Peirce was born in England, perhaps about 1580, but little else is known of his early years. He is often confused with a William Pierce, also from England, who settled with the Pilgrims at Plymouth in what later became Massachusetts. Both had wives named Joane. The surname Peirce was spelled with dozens of variations, including Pierce, Pearse, Perse, Perce, and Peerce.
On June 2, 1609, Peirce, his wife, Joane, and their young daughter, also Joane, left England for the struggling colony in Virginia, part of a fleet that included nine ships and 600 passengers. Aboard the Blessing, Joane Peirce and her daughter arrived safely in Virginia sometime late in August. William Peirce, however, traveled on the flagship Sea Venture, which encountered a hurricane at sea and washed ashore in Bermuda. After spending the winter on the islands building two new ships, Peirce and the others sailed to Jamestown the next spring. There, they found only about sixty survivors of the Starving Time, including Peirce’s wife and daughter.
Planter, Merchant, and SlaveholderSir George Yeardley, when he made a treaty that year with the Chickahominy Indians. Late in August or early in September of 1619 two English ships arrived at Point Comfort carrying Africans stolen from a Portuguese slave ship bound for Vera Cruz, New Spain (present-day Mexico). Yeardley dispatched Peirce; John Rolfe, then the colony’s secretary; and a Mr. Ewens (probably William Ewens) to meet the second of the two ships, the Treasurer. Although the ship had fled by the time they arrived, a few of its enslaved Africans had been left behind. One of those, an African woman identified as Angelo, appeared in the census of January 24, 1625, as living in the Peirce household. It is likely that Peirce purchased her in 1619, making him one of Virginia’s first slaveholders.
In December 1619, Peirce received a patent for 650 acres on Mulberry Island, on the north side of the James River about ten miles below Jamestown. Soon after he received another 1,450 acres in a transaction that involved John Rolfe, whom he had befriended on the Sea Venture and who was the first in Virginia to cultivate a marketable variety of tobacco. Sometime in 1619–1620 Rolfe, whose second wife, Pocahontas, had died in England, married Peirce’s daughter Joane. In his will, dated March 10, 1621, Rolfe appointed Peirce guardian of his children. He died the next year.
Peirce thrived in the colony. He appeared to have been close to Governor Sir Francis Wyatt and George Sandys, the colonial treasurer, both of whom arrived in 1621. In May 1623, Wyatt named Peirce captain of the Governor’s guards and commander of James City. Peirce also served as the colony’s cape merchant, running a store in the city, and as lieutenant governor. In addition, he was responsible for the island’s two blockhouses, the small fortified structures that dotted the perimeter of the settlement. In 1623 and 1627, as part of the Second Anglo-Powhatan War, he led mid-summer attacks against Indians along the Chickahominy River, either destroying or stealing their corn crops.
Peirce built a brick house on Jamestown overlooking the James River and Sandys lived there for a time as he experimented with the cultivation of silkworms and worked on his famous translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In a letter to an official of the Virginia Company of London, dated April 8, 1623, Sandys declared the house to be “the fairest in Virginia.” The James City lot was a large one, and the elder Joane Peirce cultivated a garden of three to four acres, one year reaping 100 bushels of figs. In 1625, the Peirce household included Peirce’s wife, the enslaved woman Angelo, and the indentured servants Thomas Smith, aged seventeen, and Henry Bradford, aged thirty-five, both of whom had arrived aboard the Abigaile in January 1625. Ester Edrife worked as a maidservant and had been in the colony since 1619 or 1620. With several more working on the Mulberry Island plantation, Peirce claimed a total of thirteen servants in 1625, making him one of the wealthiest men in the colony. (Yeardley and Sandys had thirty-nine and thirty-seven, respectively.) Two years later, he received three additional male servants who had been tenants of the now-defunct Virginia Company. In 1635 he patented 2,000 acres on Lawnes Creek in what became Isle of Wight County, and sometime in the 1640s acquired another 1,170 acres in James City County, and 27 acres of land adjacent to the Governor’s Land. On July 18, 1640, six white servants and a black male slave attempted to escape from Peirce, a case that appeared before the General Court.
In 1624, Peirce was elected a burgess from Jamestown at a time when the Virginia Company was riven by factional intrigue and financial problems. That year the General Assembly, in a document signed by Peirce, formally rebutted claims by Alderman Robert Johnson, of the Virginia Company, that the colony had thrived under the martial law first administered by Sir Thomas Gates and Sir Thomas Dale beginning in 1610. Peirce served as a member of the governor’s Council from 1632 to 1643 and in January 1640 was appointed tobacco inspector for Stanley Hundred and Denbigh Parish.
In 1629, Peirce made a return visit to England and published a short and widely read account, A relation in generall of the present state of his Majties Colony in Virginia. At a time when disease ravaged the colony and the English had long been at war with the Indians of Tsenacomoco, Peirce was optimistic. He described the colony’s English population—numbering, he guessed, at between 4,000 and 5,000—as “well housed in every plantation,” with an abundance of wildlife and fish and a soil ideal for the cultivation of corn. “The Colony, under the favor of God and of his Maj,” he wrote, “hath bene raised to this height of people and provision, especially by the means of Tobacco.”
In 1635 Peirce was a leader among those on the Council who sought to remove the royal governor, Sir John Harvey, from office. Protesting the governor’s plan for a royal monopoly on the tobacco trade, the councillors arranged for armed musketeers to surround the governor’s house, and Harvey was forced to leave Virginia. The governor returned to the colony two years later, and on August 27, 1640, the king summoned Peirce and three other councillors to London to answer for their actions in the affair. Peirce’s property was seized, but the Privy Council later reinstated it and allowed him to return to Virginia, his position intact. Peirce died sometime between 1645 and June 22, 1647.