Francis Nicholson


Francis Nicholson, soldier, conqueror and later governor of Nova Scotia, colonial administrator; born 12 November 1655 (o.s.), at Downholme, Yorkshire; died a bachelor 5 March 1727/28 in London; buried in the parish of St. George, Hanover Square.

          Nicholson's parentage is uncertain; probably he was a son or close relative of Thomas Nicholson, successively governor of the Houses of Correction at Richmond and at Thirsk.  He had a sister of whom nothing is known save her married name, Phipps.  He was reared in the Anglican communion and in later life supported the work of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.  Nicholson's formal education remains obscure.  His correspondence indicates he received some elementary instruction in his boyhood, possibly at a free school in Richmond, near his birthplace.  During his youth he became a page of Charles Paulet (Powlett), Lord St. John of Basing (afterwards Marquis of Winchester), thereby gaining the patronage of that courtier and of his son-in-law, John Egerton, Earl of Bridgewater.

          On 16 January 1677/78 he was gazetted ensign in the King's Holland regiment, and served in Flanders till the regiment's recall and disbandment toward the end of December.  He rejoined the army 13 July 1680 as lieutenant in the Earl of Plymouth's regiment, a unit created especially for reinforcing Tangier against attack by the Moorish emperor.  At Tangier he was in due course selected for courier service.  Upon Tangier's evacuation in February 1683/84 he was ordered back to London, later rejoining his regiment in which he continued to serve as a subaltern till early in 1686.

          With James II's creation of the Dominion of New England, Nicholson, now captain of a company of foot, sailed that fall for Boston as assistant to Sir Edmund Andros, the governor-in-chief.  Less than two years thereafter he won appointment as lieutenant-governor, under Andros, at New York.  In August 1687 he was sent by Andros to Port-Royal (Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia) to seek the restoration of a New England fishing ketch captured off Acadian shores.  He failed to recover the boat, but did manage to gain some knowledge of military and other affairs in Acadia.  The Dominion's collapse in April 1689, on reports of James's deposition, set off an insurrection in Manhattan, causing Nicholson to hasten away in hope of mending his fortunes at Whitehall.  Embroiled in war with France, William III responded readily to the urgings of Winchester (now Duke of Bolton) by commissioning Nicholson lieutenant-governor of Virginia on 14 November 1689.  For 15 years he served there as a royal administrator and persistently championed the defence of New York's frontier against Canadian raids.  He was recalled from this post in April 1705 after many charges of fiscal maladministration had been made against him by the colonists.

          Because of his colonial and military experience he became associated as a volunteer in 1709 with Samuel Vetch, whose scheme for Canada's conquest by an inter-colonial land and sea invasion was ordered into effect by the Whig ministry on 1 March.  Following their joint appearance in Manhattan, Nicholson accepted command of the Connecticut, New York, and Jersey contingents, while Vetch laboured at Boston to mobilize New England units destined for Canada via the St. Lawrence River with British naval support.  By late July Nicholson had advanced up the Hudson River and deployed his troops in stockaded forts from Stillwater (north of Albany, New York) to the foot of Lake Champlain, whence with Iroquois assistance he could threaten Montreal, thus diverting soldiery from Quebec's defence.  The governor of New France, Rigaud de Vaudreuil, apprehending this stratagem, dispatched a reconnoitering force southward under Claude de Ramezay, whose report after a skirmish off Scalping Point (Pointe-à-la-Chevelure, opposite Crown Point, New York) confirmed Vaudreuil's fears.  However, all chance of success for the English vanished with the ministry's cancellation of its original naval orders.  Before these tidings arrived, Nicholson's force had become so demoralized by fatigue, supply shortages, and disease that they abandoned their outposts and streamed homeward.

          Nicholson, after a conference at Rehoboth, Massachusetts, sailed for Britain to press for another invasion attempt or an assault from New England on Port-Royal.  The latter proposal, promising tangible returns at no great cost to the crown, won ministerial approval.  Commissioned 18 March 1709/10 [29 March 1710 n.s.] commander-in-chief of an expedition to recover Nova Scotia for the queen, Nicholson set forth in May with 500 marines in a flotilla under Commodore George Martin, consisting of frigates, transports, and a bomb-ketch.  At Boston Nicholson's force was augmented by provincial troops under Vetch, and by additional supplies and sail.  On 18 September he embarked, and on reaching Nova Scotia's north shore entered the basin leading to Port-Royal.  Under cover of Martin's guns Nicholson disembarked his infantry beyond range of the fort, beginning a siege which terminated 2 October (13 October 1710 n.s.), with Auger de Subercase surrendering in the face of overwhelming odds.  The articles of capitulation gave the English control over the Port-Royal fort (now renamed Annapolis Royal) and over the inhabitants living within a three-mile radius of the fort.  The latter were given the freedom to move to Placentia (Plaisance) or New France if they so desired.  Those who remained were to take the oath of allegiance to Queen Anne.  The state of the rest of Acadia was not spelled out, but in effect the English regarded the Acadians as their subjects and expected them to provide any necessary services.  The military weakness of the Annapolis Royal garrison, however, rendered the English control of Acadia rather ineffectual.

