Title: Portraits of signers of the Declaration of Independence
Call Number: MSS 12130
Citation: Robert Edge Pine. Copies of Pine's Portraits of Signers of the Declaration of Independence,1820, Accession #12130, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.
This photo has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.
(1734 - 1792)
Read Spouse Bio
Children:Children of Thomas and Lucy – William, Thomas, Philip, Francis, Hugh, Elizabeth, Mary, Lucy, Robert, Susanna, and Judith.
Thomas Nelson Jr.
Thomas Nelson, Jr. was born on December 26, 1738, at Yorktown, Virginia, the son of William Nelson and Elizabeth Burwell. He was known as “Junior” because his uncle Thomas Nelson was also of Yorktown. Through his mother’s Burwell family and her Carter ancestors, his family’s history can be traced back to King Henry III in England.
Thomas Nelson’s grandfather, Thomas Nelson, who was known as “Scotch Tom”, was born on February 20, 1677, at Penrith, England (located on the Scottish border) where records indicate he was Baptized in the local Church of England and came to America in 1695, 1698, 1700, and finally 1705. “Scotch Tom” was a merchant and built the first custom house in the colonies. He also built Nelson House about 1740 in the presence of William Nelson and Thomas Nelson, Jr. as an infant. This house is still standing and is a National Historical Landmark maintained by the Colonial National Historical Park of the U.S. National Park Service. This house was occupied by Thomas Nelson, Jr. during the Revolutionary War.
“Scotch Tom” married Margaret Reade in 1710. Her family’s history goes back to Sir Thomas Windebank who was clerk of the signet to Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. Margaret Reade’s ancestor, Richard Reade, was knighted and acquired a property listed in the Domesday Survey, and the Reade family can be traced back to King Edward I and Eleanor of Castile.
Thomas Nelson, Jr., received his primary education from the Reverend Yates of Gloucester County and went to England for additional schooling in 1753. He attended Eton and then entered Christ College at Cambridge where he completed his education 1761. He returned home to the family mercantile business at the age of 23. While still on board his ship on the way back home he was elected to Virginia’s House of Burgesses.
Nelson married Lucy Grymes on July 29, 1762, and they had 13 children, 2 dying in infancy. Through her mother’s family, Mary Randolph, Lucy was the cousin of many of the founding fathers who served with her husband including Peyton Randolph, Benjamin Harrison, Carter Braxton, the Lee brothers and Thomas Jefferson. Her grandfather, Colonel William Randolph, was born in 1651 and came to America from Yorkshire, England in 1674.
Thomas Nelson, Jr. came to manhood just as the colonies began to protest the new direction in the mother country’s colonial policy. In 1774, the House of Burgesses was dissolved by Lord Dunmore because of its resolutions censuring and condemning the closing of the Port of Boston. To protest this action, Nelson began spending some of his personal fortune sending needed supplies to Boston. He arranged a Yorktown tea party and personally threw two half-chests of tea into the York River.
Nelson was elected to represent York County at the first Virginia Convention which met at Williamsburg August 1, 1774. Prominent in the debate over the question of military force, Nelson was appointed colonel in the second Virginia Infantry Regiment in July 1775. He was elected to the House of Delegates in 1776. As a delegate on May 14, 1776, Nelson presented a resolution “that our delegates in Congress be enjoined in the strongest and most positive manner to exert their ability in procuring an immediate clear and full declaration of independency.” This motion was seconded by Patrick Henry and soon adopted. He was then elected to serve in the Second Continental Congress where he replaced Patrick Henry. He took this resolution with him which authorized Richard Henry Lee on June 7, 1776, to move for full independence of the Colonies.
Nelson and Patrick Henry had each been appointed Colonel of a Virginia infantry regiment, but Nelson resigned his commission to take a seat in Congress. Here he voted for independence and signed the Declaration of Independence. Nelson continued his service in Congress but was forced to resign in May 1777 when he experienced a bout of severe asthma. He returned to Virginia and in time recovered sufficiently to lead the Virginia militia in the field.
