Collections of correspondence not only make fascinating reading but are also fantastic sources of information for many historical disciplines, not least family historians. It is important, however, that the contents are correctly interpreted and contextualised, as if not, the result is a misaligned pedigree! The following is taken from the:
Old letters found in Loaned House at the death of Mrs White and taken possession of by Mrs Grace Ann Smith her daughter [wife of George Smith of Ancroft] and by her, handed to me Stephen Sanderson October and November 1865 ...’
The Nicholson, Smith and other associated families such as the Middletons etc., about some of whom I have previously written, intermarried on several occasions and a goodly chunk of Norham’s churchyard collectively bears witness to their passing. Many of the early generations of these families are buried in close proximity to one another.
London, 28th January 1716
On the 28th January 1716, a young man wrote home to his family on Tweedside from London. The letter is written in an elegant italic hand which displays evidence of a good education and the content suggests a maturity that is possibly beyond his years.
He was about to embark on a new life in Maryland but had been delayed due to ‘frost so strong here of the like of it has not been seen these many years, our Ships are all fast yet tho we have had a Thaw these eight days’ as London was held in an icy grip. He hoped to be underway within the next fourteen days aboard a ship called 'The Colchester' under the command of a Captain Samson.
'The previous day he had received a letter from his mother which brought news of grave illness in a close family member. She had also sought his advice about a possible apprenticeship for his brother, John, to a Mr Bordley who was currently in Newcastle. Whilst his mother is concerned for John’s welfare & hopes Mr Bordley will be kind to John and provide him with ‘all the necessaries’ during his seven years, (for she was unable to), the writer is more concerned his brother may be hindered by forgetting his Latin! He concedes, however, he would be ‘very glad’ to have his brother near him.
His ‘Master’ is a Merchant who has loaded ‘scarce any thing youl name but he has bought’ aboard ship in preparation of departure. The writer has with him his own parcel containing ‘a dozen Laced Hatts’ on which he has expended the last of his money, perhaps in the hope of trading them for a profit at his destination.
He closed his letter:
Love to my Brother & sisters & all friends, & that God almighty may bless you &
keep you all in good health till I see you again is the earnest prayer of him who
is your most loving Brother
[note ‘Brother’ written in the singular.]
The penman’s name was James Nicholson and his letter tells the reader a good deal about himself, his family and their situation in just a few short lines.
Information contained in the letter
Collections such as these are a real boon for historians as they are packed with references to so many aspects of history that extend beyond the interest in the family to whom the letters relate. Following this particular archive of correspondence takes the reader on a series of social, economic, political as well as personal journeys through the eighteenth century on both side of the Atlantic, with all manner of associated hardships and joys.
These topics are not the feature of this month’s blog, however, but the use and analysis of collections such as these and how they can make us better researchers, is a topic planned for a future article for Family Tree Magazine; so keep an eye open for it! Instead, this month’s blog asks just who were the parents of James Nicholson our intrepid traveller in 1716, for he was NOT the son of George Nicholson of Loanend and his wife Mary as widely accepted and documented.  Somehow, somewhere a spot of misalignment has clearly occurred!
James Nicholson of South River, Maryland d. 1764 – the Evidence
The ‘established’ pedigree in public circulation records that James Nicholson who emigrated to Maryland in 1716, was the son of George Nicholson (1641 – 26 Jun 1727) of Loanend, Horncliffe, Northumberland and his wife Mary (c.1639 – Nov 1704). Taking this first letter alone and in isolation strongly suggests this simply cannot be for the following reasons:
When subsequent correspondence is taken into consideration the evidence against the parentage suggested is compounded:
At first glance it would appear the letters, which constitute crucial primary evidence, were not consulted as part of the research into this particular area of the Nicholson family tree. Whilst this is altogether disappointing and of some concern to me, what is most surprising is the fact this glaring error has not been spotted before now, particularly as Philip Aynsley-Smith spent a great deal of time researching the Nicholson family in the late 1980s. For a basic error such as this to have escaped his meticulous research and recording thereof is most out of character. Needless to say on further investigation Philip had indeed spotted the problem and taken steps to have it rectified.
How the errors in the Nicholson pedigree occurred
In an attempt to source the origin of the misalignment a bit of digging in Philip’s records was required. It appears there was more than one single contributory event that led to it appearing in print.
( Many thanks indeed for your letter of 15th March – and with all the material comments (in Red ink!) and useful extra information that I hadn’t got. I must say thank you for putting me right regarding page 1 – and the generation of George – I clearly was wrong there – and certainly needed red ink. I have amended my tree accordingly.)
Sadly, there is no documentation of exactly which George he writes but given previous correspondence I strongly suspect it was regarding James Nicholson’s incorrect parentage. It appears the amendments may never have been made, as the misalignment of James’ parentage has persisted into the 2003 edition of his book, some six years after Philip’s death.
From this evidence alone it would appear that the researcher in Brisbane has in good faith recreated the pedigree as given to her by the Rev Nigel Nicholson and attached it to another family history published in Australia in 2016. The Rev Nigel Nicholson in turn derived his information from historian John Crawford Hodgson and was unaware of the errors and amendments that should have been made until they were brought to his attention by Philip. As Philip was to discover, this was not the first time Hodgson’s Nicholson pedigree had fallen under the scrutiny of a family member, but that evidence does not belong here.
