Nichols Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Nichols Surname Meaning
Nichols and Nicholls are the patronymic forms of the medieval given name Nicholas – from the Greek Nikolaos (meaning “to conquer people”), a name popular among Christians because of a fourth century saint that bore that name.  Early spellings of the surname were variable. The Nichols spelling became more common in eastern England, Nicholls in western England. Nicholls is more common in England, Nichols in America.

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Nichols and Nicholls Surname Ancestry

England.  Nicoll was recorded in the village of Islip in Northamptonshire in 1467, the year that the names John and Ann Nicoll were inscribed in the chancel of the local church. Matthias Nicoll left the village for America and was the first English Mayor of New York in 1671. Another Northamptonshire family has been traced back to William Nicholls who acquired Ecton manor in 1540. His family used the same coat of arms as those of the Nicholls of Cornwall and the Nicholls of Llandwit Major in Glamorgan.

Nicholls.  Nicholls has been a relatively common name in Cornwall. The county ranked second after London in terms of Nicholls frequency in the 1881 census:

  • the oldest family was probably the Nicholls of Penvose near St. Tudy who had held a manor there until 1678 (this family may trace back to a John Nicholl of Bodmin who was murdered in the town on Easter Day 1398).
  • the Nicholls of Trereife near Penzance date from about 1600.
  • a Nicholls family in Redruth has been traced back to the birth of William Nicholls in 1671. another William Nicholls was in the 1690’s the first in a long line of stonemasons in St.Keverne. Sir George Nicholls of St. Keverne was in the 1830’s the first British Poor Law Commissioner.

Nicholls in general is a west country surname. The surname is also common in Devon, Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, and Staffordshire.

Nichols.  Nichols, by contrast, has appeared primarily on the east coast of England, in a line running south from Yorkshire to London with a particular concentration in Norfolk. The Nichols, however, are outnumbered by about three to one by the Nicholls.

Wales. Some say a Nichols line began in Wales with Nicol de Albini in the 11th century. A Norman Bishop Nicol of Llandaff followed. From this line, it is thought, came the Nicholls of Landwit Major in Glamorgan, beginning with Nichol ap Thomas in 1465. This family lived in the Great House, a building later abandoned and then restored in the 1950’s.

America.  Matthias Nicoll, the mayor of New York in 1671, was the patriarch of the Nicoll family which settled and owned much of Long Island. Numerous place names there bear his name. Richard Nicolls of Bedfordshire (originally from a Nicholls family in London) was New York’s first Governor, although he later returned to England.

Thomas Nicholls was the seventh son of a Cornishman, Edward Church Nicholls, who had come to America at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War and settled in Louisiana. His seventh son Francis was a Brigadier General in the Confederate army and served for two terms as the Governor of Louisiana.

Nichols.  However, the main spelling in America has been Nichols. Francis Nichols from Sedgeberrow in Worcestershire was an early arrival in New England, recorded in Stratford, Connecticut in 1639. Thomas Nichols was the forebear of the Nichols of Rhode Island. They included two deputy colonial governors of the state, Jonathan father and son.

Amos Nichols from London came to Pennsylvania in 1681, having received a land grant from William Penn. His son, also named Amos, was a trader along the Chesapeake Bay, but of dubious reputation.

“He was described on several occasions as owing debts, being a vagrant, and possibly inciting trouble among the frontier Indians. He stood trial for both robbery and forgery, but managed to get acquitted each time.”


Amos Nichols died in Chester county, Pennsylvania in 1725. His son John was one of the first settlers of western Maryland.

Today Texas has the largest number of Nichols. One early line of Nichols there began in Virginia with Solomon Nichols at the time of the Revolutionary War. George Washington Nichols and his family migrated via Tennessee via Arkansas to Texas in 1836 and made their home in Gonzalez county. His brother Rowland Nichols came later to Kerr county in 1856, but tragically met his death there in 1859 as a result of an Indian attack.

Nichols in America may have other origins. An early example was a Hessian soldier Christoph Nicolaus who defected during the Revolutionary War and stayed in Charleston, South Carolina as Christopher Nichols. More recent examples have been Jewish, like the film director Mike Nichols and the comedian Dan Nichols.