          About a month after the fall of Port-Royal, Nicholson published a lengthy journal of the expedition in the Boston News-Letter.  Returning to England in triumph that winter, he was promptly ordered back to North America with the rank of lieutenant-general by Secretary Henry St. John, who persuaded Anne's new Tory ministry that British military and naval power could subjugate Canada within the framework of Vetch's original design.  Delayed in the Channel by contrary winds, Nicholson put in to Nantasket on 8 July 1711, barely two weeks ahead of Admiral Walker's squadron, whose projected advance up the St. Lawrence River with seven crack English regiments seemed to assure Quebec's capture.  Although Nicholson, with the middle colonies and Connecticut supplying the substance, again threatened to split Canada's defensive system via Lake Champlain, he was forced to withdraw when Walker and the other officers abandoned the naval attack after the fleet ran aground on the Île-aux-Oeufs in the St. Lawrence River.

          Slightly over a year later, in October 1712, Nicholson was appointed royal commissioner to audit colonial accounts, named governor of Nova Scotia and Placentia, and authorized to dispose of equipment brought home in Walker's store-ships.  These assignments, the brain-child of Lord Treasurer Oxford, were hopelessly grandiloquent in scope and resulted in Nicholson's undoing.  His proceedings at Boston in auditing provincial accounts embroiled him with the ex-governor, Vetch, whom Nicholson had accused of maladministration, and with two supply agents of the Annapolis Royal garrison, John Borland and Thomas Steel.  To enforce compliance Nicholson brought suit in court, but Vetch evaded this by taking off for Britain.  The signing of the treaty of Utrecht in the spring of 1713, by which England was given Acadia “within its antient boundaries,” had added greater stability to the English presence in Acadia.  The uncertainty about the location of these “boundaries,” however, was to cause difficulties later on.  Nicholson was instructed by Queen Anne in June 1713 to see to it that those Acadians who wished to remain in their homes were protected, and that those who wished to leave the country could freely do so.  No term was set for this latter concession.  In this and most other matters, Nicholson relegated the administration of the province to his lieutenant-governor, Thomas Caulfeild.  In fact, Nicholson spent only a few months in Nova Scotia while he was governor, from 11 August to 18 October 1714.  In August, Nicholson was present when Jacques d'Espiet de Pensens and Louis Denys de La Ronde came to seek permission to transport to Île Royale (Cape Breton Island) all Acadians who wanted to migrate to French territory.  Nicholson let the emissaries speak to the inhabitants of several settlements and most showed a desire to go to Île Royale.  When the agents requested a period of one year to effect the move Nicholson referred the question to London, saying that he did not know whether he could grant this request.

          Soon after George I's accession Nicholson sailed home where the Whigs, now entrenched in office, conducted lengthy investigations of his conduct in response to complaints from many of his recent subordinates at Annapolis Royal, including Caulfeild.  The general tenor of these charges was that Nicholson had neglected to see to the needs of the Annapolis Royal garrison.  No doubt Nicholson's Tory sympathies weighed against his cause as well.  Nicholson was dismissed and Vetch was appointed to succeed him.  In 1720, Nicholson received his last colonial appointment as governor of South Carolina and remained in that post until 1725 when he returned to England to stay.

          Nicholson alienated many contemporaries by his vehement temper and a show of vindictiveness which critics readily exaggerated.  Robert Hunter complained of his vanity, Vetch (once his admiring collaborator) termed him an illiterate madman, while Robert Beverly in Virginia ridiculed his pretensions as a town-planner.  By contrast, his field-officers, fellow-governors (such as Gurdon Saltonstall of Connecticut), and most Anglican clergymen extolled his generosity, consideration, and bravery.  Modern scholarship has yet to produce a satisfactory treatment of his career.  His personal appearance is unknown, but there is ample evidence that he was a man of robust physique endowed with unique stamina and energy.

—  Bruce T. McCully, Professor of history
College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia

—  Reference: Francis Nicholson Wikipedia

—  Reference: Sir Francis Nicholson by J.D. Lewis

Source: Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
Francis Nicholson (the original article)

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