Understanding Leaf Hints

Franklin Pierce (1804–1869).

A leaf hint on Ancestry can often lead one to additional records of the person you are researching. Other times, it might lead to interesting “near” matches, while occasionally it may lead you down an entertaining, but wild goose chase of a false match. This is one such recent example.

I was researching the male line descendants of Benjamin Pierce (17571839), who was the eleventh governor of New Hampshire and father of 14th U.S. President Franklin Pierce.  Some of Benjamin’s descendants are outlined in Burke’s Presidential Families of the United States of America and Memorials of the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati. An officer during the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Pierce was an Original Member of the Society of the Cincinnati, and three of his sons were members. As the society had a policy of succession similar to primogeniture, membership would pass to a member’s eldest male heir. Benjamin Pierce was succeeded by his eldest son Benjamin Kendrick Pierce (17881850), whose sons predeceased him. Franklin Pierce succeeded his elder brother in 1852 (soon before he was elected President), and as Franklin’s sons also predeceased him, membership was passed in 1873 to Franklin’s youngest brother Henry Dearborn Pierce (18121882).

I found several hints

Henry Dearborn Pierce had two sons Kirk Dearborn Pierce (18461928), who succeeded his father in the Society of the Cincinnati, and a second son, Frank Hawthorne Pierce, born in Hillsboro, New Hampshire, on 10 January 1848. The latter genealogy had this second son (and nephew to the president), as “n.f.r” (no further record). I decided to see if I could find anything on him. This is where things started to get interesting. I found several hints suggesting he was the Frank H. Pierce enumerated in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, in 1880, 1900, and 1910. Family information on a Find A Grave entry made it appear that I found the right guy (I’m sure this information will be changed soon enough as a result of this post, as some of my other ones have):

What did he do?

I researched the surviving son Elmer Kelton Pierce (18841963) (who, if his father Frank’s parentage was correct, would be the only male Pierce of his generation descended from the President’s father). While I learned he married, had a son, and has present day Pierce descendants, I was intrigued by his later census entries. In 1930 he was enumerated in Boston at the Massachusetts State Prison, and in 1940 in Norfolk, Massachusetts, at the State Prison Colony. What did he do?

Newspapers.com nicely fill in this gap:

Elmer K. Pierce pled guilty to second degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. He was later given a Christmas Pardon in 1949.[1] An article where he requested a pardon appeared 15 years earlier.[2] The curious item I noticed in this article was “Others who spoke in favor of a pardon included Herbert W. Pierce, Dighton farmer, cousin of the prisoner . . .”

What was going on here?

How was the Herbert W. Pierce related to Elmer? The above genealogies had shown no other male line descendants of Governor Benjamin Pierce after the brothers Kirk Dearborn Pierce and Frank Hawthorne Pierce, the latter purportedly the father of this Elmer Kelton Pierce. Benjamin6 Pierce (Benjamin5, Stephen4–3, Thomas2–1) descended from Thomas Pierce (died 1666) of Charlestown and Woburn, Massachusetts (also my own ancestor). However, this Dighton man, Herbert Wilson9 Pierce (Wilson Dorr8, Joshua7–5, Mial4, Ephraim3–2, Michael1) descended from Michael Pierce (died 1676) of Hingham and Scituate, Massachusetts! What was going on here? Were Elmer and Herbert Pierce really cousins?

After I got the 1920 death certificate of Elmer’s father Frank H. Pierce, it became obvious that he was not Frank Hawthorne Pierce, nephew of the president. The death certificate of Frank H. Pierce identifies his parents and Joshua and Betsy (Wheaton) Pierce, who are also the grandparents of Herbert W. Pierce of Dighton, so yes Herbert and Elmer were first cousins.

The real Frank Hawthorne Pierce

I eventually found the death certificate of the real Frank Hawthorne Pierce in the Bronx, New York, on 31 December 1908, giving the correct parents, and also that he died single.






Death certificates of two different Frank H. Pierces, both born in 1848.