Canada. Some of the first Nichols in Canada were Loyalists who crossed over the border after the Revolutionary War was lost. Captain John R. Nichols arrived from Long Island and settled with his wife Katherine in Digby, Nova Scotia. Another John Nichols, this time originally from Rhode Island, was in Quebec by 1790. William Nichols of New Haven, Connecticut never made it, as he died in 1783. But his wife and five children reached Wilmot, Nova Scotia where they claimed compensation from the British Government.

From Devon in England in 1836 came George and Sarah Nicholls, followed by George’s brother John. They settled in Binbrook, Ontario.

Australia.  John Nichols, arrested for stealing in London, was one of the First Fleeters transported in 1788 on the Scarborough to Australia. He obtained his release in 1791 and took up a grant of land He and his wife Ann raised eleven children. Kaye Purnell’s 1988 book The Story of John Nichols narrated his story and those of his descendants through five generations.

Two Nicholls brothers, Henry and Charles, left London for Melbourne in 1853 and headed for the Victorian goldfields. Their hopes of organizing miners into a cooperative ended in failure. Henry pursued a life as a journalist and ended up as the editor of the Hobart Mercury. One of his sons, Herbert, became Chief Justice of Tasmania. Lake Nicholls in the Western Highlands was named after him.

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Nichols and Nicholls Surname Miscellany

The Nicoll Inscriptions in Islip Church, Northamptonshire.  “John and Ann Nicoll, 1467.

  • Here lies John Nicoll and Ann his wife
  • They had twelve children in their life
  • Six sons, six daughters, they had over
  • Three sons went to London to work, to learn
  • To his children he was full kind
  • May God in heaven maybe it find
  • He was a good man to God and to holy Church
  • For he caused many good deeds there to work
  • His soul has passed to God in full even
  • The year our our Lord 1467
  • On whose soul God have mercy
  • Amen for charity.”

Matthias Nicoll who Died in America in 1687.  “The screen together with the stalls and reredos were erected by Delaney and Benjamin Nicoll of New York in the year 1911 to commemorate their ancestor Matthias Nicoll who as secretary for the Duke of York’s expedition departed to America in 1664 and after the capture of New Amsterdam became Mayor of New York in 1671, Speaker of the First Colonial Assembly, writer of the Duke’s laws, and died on December 22, 1687 and was buried at Manhasset, Long Island.”

The Nicholls of Trereife in Cornwall.  These Nicholls date back to 1590 when William Trereife married Elizabeth Fleming at Madron in 1590 and their oldest son assumed the name of William Nicholls.  The family resided at Trereife House on the outskirts of Penzance.

John Nicholls, a successful London barrister in the early 18th century, rebuilt the house into the mansion which stands today.  There is a plaque to him in Madron church:

“Near this place in the grave of his fathers whom he honored lies interred the body of John Nicholls of Trereife esquire, who being born in the year of our Lord 1663 was sent to London in the year 1680 and having served a laborious clerkship was in 1688 sworn as one of the Clerks of the High Court of Chancery.  Having with great industry and integrity increased the paternal estate of his family, he was in the year 1705 called to the Bar by the Middle Temple. Having for some years practiced with success there, he retired to the seat of his ancestors and, having made many improvements, departed this life the 3rd day of August 1714 in the 53rd year of his life.”

His nephew Frank, born in 1699, practiced medicine in Cornwall and later became physician to George II.  Frank’s son John went on to become an MP and took the stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds.

The Nicholls line at Trereife ended when William Nicholls, also a London barrister, died unmarried of the ossification of the joints in 1815 at the age of  28.

London’s Harvey Nichols Store.  In 1831 Benjamin Harvey opened a linen shop in a terraced house on the corner of Knightsbridge and Sloane Street in London. The business passed onto Harvey’s daughter on the understanding that she went into partnership with a Colonel Nichols, selling Oriental carpets, silks, and luxury goods alongside the linens.

Their Knightsbridge store was opened in 1880 and Harvey Nichols position as an upmarket department store began.  In 1919 Harvey Nichols was bought out by Debenham. 

Nichols and Nicholls Worldwide.  Nicholls is more common in England, Nichols in America.  They following are estimated numbers today.

