Francis Nicholson


Birth: November 12, 1655 in England
Death: March 5, 1728
Occupation: Governor (Colonial)
Source:  Dictionary of American Biography Base Set.  American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936.

                      BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY

Nicholson, Francis (Nov. 12, 1655 - Mar. 5, 1728), colonial governor, was born at Downholme Parke, near Richmond, in Yorkshire, England, on a part of the vast Bolton estate, but his parentage is not known.  It has been suggested (Dalton, post) that he was a natural son of Lord St. John, later Duke of Bolton, who came into possession of the property shortly before Nicholson's birth.  But more probably, he was the son or grandson of a certain Francis Nicholson, who had assisted the Earl of Sunderland, former owner of the estate, in arranging his children's inheritance in 1629 ("Yorkshire Royalist Composition Papers," vol. I, Yorkshire ArchÏological SocietyRecord Series, vol. XV, 1893, pp. 56-57).  In either case, the Duke of Bolton took an active interest in Nicholson's career. In his youth Nicholson served as page to his patron's wife. He entered the army in 1679 and spent a few years in Tangier, acting as courier and aide-de-camp to the governor.  After returning to England with his regiment, he is said to have knelt during mass in the tent of James II on Hounslow Heath, though his later career shows him to have been a stanch Anglican.  His long connection with the colonies began in 1686 with his appointment as captain of a company of foot sent to New England under Sir Edmund Andros [q.v.].  Soon afterward, Nicholson was sworn a member of the Council for the Dominion of New England, and in 1688 he was commissioned lieutenant-governor.  Andros was at Pemaquid and Nicholson at New York when news came of the Revolution in England.  The latter handled the local situation badly.  His indiscreet remarks angered the followers of Jacob Leisler [q.v.], while the concessions which he made to popular feeling only resulted in his losing control of the fort. Eventually he decided to sail for England, ostensibly to report on the uprising but probably in reality to avoid

He was disappointed in his hope of returning to New York as governor, but the
home officials showed their confidence in him by appointing him lieutenant- governor of Virginia, the absentee governor of which was the Roman Catholic, Lord Howard of Effingham.  Nicholson now began what was probably his most successful administration.  Always taking a broad, and even continental, view of colonial affairs, he made several trips to the interior to study frontier conditions. He also sent a personal agent through the northern colonies to report on the situation there.  He encouraged the establishment of postal services within Virginia and between that province and New York. His most enduring service to Virginia was the support and financial assistance he gave to the commissary, the Rev. James Blair [q.v.], in the founding of the College of William and Mary.  In 1692 Nicholson was replaced as chief executive by Sir Edmund Andros, who had succeeded Lord Howard as governor.  But two years later Nicholson was back in America, this time as governor of Maryland.  Here, as in every colony in which he served, he labored to advance the causes of the Anglican church and of education, the two matters closest to his heart.  His activities in these directions were so extensive as to lead to the report in England a few years later that he had established "two universities and 28 churches" in America (Narcissus Luttrell, A Brief Historical Relation of State Affairs, 1857, vol. V, 292).  As far as education was concerned, the report was exaggerated, for Blair deserves most of the credit for the College of William and Mary, while the little King William's School at Annapolis (later St. John's College), which Nicholson helped to found, did not attain collegiate rank during the colonial period. Yet, everywhere he went, Nicholson encouraged the building of schools and churches, both by appeals to the assemblies for necessary legislation and by generous gifts from his own funds. He was largely responsible for the removal of the Maryland capital from St. Mary's to the more centrally located Annapolis.  He was less successful in  persuading the assemblies of Maryland and Virginia to aid in the defense of New
York.  The Maryland legislature did agree in 1694 to send £133 if he would advance the sum, but when he offered to repeat the loan a year later, the assembly refused to accept it.  The last years of this administration were marred by a series of bitter personal quarrels, during which Nicholson's ungovernable temper destroyed much of his earlier popularity.  But, on the whole, he showed more than average ability in office and his services were rewarded in 1698 by his promotion to the full governorship of Virginia.

                     His second term in this colony was far less successful than the first. His temper became more violent than before and led to his estrangement from Commissary Blair after the latter had read him a lecture on conduct. Nicholson's dictatorial behavior aroused the opposition of several leading councilors, who accused him of trying to dominate the Council. The charge was doubtless true, although his opponents, who represented the colonial aristocracy, were equally as guilty as the governor of attempting to dominate provincial affairs. Yet he managed to do much for the good of the colony.  He was the leading spirit in the removal of the capital from Jamestown to Williamsburg and in the establishment there of adequate facilities for governmental offices.  He greatly improved the provincial finances and succeeded, at least partially, in making the local administration more efficient. He continued his interest in intercolonial affairs and once went personally to New York to confer with Governor Cornbury on problems of mutual concern. His downfall came, not because of a hostile Assembly, for the House of Burgesses continued friendly to the end, but because of the little group of aristocratic councilors whom he had antagonized.  He was recalled in 1705.

