Select Nicholson Surname Genealogy

The name Nicholas, which derives from the Greek Nickolaos meaning "conquering people," appears to have been introduced into Europe by returning Crusader knights during the 12th century.  It became popular there because of veneration for a 4th century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor named St. Nicholas - the precursor of today's Santa Claus. 

Although the longer Nicholas name was to be found in England, the most commonly used form, particularly among the peasantry, was Nichol or Nicol.  Nicholas and Nichol gave rise to the surnames Nicholas, Nichols, Nicholls, and Nicholson.  Their surname distribution shows the north/south divide that exists between Nicholson and Nichols/Nicholls.

Spelling variants are Nicolson in Scotland and Nickerson in Norfolk. 

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Select Nicholson Ancestry

England.  Nicholson is a northern English name, with some 70 per cent of Nicholsons in Victorian censuses to be found in Yorkshire and Lancashire and other points north.

Northern England  The earliest Nicholson family reference was as wool merchants in Hull in the East Ridings of Yorkshire in the late 1400's.  The Nicholson name appeared in parish registers from 1617 of nearby Huggate (Will Nicholson, a fisherman from Huggate, was an early emigrant to America) and later in those of Boynton.  By the late 17th century, the Nicholson name had spread across Yorkshire - including Bedale, an outpost in the Yorkshire dales. 

The other early Nicholson was Otho Nicholson or "Fitz Nigel" of Staffa Hall in Cumberland, whose descendants lived in Hawkshead.  The Nicholson name was also to be found in Carlisle, Caldbeck, and Aspatria by the 16th century.  Thomas Nicholson, born in 1522, was the forebear of the Nicholsons of Cartgate in Whitehaven. They were seamen and sometimes Quakers.  A later Nicholson was called "John the Navigator" and a number of them settled in the Virginia colony in the 1700's.

Thomas Nicholson was a successful banker in Leeds in the late 18th century.  He bought the old Roundhay estate on the edge of town in 1803 and redesigned it with a new mansion and landscaped park (which function in public ownership today).  Another Nicholson mercantile success came in Newark, Nottinghamshire where Benjamin Nicholson and his son William started up the Trent Iron Works in 1854.  Interestingly, this family then became known for its painters, first with Sir William and then with his children Ben and Nancy.

Southern England  The Nicholson name was and is to be found as well in the south, notably in London.  Much of this has reflected southward migration.  A Nicholson family from Lancashire, for instance, moved to Worcester in the 1840's to start an organ-building business.  That business still operates there today.  Nicholson in East Anglia may be indigenous, from Nickerson of the local Norfolk dialect.  

Scotland.  Clan Nicolson are a Lowland Scottish clan claiming descent from James Nicolson, an Edinburgh lawyer who died about 1580.  These Nicolsons established themselves at Lasswade in Midlothian for many generations.  A line was ennobled as Baron Carnock.  This family included the diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson and his son Nigel. 

MacNeacail is a Highland variation of the name and a branch in Skye did anglicize themselves to Nicolson in the late 17th century.  The Rev. Donald Nicolson, the head of the clan at that time, was reputed to have had 23 children and was the common ancestor for many a Skye family.  These Nicolsons rallied around Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745, but lost out heavily in the Highland Clearances in the 1830's and an exodus began. 

The last chief of the clan to reside in Skye was Norman Nicolson.  He had joined the British army and stayed on in Tasmania (where his line has continued).  Other Nicolsons from Skye departed for America (North Carolina), Canada, Austalia, and later to South Africa.  Alexander Morison Nicolson became a successful shipbuilder in China, but died in 1865 at the age of 33 after a boiler explosion.  His legacy is the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway. 

Ireland.  Nicholsons who crossed over to Ireland during the 17th century were to be found in Dublin, Down and Sligo, but most prominently in Armagh.  The forebear of the Nicholsons of Armagh was a Rev. William Nicholson who had arrived in Ireland in 1589 from Cumberland.  From this line came the Quaker Nicholson linen family of Lisburn (started by John Nicholson in the 1730's) and John Nicholson, the "hero of Delhi" at the time of the Indian mutiny.  This family had widespread connections through marriage and business with other Quaker families in the area.  

They displayed great care for their workers.  Joseph Nicholson of Bessbrook testified as follows in the mid 19th century:

"To one unacquainted with Ireland, the small earnings of the poorer females - frequently not more than two pence a day, working diligently from morning to night for months together - must appear very extraordinary."