This false leaf hint led me to briefly think Franklin Pierce had a grandnephew sentenced to life in prison for murder. Ultimately I found the records that cleared up the confusion and determined where Franklin’s nephew died unmarried. The stories about Franklin’s “non-relative” were still interesting nonetheless.


[1] “Commutation for Gillar Rescinded: 9 Lifers Freed,” Boston Globe, 23 Dec. 1949, 12 https://www.newspapers.com/image/433346565.

[2] “Pierce Asks Pardon on Pelletier Murder” Boston Globe, 23 Nov. 1934, 4 https://www.newspapers.com/image/431720661.

About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

18 thoughts on “Understanding Leaf Hints

  1. Interesting, thank you! I too have learned that the leaves can be marking a very twisted and misleading trail. If you’ve done the ancestry DNA test, you will likely find that the case even with the (very interesting, I must admit, but flawed) Thru-Lines. Caveat researcher!

  2. Oh my! And you had public figure ancestors! The ‘leafs’ are challenging – my current one is from the ‘Taylor’ family – who I have recently nicknamed ‘the Scottish Smith family’ for their numbers back into the 18th century

  3. I am always wary of them but I at least check them out. About half of the time they actually are useful, even if I don’t add them

  4. Barbara Pierce Who was married to George W Bush had always claim to be a descendent of Franklin Pierce which I need to be a bunch of hooey

    1. Yes, Barbara descends from the same Thomas Pierce above through Thomas Pierce, Jr., but after that the lines split off, so through the Pierce family Barbara was a fourth cousin four times removed to Franklin.

      1. Thomas Pierce, Jr. = Elizabeth Cole
      2. Stephen Pierce = Tabitha Parker
      3. Stephen Pierce, Jr. = Esther Fletcher
      4. Benjamin Pierce = Elizabeth Merrill
      5. Benjamin Pierce, Jr. = Anna Kendrick
      6. Franklin Pierce = Jane Means Appleton

      1. Thomas Pierce, Jr. = Elizabeth Cole
      2. James Pierce = Elizabeth Parker
      3. James Pierce, Jr. = Phebe ______
      4. Joshua Pierce = Esther Richardson
      5. James Pierce = Mary Stacy
      6. James Pierce, Jr. = Chloe Holbrook
      7. Jonas James Pierce = Kate Pritzel
      8. Scott Pierce = Mabel Marvin
      9. Marvin Pierce = Pauline Robinson
      10. Barbara Pierce = George Herbert Walker Bush

  5. Thank you. The Ancestry leaf hints are misleading. I have an in-law who accepted every hint and had parents on their tree whose children were born in the wrong century in the wrong nation. Even though I gently explained how the hints worked, the tree remains.

  6. There is humorous anecdotal information in our family which concerns the Pres. Franklin Pierce. There is a story that he is in our family tree. My grandmother Orinda Pierce, one day was talking to aunt. My aunt mentioned that she had heard that Franklin was a family member. Orinda said, yes that would be true. My aunt asked why it was such a secret and Orinda replied that Franklin was a “drunk and no one liked him”. I may be wrong, but I haven’t ever ascertained that he is even in my family tree. So much for family stories.

  7. It’s easy to dismiss hints because they look outlandish, but that can be a mistake too. Last week I was following my 3rd great uncle, who had married, been in the Civil War, and had a few kids in the 1860s in Iowa. No 1880s census; starting in 1900 the wife (a widow) and some of the grown kids showed up in Modesto, California.

    Two strange hints: His name was James Frederick Kast but a marriage hint popped up for a Jay Kurtis in 1886, farther west in Iowa. Another hint shows his Civil War index card where he applied for disability benefits in Missouri, then two women applied for widows benefits in 1908 when he died in Alabama.

    Contacting a descendant of James Frederick, I got the story: James left his first wife when she was pregnant with their 11th child and his girlfriend was also pregnant. He faked his death and after a few years married the girlfriend, disguising his name, age, and hometown. After that, they dodged the census, but their kids’ later documentation shows their path.

