The Bearse Surname

The origin of the Bearse surname is unknown, although its earliest known form is said to be BeArce. Legend says that the first Bearse in the line Augustine Bearse was a gypsy. Whether the name is of Romany (gypsy) extraction is unknown at this time.

Bearse has been spelled various ways through the years as follows:

Augustine Bearse

The first Bearse in the line was Augustine Bearse, also known as Austin Bearse. What we know for sure about Augustine Bearse is that at age 20 he arrived at Plymouth from Southampton, England on April 24, 1638 aboard the "Confidence". After a short time in Plymouth proper, he moved to Barnstable (Cape Cod) with the first company in 1639.

In 1643 he was the first to join the church of Rev. John Lothrop which had moved to Barnstable after a dispute over infant baptism, which the Lothrop Church supported. In 1652 Bearse was admitted a freeman. It is said that he was one of the few residents against whom no complaints were ever filed. He was a farmer, but in his civic role he served as surveyor of highways in 1674. He was still living in 1686 but had died by 1697.

Augustine Bearse was said to be a very pious man as shown by the following excerpt from GENEALOGICAL NOTES OF BARNSTABLE FAMILIES:

He appears to have been very exact in the performance of his religious duties, causing his children to be baptized on the Sabbath following the day of their birth. His son Joseph was born on Sunday, Jan'y 25, 1651, O. S., and was carried two miles to the church and baptized the same day. . . .Now such an act would be pronounced unnecessary and cruel.

The Bearse name survives on Cape Cod to this day in the short unpaved road near his former homesite in Eastham known as "Barss Lane". In the photo nearby the author stands next to a utility pole with a sign marking Bearse's namesake street.

The Bearse Legend Controversies

Augustine Bearse is controversial in genealogy circles because of a document entitled "From Out of the Past--Who Our Forefathers Really Were, a True Narrative of our White and Indian Ancestors" filed in the 1930's by Franklin Ele-watum Bearse, a Scaticoke and Eastern Indian, in an attempt to obtain benefits as an Indian from the State of Connecticut. Mr. Bearse's claims are analyzed in a article by Donald Lines Jacobus entitled "Austin Bearse and His Alleged Indian Connections" in THE AMERICAN GENEALOGIST published about 1936.

According to this document based on family legend based on a diary which no longer exists by Zerviah Newcombe Augustine's daughter-in-law and passed down through Franklin Bearse's family, Augustine Bearse was a gypsy who was expelled from England and put on the ship to the New World. Once at Plymouth, the single Bearse was shunned by the English women because of his ancestry. As a result he married a Wampanoag Indian woman named Mary Hyanno, the daughter of John Hyanno, and granddaughter of Iyannough, the sachem of the Mattachee village of Wampanoags of Cape Cod. Mary Hyanno is said to have been of fair complexion and red hair. The Wampanoags were often referred to as "white Indians" due to their light skin and are believed to have descended from Viking explorers. John Hyanno's mother is said to have been a princess of the Narragansett tribe and the daughter of Canonicus who was a sachem of some renown. Canonicus along with one Miantonomi were the two principals in deeding over what is now called Rhode Island to Roger Williams.

There is no proof of Bearse's gypsy ancestry. However, Jacobus' assertion that

To suppose that a Gypsy, a deported criminal, and the husband of an Indian, would have enjoyed such standing in a Puritan community is absurd

perhaps betrays more than a touch of modern-day prejudice.

Among librarians at the Library of Congress, Jacobus is known as an author for hire. A librarian told one Bearse researcher that Jacobus wrote so many books each year that he could not have done much research. In one instance he was hired by a town to compile the records they provided. Wealthy people paid to be in the book and provided the details. Of course, they were selective in what they included and omitted. The poor and non-prominent were not included.

