Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Nelson, John (1660-1721)

NELSON, JOHN (1660–1721), New England statesman, born in 1660, son of William Nelson, appears to have gone to New England about 1680. His father's uncle, Sir Thomas Temple, became, by purchase, one of the proprietors of Nova Scotia after its conquest by England in 1654, and after the Restoration he was appointed governor of that dependency. This brought Nelson into communication with the French settlers, and in 1687 he gave a letter of introduction to Villebon the governor of Nova Scotia, then restored to the French, when Villebon was about to pass through Boston on his way to New York.

Nelson was a churchman, and, as in the case of Temple, there were barriers of tastes and character which separated him from his puritan contemporaries in Boston. He is described by a New England historian as ‘of a gay, free temper.’ But in New England, as in the mother country, the arbitrary rule of a Romanist sovereign united, for a while at least, men of different creeds and views in common resistance. Nelson, too, had connected himself by marriage with a family possessing much political influence in Massachusetts. His wife was a daughter of William Tailer, who became lieutenant-governor of Massachusetts in 1711. Tailer's wife was a daughter of Israel Stoughton, a man of influence among the first generation of New England settlers. Her brother, William Stoughton, was agent for the colony in England in 1676, and was, at a later date, lieutenant-governor of the colony. Thus, though Nelson was excluded from any political life in the colony, he was brought into direct contact with many of those who controlled it. In the crisis brought about by the government of Sir Edmund Andros [q. v.], the leaders of the popular party were glad of the assistance of any public-spirited man. Accordingly, when in April 1689 the news of the revolution in England reached Boston, Nelson was among those who signed a document addressed to the governor, requiring him to resign his office and surrender the fort in the town and the castle in the harbour. Andros took no notice of the summons. By this time the Boston insurgents were supported by a large body of militia collected from the country around. Nelson was placed in command of a party, and was sent to demand the surrender of the fort. He surrounded the fort, got possession of an outwork, and thence threatened the fort with a cannonade. Andros thereupon surrendered, and Nelson took command of the fort.

With the establishment of a provisional government Nelson disappears from the scene of action. But, though his opinions and character may have excluded him from political life at Boston, a place was found for him in the service of the colony for which he was fitted by his earlier associations. In 1690 a force from New England, under the command of Sir William Phipps, conquered Nova Scotia, and in 1691 the new charter of Massachusetts formally incorporated it with the colony. Nelson was appointed to act as commander-in-chief of the Massachusetts forces in Accadia. Before he could reach his province he was captured by a French man-of-war, and Accadia was reoccupied by a French military force.

Nelson's captor was his old friend Villebon, who offered him courteous treatment. He was kept for a while at Quebec in honourable captivity. There he used his opportunities to study the designs of the French, and to give information of them to his friends in New England. In the autumn of 1692 he bribed two Frenchmen to carry a letter to Boston, addressed, as it would seem, to the general court there. It told of a French design for an attack on Boston by sea, and also of the attempts which Nelson was making to detach the Indians, whose language he could speak, from the French. Nelson's messengers succeeded in delivering the letter; but their proceeding was either discovered or suspected, and they were arrested and shot. Nelson expected to share their fate; his life, however, was spared, and he was sent to France, where he was confined in the Bastille. Nevertheless while on his voyage he succeeded in warning the authorities at Boston that a French fleet was about to attack the whole line of English colonies along the Atlantic seaboard. In 1698 he contrived to send to England a memorial to be laid before the lords of trade and plantations. In this he showed the danger of allowing the French to claim, as they would surely seek to do, a boundary which would give them the control of the Kennebec. This, he pointed out, would furnish them with an abundant supply of ship-timber, and would also enable them to detach from the English a large and valuable body of English allies.

It is noteworthy that here, as elsewhere throughout his career, Nelson says nothing of his own sufferings, and makes no petition for deliverance or redress. He had, indeed, before shown a singularly scrupulous temper. When the peace of Ryswick was ratified Nelson was in England on parole. The king held that the peace of itself terminated his captivity, and did not wish him to leave England. He, however, insisted on returning; and when, shortly after, he was released, he seems to have been visited with the king's displeasure for his disobedience.

In 1705 certain public men in New England set on foot a discreditable intrigue to exclude Joseph Dudley from the governorship of Massachusetts, and to secure the post for Sir Charles Hobby. Dudley was not a man of high political character, and New England had no reason to regard him with respect or gratitude. But he was a more reputable man, both in public and in private life, than his rival, and it is creditable to Nelson that his influence with the English government was exercised in favour of Dudley. Nelson died in Massachusetts on 4 Dec. 1721.

[Hutchinson's Hist. of Massachusetts (Massachusetts Historical Collection, 3rd ser. vol. i. 5th ser. vol. viii.); Colonial Papers, America and West Indies; Savage's Genealogical Dict. of New England.]

J. A. D.