Captain John Nicholson (1756 Kent Co., MD -1803)

Captain John Nicholson, son of Joseph and Hannah (Smith) Nicholson, was born in Chestertown, Maryland, in 1756.  He was commissioned a lieutenant in the Navy on August 17, 1776 and was placed in command of the ship HORNET.  He attained the rank of Commodore.
     John Nicholson married Rebecca Holt.  He had three sons who followed him into the Navy, including Commodore William C. Nicholson.  John Nicholson lived in New York and in Chestertown, Maryland.  He built a fine house in Chestertown (111 N. Queen Street) which has been restored as a private residence.

From the "Kent Shoreman", Earleville, Md. 21919   Sept. 1968

By Maynard P. White

When James Fenimore Cooper wrote his two volume THE HlSTORY OF THE NAVY OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA in 1835, he was intrigued with the Chestertown family naval dynasty of Captain James Nicholson (1736-1804), senior officer of the Continental Navy. He noted that since 1775 fifteen gentlemen of this family had served In the Continental and United  States Navy, with two of them wearing broad pennants and the third dying as he was appointed to one. As Cooper wrote his history, the third generation was then (1839) serving In the U, S Navy. The number becomes more impressive when we add the names of the Nicholson's Kent County distant cousins, Captain Lambert Wickes and his younger brother Richard Wickes, both of whom lost their lives serving In the Continental Navy. Even larger when we add the name of Captain Alexander Murray, their first cousin who was also born in Chestertown, and their nephew, Captain Charles Gordon of the U, S. Navy. From October 1776 to October 1821, a Nicholson brother or Alexander Murray had been at the head of the Continental Navy or the United States Navy, with the single exception of Captain John Barry's service as senior officer of the U, S. Navy from 1794 to 1803.

Cooper's 1839 history must have immensely pleased the aged Captain John Nicholson, as he was the sole survivor of the first generation of this family naval dynasty. He was the younger brother of Captains James and Samuel Nicholson, having been born in Chestertown in 1756. There is every reason to believe that he was educated in The Kent Free School where his father Colonel Joseph Nicholson was a Visitor and Governor, and then in England as his older brothers were. No doubt he was then educated to the seas as his three elder brothers had been.

When the fighting began at Lexington and Concord In April of 1775, John Nicholson was but nineteen years old, but he like his entire family, was galvanized into action on the Continental side. In 1774 his father had become a member of the Kent County Committee of Correspondence, and a member of the extralegal revolutionary assembly that sat at Annapolis from 1774 to 1777, when the first state constitution went into effect. Eight of the American colonies formed their own state navies, and it was in the Maryland State Navy that James and John Nicholson were commissioned Captain and Lieutenant respectively. As head of the Maryland Navy Capt. James Nicholson was given command o f the largest armed vessel, the DEFENSE, but we know from surviving correspondence that Lieutenant John Nicholson was generally Its master while his older brother James stayed at Fells Point supervising the construction of the Continental frigate VIRGINIA, to which he had been appointed Captain by the Continental Congress.

When the list of Captains of the Continental Navy was changed rather drastically In October of i776 to reflect a swing away from New England domination, Captain James Nicholson replaced Esek Hopkins of Rhode Island as head of the Navy, a position he held until the Continental Navy was finally disbanded In 1785.  On this occasion, John Nicholson was commissioned Lieutenant in the Continental Navy, and appointed First Lieutenant on the large Continental frigate WASHINGTON then building. With the political power of his older brother and Richard Henry Lee In Congress, John Nicholson rose rapidly in the Continental Navy. In November 1776, John Nicholson was promoted to Captain and given command of the Continental sloop of war (a two
masted vessel) HORNET

Captain John Nicholson served with distinction as skipper of the HORNET, when In 1777 he was ordered by the Marine Committee of the Continental Congress to blow up the HORNET In the Delaware preparatory to the British invasion of the capitol at Philadelphia when the British naval control of the area was all but complete. John Nicholson blew up the HORNET, but in this mission of self destruction he was taken prisoner by the British and held In the Naval Prison at Falmouth, England. Light is shed on this imprisonment by correspondence of his cousin Captain Lambert Wickes of the REPRISAL and his middle brother Captain Samuel Nicholson of the armed cutter DOLPHIN, who was serving under Lambert Wickes In his legendary cruises In British home waters. Captain Wickes sought money from Benjamin Franklin, American minister In Paris, to relieve the suffering of Captain John Nicholson In the British naval prison.

John Nicholson was either exchanged, escaped, or "bought out" of prison, as In 1780 he was again at sea. in 1780, Captain John Nicholson temporarily relieved his older brother Samuel as skipper of the Continental frigate DEANE, sailing from Boston. Captain Samuel Nicholson had held an active, continuous command longer than any officer In the navy, being on deck from 1776 to 1782, with the exception of the time he was relieved by his younger brother John in 1780. When the war ended the Americans had only two vessels larger than armed schooners, these being the frigates ALLIANCE and DEANE.

When peace came In 1783, Captain John Nicholson returned to resume his life In Chestertown. His brother James moved to New York, and Samuel to Boston. John Nicholson was admitted to the Society of the Cincinnati In 1786. Like his father he was no doubt a Chestertown merchant of considerable affluence, In addition to being Register of Wills for Kent County. The father, Colonel Joseph Nicholson, continued in his capacity of High Sheriff of Kent County as well as Colonel o( the Kent Militia, and In 1782 along with the Rev. Dr. William Smith he was a founder of Washington College.