    In Missouri, James wanted to file for veterans disability benefits so he had to change his name back to Kast, never explaining his history to the wife. When he died, the first wife learned about his death and filed for widows benefits, as did his second wife. At that point, the army launched a nationwide investigation; they’ve got 160 pages on the guy. The family researcher says this is just the short version of what a scoundrel he was. So far I’ve documented 18 kids but there are holes where we’ll probably find more.

  8. AMEN! to being aware of the pitfalls of the leaves. I have a couple Ancestry trees that overlap. I know that when I add a record to one tree, it will soon show up as a hint on the overlapping tree. So it isn’t even Ancestry saying they’ve assessed the record and it matches my person. It is Ancestry saying some researcher thinks this matches his person who looks a lot like your person….sort of genealogy hearsay. They are sometimes helpful, and worth checking out, but shouldn’t be blindly added to a tree. I once (politely) asked a person for the source of his information, and he said it came from an Ancestry hint, so had to be correct. Oh, dear! And ditto for the Thru-Lines – I might accept a DNA match, but wouldn’t base it on a Thru-Line without validating the connections myself.

  9. This is good advice. I always refer to these leaves as “hints” of places to look, and verify with solid records. Here are two examples of inaccuracies in hints that I have experienced. One error I often see relates to a marriage back in the 1640s. Lots of people’s trees claim an ancestor’s second wife was the mother of his children, but the couple’s church marriage record and her first husband’s death record prove otherwise. I write polite notes to people who have the wrong “fact,” and they generally respond with thanks.
    My second incident shows how easily one could be led on a goose chase. My mother was born 3 Aug 1909 in Chicago, but lived for awhile during her early childhood in Minnesota. Someone else’s tree had her born on 30 Aug 1909 in Minneapolis, to parents with the same names. Out of curiosity, I check the 1910 Minneapolis census, and whoa! there was a family with parents of the same names (even a -son ending to the Norwegian surname, which is less common than -sen) and a baby daughter with the same first name as my mother. BUT this was their 8th child while my mother was her parents’ first. If I didn’t have first-hand knowledge, I might have gone awry.

  10. Been there, done that. and seen it done. I once found my then living brother attached to someone’s family tree with the wrong wife. They’d found him on the 1930 census, at age 3 or so, living with our parents in Chicago, where their Paul had been born. They hadn’t even bothered to verify who the parents of their Paul Lee were. They were happy to change their tree when I informed them of the error.

    But I had several generations I had to detach from my research tree of another Lee after I went down the rabbit hole of a leaf hint. Luckily I didn’t attach them to my online tree, as I only put information there I’m positive is correct.

  11. Having spent the day researching the descendants of Gurdon Peirce (Seth6, Seth5, Samuel4, Samuel3, Thomas2, Thomas1) your article brought a smile to my face. It is nice to know that someone else has gotten lead on a wild goose chase while researching the Peirce/Pierce family. Thank you for sharing.

  12. Kathy Newman: I have three ancestors with the Peirce spelling on my tree. Anna, who married Francis Whitmore b. 1678. Anna’s father Richard Peirce, b. 1655. And a Mary Peirce, b. 1695, who married Joseph Whitmore b. 1699/00 and was the grandson of another Francis, b. 1625. The Francis Whitmore above, b. 1678, was also the grandson of Francis, b. 1625.
    As for Pierce, have Benjamin Pierce born 1682 and Josiah Pierce, b. 1695. Are any of these related to your Gurdon, etc? We have a few Gurdon Whitmores in our line too.
    All the above were in Massachusetts. I will gladly share what I know, if these are your folks, too.

  13. As the niece of Elmer Pierce’s victim, Dalphe Pelletier, I found this extremely interesting and learned so much about the case.

  14. I do wish that obvious errors — such as one where a man in the 1600s files for Civil War benefits — could be removed from the hints. They waste other researchers’ time.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.