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 about 1690. He founded and laid out the town of York in 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 is the same house, still standing, that was to play an important role in the famous American victory over the British at Yorktown in 1781.
“Scotch Tom” married Margaret Reade in 1710, and 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 Trinity College at Cambridge where he graduated in 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 11 children. 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 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, and was elected to serve in the Second Continental Congress where he replaced Patrick Henry. 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.
In the spring of 1781 Nelson was elected Governor, succeeding Thomas Jefferson, who had replaced the first Governor, Patrick Henry. The Virginia Legislature was on the run at the time, pursued by the British cavalry commander Banastre Tarleton into Albemarle County.
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 his 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. Either the cannoneers were inaccurate or the event never happened, but there are three cannon balls still lodged on the outer wall of the house.
Thomas Nelson, Jr.’s personal fortune was ruined by the Revolutionary War. Raising a substantial money for the French fleet on his own credit, he was never compensated. In 1781 illness forced him to resign as Governor, and he moved to his son’s home “Mont Air” in Hanover County. He died on January 4, 1789 and is buried at the Grace churchyard at Yorktown.
This tribute was happily and affectionately paid to the memory of Thomas Nelson, Jr. by his good friend Colonel Innes:
The illustrious General Thomas Nelson is no more! He paid the last great debt to nature, on Sunday, the fourth of the present month, at his estate in Hanover. He who undertakes barely to recite the exalted virtues which adorned the life of this great and good man, will unavoidably pronounce a panegyric on human nature. As a man, a citizen, a legislator , and a patriot, he exhibited a conduct untarnished and undebased by sordid or selfish interest, and strongly marked with the genuine characteristics of true religion, sound benevolence, and liberal policy. Entertaining the most ardent love for civil and religious liberty, he was among the first of that glorious band of patriots whose exertions dashed and defeated the machination of British tyranny, and gave United America freedom and independent empire.
At a most important crisis, during the late struggle for American liberty, when this state appeared to be designated as the theatre of action for the contending armies, he was selected by the unanimous suffrage of the legislature to command the virtuous yeomanry intrepid of his country. In this honorable employment he remained until the end of the war, as a soldier, he was indefatigably active and cooly intrepid; resolute and undejected in misfortunes, he towered above distress, and struggled with the manifold difficulties to which his situation exposed him, with constancy and courage.
In the memorable year 1781, when the whole force of the southern British army was directed to the immediate subjugation of this state, he was called to the helm of government; this was a juncture which indeed ‘tried men’s souls.’ He did not avail himself of this opportunity to retire in the rear of danger, but on the contrary, took the field at the head of his countrymen; and at the hazard of his life, his fame, and individual fortune, by his decision and magnanimity, he saved not only his country, but all America, from disgrace, if not from total ruin. Of this truly patriotic and heroic conduct, the renowned commander in chief, with all the gallant officers of the combined armies employed at the siege of York, will bear ample testimony; this part of his conduct even contemporary jealousy, envy, and malignity were forced to approve, and this, more impartial posterity , if it can believe, will almost adore.
If, after contemplating the splendid and heroic parts of his character, we shall inquire for the milder virtues of humanity, and seek for the man, we shall find the refined, beneficent, and social qualities of private life, through all its forms and combination, so happily modified and united in him, that in the words of the darling poet of nature, it may be said:
His life was gentle: and the elements so mixed in him, that nature might stand and say to all the world—this was a man.
The circa 1740 Nelson House built by “Scotch Tom” Nelson before his death in 1745 in Yorktown, Virginia, and occupied by Thomas Nelson, Jr. during the Revolutionary War, is a National Historical Landmark maintained by the Colonial National Historical Park of the U.S. National Park Service.
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. The cornerstone for the monument was laid on February 22, 1850 in the presence of President Zachary Taylor and former President John Tyler. Cast in Germany, the statue arrived in Richmond in 1857.
The Virginia State Council for Higher Education named Thomas Nelson Community College in Thomas Nelson’s honor in 1967. Nelson County, Virginia and Nelson County, Kentucky are named in his honor.
John D. Nelson, descendant, 2008
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