Bessbrook, a model village for workers, was named after Elizabeth (Bess) Nicholson who had married into the Richardson family.

  There were three notable Nicholson families started in colonial America, the first by Governor Francis Nicholson from Yorkshire, the second by William Nicholson from the English Borders, and the third - it would appear, although it is not confirmed - by a mariner, Thomas Nicholson, from Whitehaven in Cumbria.
  • Francis Nicholson - of whom good things and bad things have been written - was at various times colonial governor of New York, Virginia, Maryland, and South Carolina.  Although he returned and died in England, his older son Richard remained, his progeny including Judge Joseph Hopper Nicholson who had his part to play in early American history.
  • The Nicholson family that originally settled in Anne Arundel county, Maryland produced distinguished captains in the American Navy who gave service in the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War.  There have been four US Navy ships named USS Nicholson in honor of these five Nicholsons.
  • A third Nicholson family decamped to an area known as Ragged Mountain in the Blue Ridge Mountains of NW Virginia sometime in the 1700's.  Here they intermarried with the Corbins for generations.  In the 1920's these families were described as "unlearned, uncouth, and totally removed from the rest of society" (although Audrey Horning's 2004 book In the Shadow of Ragged Mountain paints a slightly different picture).  In any event, they were removed from their mountain retreat to make way for Shenandoah National Park.
There were also Scots Nicholsons in America.  John Nicholson was a gunsmith in Philadelphia who manufactured firearms for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.  His son James started a bookbinding business which stayed with the family until 1911.  Then there were the Nicholsons who arrived in North Carolina in the early 1800's and then moved onto Georgia.  Later generations were prominent in the Coca Cola Company.

Another Scot was Malcolm Nicholson from North Carolina, who was in northern Florida by the 1820's.  Like many a pioneer settler at that time he combined the roles of physician and planter.  Malcolm died in 1840 but his sons Angus and Archibald revived tobacco growing on his Gadsden county plantation after the Civil War.  Their old farmhouse, built in the 1820's, still stands.

Canada.  The first Nicholson in Canada was possibly Captain Arthur Nicholson from Sligo who had fought on the British side in the Revolutionary War.  He was granted land in New Brunswick in 1784 and settled there.  A William Nicholson was born in Nova Scotia sometime before 1800.  His descendants were dam keepers, in charge of the water supply for the city of Halifax for almost a century (from 1848).

Nicolsons from Skye came to Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton in Nova Scotia during the 1830's - where many have preserved their Highland ways into modern days (Calum Nicolson has been a Gaelic poet in the old bard baile tradition). 

Australia.   John Nicholson from Newcastle was Sydney's first harbor master.  He is said to have come up with the first design for an Australian national flag sometime in the 1820's.  His sons owned land on the Monaro tablelands of NSW which stayed with the family until well into the 20th century.   

William Nicholson came out to Australia as a young man from Cumberland in 1842 and soon prospered as a businessman in Melbourne.  He rose to be Premier of Victoria and is remembered for having introduced the secret ballot.  Nicholson Street in Melbourne is named after him.  Another Nicholson from Cumberland, Sir Charles, came to Sydney at around the same time and built up a considerable business fortune there. Although he later returned to England, there is a Nicholson Museum in Sydney named after him.

Nicolsons from Skye started arriving in the 1850's after another bout of Highland clearances.  For many years Alexander Nicolson was a captain of ships which brought convicts from England to Australia.  Eventually, in 1857, he decided to bring his own family across.  They settled with relatives in an area known as Glen Alice.   

Select Nicholson Miscellany

If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:

Select Nicholson Names

Francis Nicholson
from Pickering in Yorkshire has been called "the father of water-color painting" in England.
William Nicholson was a noted English chemist and writer on natural philosophy in London at the turn of the 19th century.
John Nicholson was the British general from Dublin best known for his role in putting down the Indian Mutiny of 1857.  He was called "the hero of Delhi" for his exploits.
Harold Nicolson was a British diplomat of the early 20th century, best known for his published diaries.
Jack Nicholson has been one of the great actors of the late 20th century.

Select Nicholsons Today
  • 42,000 in the UK (most numerous in Durham)
  • 23,000 in the UK (most numerous in Texas)
  • 33,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada).

PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 800 surnames.

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