                     Of his life in England during the next four years we know little except that he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1706. When a joint attack upon Canada and Port Royal was proposed in 1709, he volunteered to accompany its commander, Samuel Vetch [q.v.]. Although Nicholson had attained the rank of colonel several years before, his actual military experience was slight. But he was so active in organizing the northern colonies for the enterprise that their governors persuaded him to command the contingent which was to march northward from New York.  However, the whole scheme fell through when the promised troops failed to arrive from England.  Nicholson returned to that country with a request from Massachusetts to renew the attack upon Port Royal the following year.  The British government agreed and Nicholson, now a brigadier-general, was made commander in chief of the
expedition.  With 400 marines and 1,500 colonial troops, he effected a bloodless
 conquest of Port Royal in October 1710, thus establishing British military supremacy on the Acadian peninsula.  In 1711 another joint military and naval attack upon Quebec was proposed.  Nicholson was given a commission as lieutenant-general in America and made commander of the troops which were to go by land from New York.  But the shipwreck of part of Admiral Walker's fleet in the St. Lawrence led to the abandonment of the entire expedition.  Late in 1713 Nicholson was named governor of Nova Scotia, but he spent only a few weeks there, for he also had a series of commissions to inquire into provincial finances, clandestine trade, prize money, and ecclesiastical affairs, throughout the northern colonies.  As a sort of "Governour of Governours," he proved a failure, for his temperament irritated the other colonial executives.  Governor Robert Hunter [q.v.] of New York, who did not sympathize with his high-church views and who directed his farce Androborus against him, called him "that eternall teazer," and declared that "for the present folks have no manner of occasion for madmen" (New York Colonial Documents, V, 400, 453).  On the other hand, the Anglicans of Newbury, Mass., praised Nicholson as "that worthy patron of vertue and religion" (Calendar State Papers, Colonial . . .1712-1714, 1926, p. 258). His various commissions were not renewed after the accession of George I and he retired to England.  During the next few years the Board of Trade often called upon him for advice on colonial matters, but he was never rewarded for his American services with knighthood as has commonly been supposed.

                     In 1720 he undertook his last colonial governorship, that of South Carolina, whose inhabitants had declared in favor of royal rather than proprietary control. Nicholson won the confidence of the colonists and his administration was relatively quiet.  But he gained the hostility of the Charlestown merchants, chiefly by failing to oppose the issue of large quantities of paper money.  Eventually they petitioned for his recall.  He himself was failing in health and asked for a leave of absence which was granted.  He sailed for England in 1725 and died there three years later without returning to the province.  He never married though he is said to have courted a daughter of Major Burwell in Virginia, and to have threatened if she were married to another, to cut the throats of the bridegroom, the clergyman, and the justice of the peace giving the license (Perry, post, p. 90).  At his death he left most of his estate to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, of which he had long been an ardent member.

                     Nicholson's long and varied career in America was very nearly unique.  As governor or lieutenant-governor in five colonies and as supervising official or military organizer in several others on the continent, he was almost the only Englishman of his times who might be called a professional colonial governor.  His usefulness was seriously impaired by his unrestrained temper which made it difficult for other officials to work with him.  An Indian, who once saw him in a fit of rage, is said to have remarked that he was "born drunk."  But despite this lack of self-control, his constructive energy, zeal for education and religion, and breadth of vision, entitle him to a high rank among colonial governors.

                     His Journal of an Expedition . . . For the Reduction of Port Royal (1711), first appeared in the Boston News Letter, Oct. 30-Nov. 6, 1710; it was reprinted, under a slightly different title, in Reports and Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society, vol. I (1879). He also published An Apology or Vindication of F. Nicholson, His Majesty's Governor of South-Carolina, from the Unjust Aspersions Cast on Him by Some of the Members of the Bahama-Company (1724).
                     -- Leonard W. Labaree

                     FURTHER READINGS

                     [Official documents connected with Nicholson's career are given, in full or in abstract, in Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, America and West Indies, 1685-1721 (1899-1933); Jour. of the Commissioners for Trade and Plantations, 1704-28 (1920-28); Colls. of the N. Y. Hist. Soc., Publication Fund Ser., vol. I (1868); Colls. of the S.-C. Hist. Soc., I (1857), 228-93; E. B. O'Callaghan, Docs. Relative to the Colonial Hist. of the State of N. Y., III-V (1853-55); A. M. Macmechan, ed., Nova Scotia Archives, II (1900). A sketch of Nicholson by Charles Dalton, in George the First's Army, 1714-1727 (1912), II, 54-62 (1912), corrects some errors in the article in the Dict. of Nat. Biography.  The best accounts of Nicholson's administrations are in H. L. Osgood, The American Colonies in the Seventeenth Century, III (1907), and The Am. Colonies in the Eighteenth Century (4 vols., 1924). See also W. S. Perry, Papers Relating to the Hist. of the Church in Va. (1870); H. R. McIlwaine, Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Va., vols. I-III (1925-28).]

                     SOURCE CITATION

"Francis Nicholson."  Dictionary of American Biography Base Set. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center.  Farmington Hills, Mich.:  The   Gale Group, 2002.

                     Document Number: BT2310006689