Governor. Nicholson was born on November 12, 1655, near Richmond, Yorkshire, England. His parentage is uncertain. His mother’s identity is unknown, but many believed that he was the illegitimate son of Charles Paulet, Duke of Bolton. Paulet never acknowledged his paternity but assisted young Nicholson through his influence and patronage. Before he made his career as a colonial administrator, Nicholson was a soldier, serving at Tangiers, where he was aide-de-camp to the deputy governor of the short-lived British colony there. In 1686 Nicholson was in Massachusetts with Governor Edmund Andros, where he and Andros tried to organize the Dominion of New England, in the face of colonial opposition. Nicholson was named lieutenant governor of New York in 1688 and became lieutenant governor of Virginia a year later. Unsuccessful in securing the governorship of Virginia, he then took the post as lieutenant governor of Maryland in 1692, serving until 1698. In that year Nicholson was named governor and captain general of Virginia, a post he held for seven years. Nicholson lost his post in 1705 and returned to England. There he worked with the Board of Trade on economic and defense issues, and in 1709, during Queen Anne’s War, he commanded colonial troops in an invasion of Canada. The expedition failed, but in 1710 he led an expedition that recaptured Nova Scotia from the French. Two years later Nicholson returned to colonial government when he was named governor of Nova Scotia. He held that post from 1712 to 1714.
In 1720 Nicholson became the first royally appointed governor of South Carolina. In December 1719 the new royal colony had overthrown the government of the Lords Proprietors and petitioned to be brought under the umbrella of royal administration. Arriving at Charleston in May 1721, Nicholson found that the revolutionaries had created a hybrid government, mostly established on traditional British imperial policies but occasionally laced with proprietary-era practices. One of his tasks, as he saw it, was to bring the new royal colony into conformity with imperial policies. He naturally clashed with colonial leaders who had accomplished the revolution. His strong support for the established Church of England alienated colonial Dissenters, and he championed local landowners in their conflict with Charleston merchants over issues such as paper currency, debt relief, and imperial defense. As was the case with his previous colonial appointments, Nicholson’s tenure in South Carolina was contentious, but he was successful in preserving the viability of the colony.
The Lords Proprietors retained their charter to the lands of Carolina and tried many expedients to recover political control of their revolted colony. They attacked Nicholson’s administration, asserting that the governor was a customs racketeer and active in illegal trade with Spanish Florida. Nicholson left Charleston in May 1725 to confront his accusers in London. In addition to defending his actions in person, Nicholson published A Vindication of Francis Nicholson (1724) to answer the charges against him. Despite his intention to return to South Carolina, Nicholson never reclaimed his post. He died in London on March 5, 1728, and was buried in the churchyard of St. George Parish, Hanover Square.
McCully, Bruce T. “From the North Riding to Morocco: The Early Years of Governor Francis Nicholson, 1655–1686.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 19 (October 1962): 534–56.
———. “Governor Francis Nicholson, Patron Par Excellence of Religion and Learning in Colonial America.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 39 (April 1982): 310–33.
Moore, John Alexander. “Royalizing Carolina: The Revolution of 1719 and the Evolution of Early South Carolina Government.” Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 1991.
Nicholson, Francis. Papers. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williams- burg, Virginia.
Webb, Stephen S. “The Strange Career of Francis Nicholson.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 23 (October 1966): 513–48.