The earlier Generation – Errors & Omissions
The Parentage of William Nicholson gentleman of Berwick upon Tweed died 1690.
The ‘Master’ of whom James Nicholson, our intrepid traveller writes was a William Nicholson of South River, Maryland, a tobacco grower, Merchant and landowner. William’s wife died of measles on 9th March 1717 and William, followed shortly after in 1719. James Nicholson was recorded in his Will as both a servant, friend and as an Executor. He was bequeathed £5 a young horse and a suit of mourning clothes but nowhere was any form of kinship recorded or inferred.
William of Maryland was undoubtedly the son of William Nicholson, a wealthy gentleman of Berwick upon on Tweed who died in 1690. He left a detailed Will dated the 15th April of the same year, which names his surviving children and places executorship thereof in the hands of his son William and a nephew Cuthbert Brady. The accompanying inventory dated 20 February 1691 totalled £78 3s 8d.
Given the attention to detail here and in other clauses of his Will I find it somewhat strange that if he had had a son named William neither he, nor his heirs, were mentioned at all.
The Missing Generation
Missing from the pedigree entirely are two key individuals who nonetheless left evidence of their passage in the form of a probate Bond & Inventory and a Will & Inventory. One dates from 1689 and the other 1690, which when William Nicholson of Berwick is added to the equation, makes a total of three Nicholsons with potential connections to Loanend to die within a twelve-month period. The first absentee is a John Nicholson of Loanend whose Will is dated 5th July 1689 and accompanying Inventory the 29th July of the same year.
[Extract from North East Inheritance Database, DPR/I/1690/N3/2.] A True & perfect Inventory of the goods and Chattels which John Nicholson late of Hornecliff (alias) Horcliffloanend in the County pallatine of Durham yeoman, Taken Vallued & Apprized the nine & twentieth day of July Anno D[omi]ni 1689 by us whose names are hereunder Subscribed
His Will mentions the following 3 children
The second individual who is currently absent from the pedigree is a Robert Nicholson of Loaned who died sometime before his Inventory was prepared on the 14 April.
[Extract North East Inheritance Database DPR/I/1/1690/N5] Aprill the 14th 1690 A True Inventary of All the Goods And Chattels which belong to Robert Nickolson of horclief lonend Lattly Deceased Taken And Aprised by those whose names Are under written This 14 day of Aprill in the year of our Lord 1690
Sadly the relating Bond DPR/I/3/1690/B22 is not available online which might have held clues to his relations through whoever was granted administration of his estate. Is it possible this is Robert the eldest son of George who died in 1655?
Whatever the relationship may have been, it is eminently clear that the individuals in both cases farmed, if not owned, the land at Horncliffe Loanend. As both John and Robert appear after it is stated Loanend was purchased in 1626, they, and their offspring if any, should also feature in the family tree. The fact they do not would suggest that their relationship to one another as well as to others in the early part of the pedigree has not yet been determined. In the limited time spent on the collection to date I can shed no light on the matter either beyond expressing an opinion that they were undoubtedly family members who have, for whatever reason, been overlooked or omitted.
So, who were James Nicholson of Maryland’s Parents?
As to the parentage of James Nicholson who sailed to Maryland in 1716, although not 100% verified I can be a little more certain. A kinship to the Loanend Nicholsons certainly existed at least by marriage, as I strongly believe he was brother to Elizabeth Nicholson, wife of Robert Nicholson of Loanend and one of at least 6 children born to the Rev Alexander Nicholson d.1711 and his wife Alison Home whom he married at Gordon in 1685.
Be cautious in taking relationships too literally; a brother may mean brother-in-law or sometimes even a more distant relative, and a cousin may be far more removed than first. Customs surrounding forms of address and terms of endearment differed from what we know today, so it is as well to be on your guard to prevent misalignments appearing in a family tree.
(If you are interested in my transcripts of the Wills mentioned in the above post please contact me for copies.)
 The original letters and other documents in this collection are deposited at Berwick Record Office NRO 1955/A.
 The Rev Canon Nigel Nicholson & Mrs Rosemary Kitson, ‘Nicholson being a Compilation of Family trees of Nichsolon and Nicolson …’, Gateshead, 2003, Vol II. p.554; Michael White, ‘19th Century Pioneer:
Frank Villeneuve Nicholson Family in Australia’, Appendix I - George Nicholson of Loanend down to Frank Villeneuve Nicholson (1655 to 1898) Compiled by Kaye Mobsby p.12, Brisbane 2016; Circa 70 Ancestry Online Trees; etc.
 Michael White, ‘19th Century Pioneer: Frank Villeneuve Nicholson Family in Australia’, Appendix I - George Nicholson of Loanend down to Frank Villeneuve Nicholson (1655 to 1898) Compiled by Kaye Mobsby p.12, Brisbane 2016
 England & Wales, Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills, 1384-1858 for Gulielmi Nicholson, PROB 11: Will Registers, 1713-1722, Piece 572: Shaller, Quire Numbers 1-48 (1720)
 North East Inheritance Database DPR/I/1/1691/N4/1-2 & DPR/I/1/1691/N4/3
 North East Inheritance Database DPRI/1/1664/N3
 North East Inheritance Database DPR/I/1/1690/N5/1-2
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