Numbers (000’s) Nichols Nicholls
UK    13    35
America    48     2
Elsewhere    15    16

The Nichols of Rhode Island.  Most of the Nichols families of Rhode Island are descended from Thomas Nichols, the first of that name to settle in the state.  He married Hannah Griffin in Newport in 1659 and they raised a large family.

Where Thomas came from is unclear.  Reference can be seen in the literature to two brothers, Thomas and Edmund, from Llandwit Major in Glamorgan who escaped the turmoil of the English Civil War in their own boats, heading first for Barbados and then for New England.  It is hard to know what truth there is to the story.

It does seem that much confusion and mischief was caused by the publication in 1919 of a monograph titled Origins of the Nichols Family by Leon Nelson Nichols, an 8th generation descendant of the first Thomas Nichols of Newport, Rhode Island.  He was a librarian in the New York City Library system and availed himself of the resources of the library to pursue his family research interests.

In this monograph, he discussed his supposed findings on the European origins of his family.  He found various historical connections to documented individuals and families of prominence in Britain, including:

  •  the Nichols family at Llandwit Major in Glamorgan
  • the first Norman bishop at Llandaff, Wales (Urban)
  • and a chieftain of Normandy (Nigel or Niel Aubigne).

He further embellished his tale by using documents and books which did not refer to the Nichols family at all.

Most of this research was exposed as a fraud by George Louis Nichols in a forward to the 1988 revision of his book A Nichols Genealogy, which he entitled: “Nichols Family History as Told by Leon Nelson Nichols is a Fairy Tale.”

The Death of Rowland Nichols in Kerr County, Texas.  The following report appeared in Bob Bennett’s book Kerr County 1856-1956.

“In 1859 there lived five miles above Kerrville a settler named Rowland Nichols. One evening, he went out about a mile from home to kill a turkey. When he failed to come back at night the family became alarmed and the neighbors were notified.

Daniel Adolphus Rees, first county clerk of Kerr County, was one of those who responded, but nothing could be done until morning. In company with others, Rees followed the trail of the missing man up a draw to a point about one mile from his home. Here the trail turned abruptly in another direction and the plain trail of numerous Indian tracks told the tale.  Nearly a mile from this point the body of Nichols was found against a tree.

Nichols had halted there and got the tree between himself and the Indians. The tracks showed that the pursued man had circled around the tree repeatedly; the bark was raked from the tree all around where he had held to it with both hands in a vain endeavor to keep the trunk between himself and his foes.  The settler had one arrow in the breast and one arrow and one bullet wound in the body. The bullet and arrow had first struck the left arm about halfway between the elbow and shoulder and then penetrated the body not more than a half-inch apart.

Going back to the spot where the Indians sign was first discovered, it was evident that here was where the settler had received the arrow in his breast from ambush. The prints of his knees were in the sandy soil where he had come down to either fire his rifle, or from the shock of his wound.  If from the latter, he dropped his gun without firing, but recovered and ran to the spot where the body was found.  His gun was discovered after a search, covered up in the sand where the Indians had left it. The gun was still loaded.”

Despite Rowland’s death the Nichols family proliferated in and around Goat Creek Road in Kerr county and have frequently held reunions.

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Nichols and Nicholls Names
  • George Nichols from Oxford was an English Catholic martyr during the reign of Queen Elizabeth.
  • J. C. Nichols was a prominent real estate developer in Kansas City in the first half of the 20th century. His projects included America’s first suburban shopping center. 
  • Herbie Nichols was the American jazz pianist and composer who wrote Lady Sings the Blues.
  • Mike Nichols, born Mikhail Peschkowsky, is a well-known American film director. He arrived with his parents in America as Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.
Nichols and Nicholls Numbers Today
  • 48,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 54,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 31,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)
Nichols and Like Surnames   

Patronymic surnames can be with either the “-son” or the shorter “s” suffix to the first name.  The “s” suffix is more common in southern England and in Wales.  Here are some of these surnames that you can check out.

AdamsHarrisNicholsStevens
AndrewsHicksRichardsWalters
DanielsMatthewsRobbinsWilliams
GibbsMorrisSimmonsWillis

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