Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Nicolls, Richard
NICOLLS, RICHARD (1624–1672), first English governor of New York, fourth son of Francis Nicolls and Margaret, daughter of Sir George Bruce of Carnock, was born in 1624 according to his epitaph at Ampthill Church, Bedfordshire, and began his military career ‘relictis musarum castris.’ At the outbreak of the civil war in England he commanded a troop of horse, while his two brothers had each a company of infantry. The three all followed the Stuarts into exile, and two of them appear to have died abroad. The survivor, Richard, was attached to the household of the Duke of York, and served with him under Marshal Turenne. After the Restoration Nicolls was appointed groom of the bedchamber to the duke. In 1663 he received the degree of doctor of civil law from the university of Oxford.
In March 1664 the whole of the territory occupied or claimed by the Dutch on the Atlantic seaboard was granted by Charles II to the Duke of York, on the plea that it was British soil by right of discovery. The grant was practically a declaration of war. Simultaneously measures were taken to inquire into, and if necessary regulate, the condition of the New England colonies. The scheme was, in fact, a step towards organising the whole seaboard from the Kennebec to the Hudson into one province. To this end Nicolls was appointed a commissioner, with three colleagues, Sir Robert Carr, George Cartwright, and Samuel Maverick. Precedence was given to Nicolls, inasmuch as his presence was needed in a quorum, and, in the event of his alone surviving, the whole powers of the commission were vested in him. It is clear too that, as far as military operations went, Nicolls was virtually the sole commander.
In June 1664 he sailed with four ships and three hundred soldiers. The Dutch West India Company had wholly neglected the colony of New Netherlands. Their administration had been directed towards the financial prosperity of the colony and nothing else. New Amsterdam, the chief town, now New York, was a ‘colluvies omnium gentium,’ bound together by no organic tie of race or religion. There were no popular institutions; the colony had neither the advantage of an efficient despotism nor of self-government. The recent extirpation of the Swedish colony on the Delaware had drained the resources of the colony, and left New Netherlands defenceless. All the attempts of the Dutch governor—that resolute soldier, Peter Stuyvesant—to inspire his countrymen with some zeal for resistance failed, and on 27 Aug. the colony surrendered to Nicolls. The task of subduing the outlying territory on the Delaware was left to Carr, whose violence and rapacity contrasted with the forbearance and lenity of his chief. The functions of the commission were practically divided. Cartwright and Maverick carried out the regulation of the New England colonies, while Nicolls was left to organise the newly conquered territory as an English province. The absence of any existing political institutions extending throughout the colony made his task comparatively easy. As far as might be he retained the Dutch officials, and left the municipal government of New Amsterdam—or, as it now became, New York—unchanged. Already the whole of Long Island was virtually anglicised by the influx of colonists from Connecticut and Newhaven, who, with the approval of Stuyvesant, had formed townships on the New England model, enjoying much local independence. The policy of Nicolls was practically to treat these settlements and the Dutch on the Hudson as two distinct communities. For the former he established a court of assize consisting of magistrates, and modelled on the quarter sessions of an English county. At the same time he called a convention of delegates from the English settlements on Long Island and the adjacent mainland, and laid before them a code of laws to be ratified. Meanwhile New York and Albany retained their original officials. Nicolls's chief difficulty was caused by the wrong-headed conduct of his lieutenant at Albany, Brodhead, who dealt with the colonists as a conquered people, and made arbitrary arrests on trifling charges. Nicolls, with characteristic equity, appointed a commission of three, two of whom were Dutch, to deal with the matter. Brodhead was, by orders of the governor, suspended. The chief offenders against authority were condemned to death by the council, but the penalty was remitted by Nicolls. This was in all likelihood prearranged, to emphasise the clemency of the governor.
In another quarter Nicolls found himself thwarted by the folly of his master. Before the conquest of New Netherlands Sir George Carteret [q. v.] had, in conjunction with Lord Berkeley, secured from the Duke of York a grant of that portion of his territory which lay along the Delaware, and which had already been a bone of contention between Dutch and Swedes. Nicolls foresaw that this mangling of the province would be a sure source of political and commercial dispute, and remonstrated. His warning was unheeded; but the later history of New Jersey amply proved its wisdom.
In 1667 Nicolls returned to England. Amphibious service was usual in those days, and in 1672, when war broke out against the Dutch, Nicolls served as a volunteer on shipboard. He was killed at Solebay, in the same action as that in which Edward Montagu, first earl of Sandwich [q. v.], lost his life.Nicolls was buried at Ampthill, where the cannon-ball which killed him is yet to be seen above his monument.
[The principal facts about Nicolls have been brought together by Mr. L. D. O'Callaghan in a very full note to Wooley's Journal in New York, forming the second volume in Gowan's Bibliotheca Americana. See also Brodhead's Hist. of New York, vol. ii.; Sainsbury's Cal. of Colonial State Papers, 1661–8; Pepys's Diary; Wood's Fasti Oxon. ed. Bliss, i. 316, ii. 375.]