The Nicholas family of Virginia, 1722-1820

Golladay, Victor Dennis, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Peterson, Merrill D., Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Abbot, William W., Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia

During the late colonial, revolutionary, and early national periods of Virginia history, the Nicholas family furnished the state and the new nation with leaders on all political levels. For example, Robert Carter Nicholas of Williamsburg held the high post of Treasurer of Virginia from 1766 to 1776, while his sons served in posts in three states -- Virginia, Kentucky, and New York -- and in the new national government as spokesmen for the Jeffersonian Republicans. Yet, after 1820 the Nicholases provided very few leaders of note, and any influence formerly held by the family died.

The rise and fall of the Nicholas family provides an interesting insight into the social patterns of Virginia's elite. In 1722, the founder of the family, George Nicholas of Manston, Dorset, was transported to Virginia for life in lieu of being hanged for forgery and counterfeiting. Despite his disgrace, George Nicholas quickly carved a place among Virginia's social elite. Using his English gentry background, Cambridge education, and slight medical training to maximum advantage, he styled himself a physician, married the eldest daughter of Virginia's wealthiest planter, acquired large tracts of Piedmont land, and ultimately served in the House of Burgesses as the representative of the College of William and Mary.

Although orphaned while still quite young, George Nicholas' three sons made good use of their father's foundation. All three entered professions associated with law or local government, married into prominent families, and acquired additional lands and wealth. The youngest son, Robert Carter Nicholas, achieved the greatest distinction, but all three were known as worthy gentlemen of merit. In their endeavors, the three brothers reaped the advantages of family connections with the Carters, Pages, Nelsons, and Burwells.

The Revolution provided new opportunities of leadership for the third generation of Nicholases. Several served as officers in both state and continental forces. They also continued the family tradition of political service on the local and state levels. After the Revolution, the family reached its zenith of influence as members played [strikethrough 'served'] prominent roles in the battle for adoption of the federal Constitution, filled seats in the Virginia House of Delegates, and took places in both houses of Congress. Wilson Cary Nicholas even served as Governor of his native state at the close of the War of 1812.

Unfortunately, the post-Revolutionary period also witnessed patterns which eventually destroyed the family's political influence and drove several members to economic ruin. Dr. George Nicholas of Williamsburg had exhibited a tendency to pursue unwise financial investments, and many of his grandsons seemed to have inherited the trait. Mounting debts and the declining fertility of Virginia's soil led several members of the third generation to leave the state for new beginnings in Kentucky and western New York. Unprofitable speculation in western lands, decreasing land values, and unrealistic hopes for returning prosperity combined to ruin some estates which had been carefully constructed for three generations. Emigration destroyed any usefulness of familial ties in state politics while hard times made it necessary for heads of families to pay more attention to maintaining their waning estates and less attention to public service. Although a few great-grandsons of Dr. George Nicholas attained political offices, none achieved the distinction of the earlier generation. The influence of the Nicholas family as a political unit in the Old Dominion had ended.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Nicholas family, Virginia history, post-Revolutionary period, political influence

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

Thesis originally deposited on 2016-02-18 in version 1.28 of Libra. This thesis was migrated to Libra2 on 2017-03-23 16:37:54.

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