In February of 1787, John Nicholson probated his father's will, receiving a large Inheritance. In the following spring he bought a lot on Queen Street from the Chestertown merchant Thomas Smyth, where he erected his handsome brick town house in the Federal style. In the post war period the port of Chestertown was rapidly shipping from its position of earlier prominence, in deference to the rise of the port of Baltimore. The disruption of the traditional provisions trade to the British West Indies Island sugar plantations by the war, was largely responsible for this decline. Captain John Nicholson's town house is one of the very few Federal town houses In Chestertown, as opposed to its many earlier and magnificent Queen Anne and Georgian merchant's town houses, reflecting the port's earlier trade affluence. The Nicholson-DERINGER house brick work is laid out In the then voguish American or Common bond, and the elaborate cornice detail is also done In the newer brick work. The very sophisticated interior is generally more elaborate than the simpler Federal interiors, and is essentially a strong hold-over from the Georgian style.

Captain John Nicholson was active In local affairs. In the few extant issues of the CHESTERTOWN APOLLO OR SPY and the CHESTERTOWN GAZETTE for the year 1793, he crops up many times, especially as a member of the Chestertown Committee of Public Safety to seal off Chestertown by water and land from visitors while the deadly yellow fever epidemic was ravaging Philadelphia In that year.

We do not know whether Captain John Nicholson tried to enter he United States Navy when It was formed In 1794. His older brother Samuel entered It as second ranking officer, as did his cousin Alexander Murray, also as a Captain. In April of 1798 Captain John Nicholson wrote from Chestertown as the undeclared Naval War with France (1798-1800) loomed, offering his services as a Captain In the U. S. Navy. The letter was addressed to Captain John Barry, head of the U. S. Navy. Barry rejected the otter, which was a small gesture, largely because he disliked all the Nicholsons, and during the Revolution, like Captain John P. Jones, he was always trying to become the senior officer of the Navy, but like Jones he was singularly unsuccessful In this endeavor.

The construction of the Baltimore built frigate CONSTELLATION went not to Captain John Nicholson, but to Captain Barry's Philadelphia friend Captain Thomas Truxton, who had not served in the Continental Navy, but who had made a modest fortune during the Revolution as the master of privateering vessels. The second skipper of the new frigate CONSTELLATION was Captain Alexander Murray, John Nicholson's Chestertown born cousin. The frigate CONSTITUTION was built under the supervision of Captain Samuel Nicholson, also the frigate's first skipper,

Captain John Nicholson moved away from Chestertown sometime around 1800-01, as when he sold his elegant town house on Queen Street in September of 1801, he was listed as living In Baltimore County. Though most of the Nicholsons seem to have been violent Democratic-Republicans and followers of Jefferson, Captain John seems from the little evidence available to have been a Federalist. He held his appointive office as Register of Wills tor Kent County as long as the Federalists controlled the Maryland State House, but when they lost it in the elections of 1800, John Nicholson lost his political appointment.

Of the original generation of this naval dynasty, less Is known of Captain John Nicholson who seems to be the "quiet man" in a family who went through life with a full press of canvass.  This is no doubt due to the tact that he did not enter th Navy as did his brother Samuel or participate in politics on a national scale as did his brother James in New York City.  One of James Nicholson's daughters, Hannah, married Albert Gallatin, Jefferson's's Secretary of the Treasury. James Nicholson took his politics seriously enough to anger Alexander Hamilton, his political opponent in New York, to challenge him to a duel in 1795, though subsequently this duel did not come off, though we know not for what reason.

On December 10, 1839, in his eighty third year and "being of perfect mind, but feeble in bodily strength and uncertain how long I may be permitted to live," Captain John Nicholson made his last will and testament. Captain Nicholson's constitution remained as strong as his will to fight in the epic and trying days of the Continental Navy, and it was not until five years later in the summer of 1844 that the patriarch of this remarkable family naval dynasty crossed the bar.

John Nicholson's town house still stands in Chestertown and is indeed one of the community's architectural gems. The Nicholson house seemed to complete a cycle. When its present owners acquired it in that year its preservation was begun and its future assured. It also found itself "In the Navy" again as it became the proud possession of Captain and Mrs. Deringer, USN (Ret.), who have shared tt with the public in innumerable local house tours and Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimages. In 1968, the Maryland Historical Trust selected the Nicholson-DERINGER house among several others in a select group, to be entered on the National Register of historic and architectural landmarks.

My comments continued:

The date of John Nicholson's death is not completely clear.  In an article from the "Shoreman" in 1968 written by Maynard P. White, his death and will are given as 1844.  Correspondiongly, in an article of the U.S. Navy regarding the current ship USS NICHOLSON, his death is given as 144.  However, other evidence indicates he died in 1803.  In Land Records of Queen Anne's County (2-17-1804, Catherine Nicholson (presumably the daughter of John Nicholson) of Baltimore mentions dec'd father John Nicholson.  Also, in Land Records of Queen Anne's County (4-1-1803), Rebecca Nicholson of Baltimore described as widow of John Nicholson when she transferred land to Arthur Holt.  John's wife was Rebecca Holt.  Also, in "Ancestry of Albert Gallatin and Hannah Nicholson", New York, Press of T.A. Wright, 1916, it is stated in regard to John and Rebecca's son, William Carmichael Nicholson, "In 1808 after the death of both of his parents he came to live in the family of Albert Gallatin in New York".  Therefore, these other sources indicate that John died by 1803 and Rebecca died by 1808.  And, finally, from Marriages & Deaths from Baltimore Newspapers, Surnames, M-N, Page 238: "Nicholson, Mrs. Rebecca, widow of Capt. John Nicholson, died last Tues., in her 43rd year, leaving several children. (BEP 8 Oct 1808)".