Neither is there any record of his marriage to Mary Hyanno. In fact there is no record at all of his marriage. All we know is that he was married to a woman named Mary. Some have identified her as Mary Wilder, who traveled on the same ship as Augustine to the New World. A careful review of the records, however, shows that Mary Wilder was married to another man at the time Bearse and his Mary were having children of their own.

Mr. Jacobus' article remains the "gold standard" in the Bearse-Hyanno controversy. Mr. Jacobus was a stickler for using only written records as genealogical proof, but in this statement quoted above he went beyond the written record by calling upon circumstantial evidence (and hearsay at that!). In so doing he "opened the door", as the lawyers say, so as to permit us to rebut his case with circumstantial evidence of our own.

The possibility that Augustine was a gypsy of the Rom tribe and that he married an Indian woman cannot be so lightly dismissed. Those possibilities are supported by several pieces of circumstantial evidence.

  1. The surname in the form "BeArce" is unusual for a British name; whether it is of Romany origin remains to be seen.

  2. Augustine's acceptance into Plymouth society is not unexpected even if he were a Rom. In those days when it was not clear that the colony would survive, reliability as a productive member of the community was more important than circumstances of birth. The Pilgrims needed every hand they could find. Attitudes of racial and social superiority are attributes of a secure societies, not those in the survival mode. It is all too easy to project modern attitudes back onto earlier generations, but history tells us in Virginia, for example, that racial attitudes did not begin to form until 100 years after the settlement of Jamestown and that severe racial discrimination did not occur until over 200 years later.

  3. The acceptance of Augustine's wife and children into Plymouth society is also not unexpected even if she were an Indian. In the earliest days of Plymouth, the settlers had good relations with the Indians as the story of Squanto and Thanksgiving testifies. Indians were seen as citizens of another nation (that's why the daughters of the chiefs were often referred to as "Princess") and not a savages to be exterminated . That came later with King Philip's War in the late 1600's. Intermarriage with people from other nations was an accepted political device in the Europe of the era. Marriage to an Indian would have provided access to food sources and would have promoted peace. One need only point to the marriage of John Rolfe and Pocahontas, which was approved, and even encouraged, by the Crown, as evidence of this. Another factor that might have promoted acceptance of a Mary Hyanno into Plymouth society was that she was said to be light-skinned and red haired. Some believe that her tribe the Wampanoag were descendants of earlier Viking settlers. And if there was any prejudice against Indians, who better than a Rom to marry one and bring peace to the colony? It may have in fact been his ticket to respectability.

  4. Augustine's settlement at the "frontier" area of Barnstable may point to an immigrant who started at the bottom of society and worked his way up. Throughout the history of North America, immigrants without resources settled on the frontier where land was cheap and where a live-and-let-live attitude prevailed. This is the pattern followed by the Scotch-Irish in the 18th Century.

  5. Augustine's settlement at Barnstable on Cape Code placed him in the midst of the Wampanoag villages. Until recent times men usually married a local woman, and there were few English settlers in the area at the time. Even without prejudice against the Rom, Augustine's marriage prospects would have been primarily among the Indian women.

  6. Augustine's seeming easy accession of large amounts of land Cape Code from the Wampanoag seems to indicate a special relationship with them. If he had married the granddaughter of a sachem, he would have been favored in that way.

  7. Augustine's exemplary record as a citizen and unusual piety as a member of the church could have been part of a supreme effort by an outsider to fit into English society at Barnstable. One writer states that upon the birth of a child on a Saturday Augustine walked a long distance to have it baptized in church on Sunday when custom would have permitted him to wait until the next Sunday.

  8. George F. Williams's in "Saints and Strangers" (page 408; Time Inc. edition, 1964) states that Mr. Lothop, the minister of the church that Augustine joined in Barstable, preached a very liberal doctrine and accepted anyone willing to profess faith in God and promise to keep the Ten Commandments.

  9. The absence of a marriage record in a colony which kept very good marriage records might indicate a marriage outside the English system, and Bearse and Hyanno were supposedly married in an Indian ceremony at Barnstable.

