser is a PhD candidate in history at The Pennsylvania State University.

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