Nicholson Surname Genealogy

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

Resources on

Nicholson Ancestry

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

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
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.

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

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
. 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

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.
this line came the Quaker Nicholson linen family of Lisburn (started by
Nicholson in the 1730’s) and John
Nicholson, the “hero of Delhi”
at the time of the Indian
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
    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

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.
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

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,
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.

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
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
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

  • 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).



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