Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Nicholson, Francis (1660-1728)

NICHOLSON, Sir FRANCIS (1660–1728), colonial governor, obtained a commission in the army as ensign 9 Jan. 1678, and as lieutenant 6 May 1684. He subsequently complied with the requirements of James II by kneeling when mass was celebrated in the king's tent at Hounslow. When, in 1686, the whole body of colonies north of Chesapeake Bay were formed into a single province under Sir Edmund Andros [q. v.], Nicholson was appointed lieutenant-governor, and remained at New York to represent his superior officer. Although in other situations in life he displayed considerable intelligence and a fair share of energy and executive power, it cannot be said that he showed any of these qualities during his term of office in New York. In the spring of 1689 the news of the revolution reached New England, and the men of Boston rose and deposed Andros. Nicholson contrived by indiscreet language to fall out with the commander of the New York militia, and to excite a belief that he was meditating violent measures of retaliation. The people, headed by Jacob Leisler, a resolute, illiterate brewer of German origin, rose and took possession of the forts at New York. Nicholson, feeling possibly that his position as lieutenant-governor was not one of full responsibility, took ship for England. A commission to him was actually on its way from the newly established sovereigns William and Mary. In the absence of Nicholson this fell into the hands of Leisler. Thus Nicholson's flight was largely the cause of the subsequent troubles, ending in the execution of the rebel leaders.

In spite of this failure Nicholson was appointed lieutenant-governor of Virginia in 1690, and his discharge of that office forms perhaps the most creditable part of his colonial career. He devoted his energy with no little success to the foundation of a college, named in honour of the sovereigns the College of William and Mary, to the establishment of schools and to the improvement of the condition of the clergy. He contributed 300l. to the first of these objects. In all these matters he was aided by James Blair, who had been appointed commissary for Virginia by the Bishop of London. Nicholson's despatches at this time are full of interest. In two important matters he thoroughly anticipated the colonial policy of the next century. He urged on the English government the necessity of seeing that the colonists were adequately supplied with commodities, especially with clothing. Otherwise, he thought, they would no longer devote themselves exclusively to tobacco-growing, but would manufacture, and so compete with the English producer. He also urged the need for an effective union of the colonies against Canada. Nicholson no doubt had many faults. He was passionate, high-handed, and a loose liver. But no public man saw more clearly the need for a vigorous policy against Canada, or dinned it more emphatically and persistently into the ears of the English government.

In 1694 Lord Howard of Effingham, the titular governor under whom Nicholson was deputy, died. The post was conferred, not on Nicholson, but on Andros. Nicholson and his friends resented his neglect. It was deemed expedient to remove him from the colony altogether, and in January 1694 he was appointed governor of Maryland. Here his good fortune deserted him. Maryland, founded by a Romanist proprietor, had now become largely imbued with nonconformity and whiggery. Nicholson, a churchman, a tory, and a rake, was wholly unacceptable, and the State Papers are full of his disputes with the colonists and their attacks on him.

In 1698 he returned to Virginia as governor. His second term of office was far less successful than his first. He irritated the colonists by attempting to transfer the seat of government from Jamestown to the Middle Plantations, a few miles inland, where he made an abortive effort to establish a capital city, Williamsburg. He also displeased the assembly by pressing them to contribute towards a fort on the north-west frontier of New York. This policy, however, though distasteful to the colonists, was probably wise in itself, and also acceptable to the English government. Nicholson further recommended himself to the authorities at home, and in some measure to the Virginians, by his energy in capturing a pirate. His anger against the Virginian assembly on account of their frustration of his schemes led him to recommend to the crown that all the American colonies should be placed under a viceroy, and that a standing army should be maintained among them at their own expense. But this project was not approved by Queen Anne and her ministers, and in April 1705 he was recalled.

During the next fifteen years such public services as he discharged were of a military nature, and directed against the French in Canada. As early as 1689 Colonel Bayard, one of the leading men of New York, had urged on Nicholson the need for active operations against Canada. In 1709 he and a Scottish soldier, Colonel Veitch, were placed in joint command of a force—partly English, partly to be supplied by the colonists—which was to attack Canada. Nicholson, in command of fifteen hundred men, advanced from Albany along the Hudson to Wood Creek, near Lake Champlain. There he was delayed, waiting for an English fleet to arrive at Boston. Sickness seized on the camp, the force melted away, and the expedition was a total failure.

Nicholson returned to England, commissioned by the Massachusetts assembly to urge on the English government the need for action not against Canada, but against Acadia. The ministry approved the scheme. A force consisting of four hundred marines and fifteen hundred colonial militia, supported by five ships, was sent against Port Royal. After a short siege the place surrendered, and Acadia, having no other stronghold, became English territory. In 1711 the operations against Canada were resumed. Again Nicholson, at the head of a land force, advanced as far as Wood Creek. There, hearing of the failure which attended the fleet under Sir Hoveden Walker in its attack on Quebec, he retreated to Albany and disbanded his force.

In 1713 Nicholson was appointed governor of Acadia. There he seems to have displayed that arrogant and overbearing temper which constituted the worst side of his character. For the most part, however, he seems to have left the duties of his post to be fulfilled by deputy.

In 1719 the privy council and the lords of regency, acting for the king, then in Hanover, decided that the proprietors of South Carolina had forfeited their charter, and, exercising the rights of the crown in such a case, appointed Nicholson as governor. No resistance was made to the exercise of his authority either by the proprietors or their adherents. Nicholson's conduct, if we may believe the principal historian of the colony, recalled his best days as an administrator in Virginia. Under the feeble rule of the proprietors the colony had wellnigh drifted into anarchy, and the Cherokee Indians on the frontier were threatening. Nicholson ingratiated himself with the colonists, promoted the building of schools and churches, and succeeded in conciliating the Cherokees. In June 1725 Nicholson returned to England on leave, and does not seem again to have visited America. He had been knighted in 1720, and he was now promoted lieutenant-general. He retained the nominal governorship of the colony until his death, which took place in London on 5 March 1728.

Nicholson was author of: 1. ‘Journal of an Expedition for the Reduction of Port Royal,’ London, 1711: a rare quarto, which was reprinted by the Nova Scotia Historical Society in 1879. 2. ‘An Apology or Vindication of Francis Nicholson, Governor of South Carolina, from the Unjust Aspersions cast upon him by some of the Members of the Bahama Company,’ London, 1724, 8vo.

[Brodhead's Hist. of New York; New York Colonial Documents; Colonial Documents and State Papers; Parkman's Half-Century of Conflict; Hewitt's Hist. of South Carolina; Appleton's Cyclop. of American Biography; Transactions of Nova Scotia Historical Soc.; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

J. A. D.