Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James
Grant Wilson, John Fiske and Stanley L. Klos. Six volumes, New York: D. Appleton
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NELSON, Thomas, merchant, born in Penrith, Scotland, 20 February, 1677; died in Yorktown, Virginia, 7 October, 1745. He emigrated to this country about 1690, settled in Virginia, and founded the town of York, where he built the first custom-house in the colonies, one of the earliest brick buildings in the state. His dwelling was well known as the "Nelson House." The bricks and ornamentations were brought from England. The house shown in the engraving was built near the site of the original house, by William Nelson, in 1740. This building, which is still (1888) in the family, is in excellent preservation, as is his tomb, an elaborately carved marble mausoleum, covered with heraldic designs. He accumulated a large fortune in merchandise, and left several sons, of head of the moderate party, and received forty-five votes in the convention for Virginia's firstgovernor, but was defeated by Patrick Henry. He was chosen to the privy council, and for thirty years was its secretary. When the Revolution began he retired from public life, being too old to engage in the struggle. His house at Yorktown was Cornwallis's headquarters, but was subsequently destroyed by the Americans during the bombardment of the town.--Another son, William, governor of Virginia, born in Yorktown, Virginia, in 1711; died there, 19 November, 1772, added to his inherited property by the accumulation of many years of successful mercanthe ventures, purchased large landed estates, and became a great proprietor. He was a member of the executive council, subsequently president of that body, and in the interval that elapsed between the administration of Lord Botetourt and Lord Dun-more filled the office of governor. He also presided over the general or supreme court of law and equity for the province, and was one of the ablest judges of his time. His manner of living is shown by his remark in a letter to a friend, that he had just bought Lord Baltimore's six white coach-horses, and meant to give his own six black ones a run in Hanover meadows. William's son, Thomas, signer of the Declaration of Independence, born in Yorktown, Virginia, 26 December, 1738 ; died in Hanover county, Virginia, 4 January, 1789, was sent to Eton at fourteen years of age, and subsequently to Cambridge, where he was graduated. He returned to the United States in 1761, and on his homeward voyage was elected to the house of burgesses. About a year afterward he married Lucy, daughter of Col Philip Grymes, of Middlesex county, and inherited a large landed estate and £30,000, and dispensed a wide hospitality. He was a delegate in 1774 to the house of burgesses, over which Peyton Randolph presided, and when that body was dissolved by Lord Dunmore, because it had passed resolutions against the Boston port bill, was one of the eighty-nine members that declared against the unwarranted invasion of their rights, and recommended the appointment of deputies to meet in a general congress. He was returned to the next house of burgesses, was a member of the first general convention, which met in Williamsburg, 1 August, 1774, and of that of March, 1775, when he earnestly advocated the organization of a military force in the province. At the third convention, which met in the following , July, he was elected colonel of the 2d Virginia regiment, but resigned on being chosen to the Continental congress. In a letter to his kinsman, John Page, afterward governor of Virginia, dated Philadelphia, 13 February, 1776, he says" "We are carrying" on a war and no war ; they seize our property on land and sea, and we hesitate to retaliate because we have a few friends in England. Away with such squeamishness, say I! One of our reverend fathers in God refused to ordain a young gentleman who went from this country because he was a ' rebellious American, ' so that unless we submit to parliamentary oppression we shall not have the gospel of Christ preached among us. But let every man worship under his own vine and fig-tree." He was an active member of the State constitutional convention in May, 1776, and on 4 July signed the Declaration of Independence. He was compelled by a sudden and violent illness to resign his seat in congress in May, 1777. On returning to Virginia he became county lieutenant, and in August of that year, on the approach of the British fleet, he was appointed commander-in-chief of the state forces. In obedience to the call of congress for volunteer troops, to be equipped at the individual expense of men of property, he raised a troop of cavalry, became their banker, and accompanied them to Philadelphia. On resuming his duties in the legislature, he strongly opposed the proposition to sequestrate British property, on the ground that it would be an unjust retaliation of public wrongs on private individuals. He was again in congress in 1779, but was again compelled to resign by sudden indisposition, and in May was called upon to organize the militia to repel a marauding expedition of the enemy. In June, 1780, the state of Virginia called for $2,000-000 to be placed in the Continental treasury to enable congress to make provision for the French fleet. By his personal exertions Nelson endeavored to raise the money, but to his appeals he constantly received the reply'" We will not lend the government a shilling, but we will lend you, Thomas Nelson, all we possibly can." He therefore, on his personal security, raised the greater part of the loan, which he subsequently was obliged to redeem at a great sacrifice, and for which he received no compensation from the government. He also advanced money to pay two Virginia regiments that had been ordered to the south, but had refused to march until their arrears were discharged. He became governor in June, 1781, and opposed the ravages of the enemy with all the militia he was able to muster. At the siege at Yorktown he commanded the Virginia militia, and again displayed his disinterested patriotism by ordering that the artillery fire be directed on his own" mansion, which he supposed was the headquarters of Cornwallis. When the siege terminated, General Washington in his general orders thus spoke of his conduct .... The general would be guilty of the highest ingratitude if he forgot to return his sincere acknowledgments to his excellency, Governor Nelson, for the succors which he received from him, to whose activity, emulation, and bravery the highest praises are due." The remainder of Nelson's life was passed in retirement. His vast estate went for his public debts, and no recompense was ever made to his family for what he had expended. He is buried at Yorktown, in an unmarked grave, .but during the administration of Governor Henry A. Wise his statue, by Crawford, was placed, with those of five other patriots, on the Washington monument in Richmond, Virginia. The earliest portrait, painted in London by Chamberlin, in 1754, represents him as a youth of sixteen ; the later portrait is from a drawing in the possession of Dr. Thomas Addis Emmet.--Another son of William, Robert, patriot, born in Yorktown, Virginia, in 1743 ; died in Malvern Hill, Virginia, 4 August, 1818, was graduated at William and Mary in 1769, served in the Revolutionary army, and was captured by Colonel Tarleton in June, 1781. He was an ardent patriot, and, with all his brothers, sacrificed his property in the cause of his country. He was professor of law in William and Mary college in 1813-'18.--Another son, William, patriot, born in Yorktown, Virginia, in 1760; died at his residence, Malvern Hill, Virginia, 8 March, 1813, was graduated at William and Mary in 1776, in February of that year was commissioned major of the 7th Virginia regiment, and was captured by Tarleton with his brother Robert. He was professor of law at William and Mary college from 1803 until his death.--Thomas the signer's son, Hugh, diplomatist, born in Virginia, 30 September, 1768; died in Albemarle county, Virginia, 18 March, 1836, was graduated at William and Mary in 1790, was a member of the state house of representatives, and its speaker, and also a judge of the general court. He was a presidential elector on the Pinckney ticket in 1809, was elected to congress from Virginia, and served by successive re-elections from 4 November, 1811, till 14 January, 1823, when he resigned. He was then appointed United States minister to Spain, and served from 15 January, 1823, till 23 November, 1824.
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