In the spring of 1781 the Virginia Legislature was on the run while being pursued by the British cavalry into Albemarle County. Nelson was leading the Virginia militia, which had joined with the Marquis de Lafayette, and the Virginia Assembly moved across the Blue Ridge Mountains to reconvene in Staunton. On June 12, 1781, they elected Nelson as Virginia’s third governor. He was notified in his camp on the South Anna River in Hanover County on the 16th and arrived in Staunton on the night of June 18. The following day he was sworn into office to serve both as Governor and military commander of the Commonwealth.
By early September the American and French armies were closing in on Cornwallis who had decided to await evacuation of his army at Yorktown. When the French fleet arrived, Cornwallis’ fate was sealed. During the siege and battle Nelson led the Virginia Militia whom he had personally organized and supplied with his own funds. Legend had it that Nelson ordered his artillery to direct their fire on his own house, which was occupied by Cornwallis, offering five guineas to the first man who hit the house. This story is likely apocryphal since while his home still stands with two cannonballs in its brick walls, while the home of his uncle, Secretary Thomas Nelson for whom he was named, was destroyed. The cannonballs were placed there by the NPS.
Thomas Nelson, Jr.’s personal fortune was ruined by the Revolutionary War. Raising a substantial money to pay for the costs of the militia and other costs of the war, he was never compensated. In November of 1781, illness forced him to resign as Governor. He was replaced by Benjamin Harrison, another Signer. His health, badly effected by his time in the field campaigning, never improved and thus years later while visiting his son’s home “Mont Air” in Hanover County, he died on January 4, 1789. He was only 50 years old. He was buried nearby but was later reinterned in the Grace churchyard at Yorktown. His wife, Lucy, is buried in Hanover County in the Fork Church cemetery.
Nelson’s friend, Dr. Smith, left this account of his death:
“From his unexampled patriotick exertions during the late war he had exhausted a fortune and at the time I mention saw his property arrested, and a prospect of sinking from affluence, almost to absolute poverty. My friend! you can easily conceive the poignant distress of a man in this situation, with an amiable wife and a dozen children around him. He cou’d not bear it. I attended him in his last illness and saw that the exquisite tortures of the mind were the disease that destroyed his body.”
On Capitol Square (the capitol grounds in Richmond, Virginia) is the George Washington memorial known as the Washington Equestrian Monument. Six lesser statues are displayed on that monument positioned in an oval shape under Washington. Thomas Nelson, Jr. is one of them, along with Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, George Mason, Patrick Henry and Andrew Lewis.
Nelson County, Virginia and Nelson County, Kentucky are named in his honor.
John D. Nelson, descendant, 2008
Leroy A. Keller, Jr. and Thomas Page Nelson, 2021
- Barthelmas, Della Gray, The Signers of the Declaration of Independence, (McFarland & Co., Jefferson, NC. 1997)
- Blatteau, John and Paul Hirshorn, The Illuminated Declaration of Independence, (1976)
- Collins, Gene, The Signers of the Declaration of Independence, (2000)
- Ferris, Robert G. and Richard E. Morris, The Signers of the Declaration of Independence, 1982
- Fradin, Dennis B., The Signers, 2000
- Charles A. Goodrich, Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, web edition, New York: William Reed & Co., 1856. (http://www.colonialhall.com/, accessed 2007)
- Maier, Pauline, American Scripture, Making the Declaration of Independence, (New York, Alfred A. Knoph, 1997)
- Lossing, B.J., Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence, (1848)
- Malone, Dumas, The Story of the Declaration of Independence, (1954)
- Nelson, John, Dandridge (descendant)
- The Prudential Insurance Company of America, The Signers of the Declaration of Independence, date NS
- Evans, Emory G., Thomas Nelson of Yorktown, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, The University of Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, 1975
- Lee, Nell Moore, Patriot Above Profit, Rutledge Hill Press, Nashville, Tennessee, 1988