  10. The ratio of English men to women was large in the colony, though almost all men were said to be married. That leads one to wonder where the extra women came from if not from the Indians. Indian marriages were very common in Virginia as evidenced by the Pocahontas and John Rolfe union.

  11. The Bearse-Hyanno story is a peculiar one for Franklin Bearse to have invented. After almost 300 years it would have been unusual for him even to have known the name Augustine Bearse unless he was a very serious genealogist. Further, as someone who had other more easily proven Indian ancestors, he did not have had to rely upon descendance from Mary Hyanno and Augustine Bearse to support his application. Why would he tell a 300 year old story when he could more easily relate stories about his parents or grandparents?

  12. Indian heritage was usually hidden in shame by white Americans in later generations, and many Indians hid it in fear of the consequences.

There is accumulating evidence that the Mary Hyanno legend is extant in several branches of the Bearse family independent of the Franklin Ele-watum Bearse story. Following are only three of those.

  1. A Bearse descendant on Cape Cod recently indicated that the Hyanno legend was in her branch of the family also. She also ran across it in another branch of the Bearse family with which she had had no previous contact. Unless they were genealogists who had read the Jacobus article, this appears to be independent confirmation of the legend. Similar stories have been collected from other Bearse descendants from Cape Cod.

  2. "I have actually traced my Bearce connection from Briggs to Tinkham to Fish to Bearse through Joseph (1st)...and my Briggs of course -(who spoke proudly of their Indian heritage an Indian Princesses."

  3. A Bearse descendant whose family emigrated to Australia some time in the mid-1800's stated, "In the family the story has been told over some years of a connection to the Indian race but until recently it was assumed that Indian was related to India, not North American Indian."

Jacobus tears the Franklin Bearse claim apart for containing seemingly provable inaccuracies. However, no legend is accurate in every detail, and they often contain grains of truth.

Connection to the Presidents Bush

Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush are descendants of Augustine Bearse as follows:

  1. George W. Bush, 43rd President of the United States m. Laura Welch
  2. George H. W. Bush, 41st President of the United States m. Barbara Pierce
  3. Sen. Prescott Sheldon Bush m. Dorothy Walker
  4. George Herbert Walker m. Lucretia Wear
  5. David Davis Walker m. Martha Adela Beaky
  6. Joseph Ambrose Beaky m. Mary Ann Bangs
  7. Elijah Keeler Bangs m. Esther Stackhouse
  8. Lemuel Bangs m. Rebecca Keeler
  9. Joseph Bangs m. Thankful Hamblen
  10. Ebenezer Hamblen m. Thankful LKU
  11. John Hamblin m. Sarah Bearse
  12. Augustine Bearse m. Mary (Hyanno?)

My Bearse Line

  1. M. Lee Murrah
  2. Ina Gertrude Johnson m. Earvin Elroy Murrah
  3. Florence Ophelia Largent and Franklin John Johnson
  4. Malcom David Largent and Eliza Azalee Spears
  5. Thomas Wayne Largent and Talitha Maria Freeman
  6. David Barss Freeman and Talitha T. Thompson
  7. James Freeman and Hannah Barss
  8. David Barss and Rebecca Gammon
  9. Benjamin Bearse II and Jane Collins
  10. Benjamin Bearse I and Sarah Cobb
  11. Joseph Bearse and Martha Taylor
  12. Augustine BeArce and Mary (Hyanno?)

Other Bearse Internet Resources


  1. Otis, Genealogical Notes of Barnstable Families.
  2. Jacobus, Donald L., "Austin Bearse and His Alleged Indian Connections", The American Genealogist

Updates to Bearse Family Information

The above information is based on the best sources currently available to the author and is subject to correction. If you have information that is different or additional to that shown above, I would like to receive it. Please contact me by e-mail and mention this web page in your message.

MLM: 25 Jan 2000

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