YORKTOWN — Each year on Independence Day, names like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington come to mind. But who were some of the more obscurely known Founding Fathers? Today, we will take a look at the Historic Triangle’s own, Thomas Nelson, Jr.
An Early Life of Privilege
Thomas Nelson, Jr. was born in Yorktown, Va. in 1738. The eldest of five sons, he was able to trace his lineage back to England’s King Henry III, a distant familial connection to King Charles II of England, Ireland and Scotland, and strong ties to Prince Donald O’Neill of Ulster, Ireland.
Nelson’s grandfather, “Scotch Tom” Nelson, came to the Virginia colony in 1696 at 19 years old. Five years earlier, the Virginia General Assembly declared that Yorktown would be the official port of entry for the colony’s capital in Williamsburg.
“Scotch Tom,” was the first in a three generation family line to run a mercantile business all the while Yorktown emerged as one of the biggest and busiest slave markets in the colony. His son, William (and father of Thomas Nelson, Jr.), also continued the family businesses, both in the mercantile and tobacco plantation industries.
At the tender age of 14, Nelson sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to receive a formal education. There, he attended several different schools before graduating Hackney School and Cambridge University in 1761.
After his graduation, Nelson returned to Virginia and entered into the mercantile business and helped his father manage the family plantation in Yorktown. In 1692, Nelson married Lucy Grymes.
Lucy was previously married and had sons that inherited several plantations that Nelson was responsible for managing, including Carter’s Grove in James City County.
As a wedding gift from his father, Nelson was given a large estate that included 20,000 acres of land, 400 slaves and £30,000 (or the equivalent today of ~£6,592,799 or ~$9,120,479).
Nelson’s Professional Life
Two years after marrying Lucy, Nelson became a Justice of the Peace for York County. From there, he entered into the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg; a seat that his father, William Nelson, secured for him.
In May 1774, Lord Dunmore, governor of the Virginia Colony, dissolved the House of Burgesses due to representatives’ protest over the Boston Port Act. That year, Nelson was a member of the provincial convention in Williamsburg and served as a member of the Continental Congress from 1775-1777.
The American Revolution
As a member of the Virginia Provincial Convention, Nelson helped create what would become the Virginia Militia, assuming the duty of its first commander.
However, once elected to the Continental Congress, he resigned his position with the Militia.
A deep believer in severing the colonies’ ties with Britain, Nelson traveled to Philadelphia to present to Richard Henry Lee an approved resolution drafted by Edmund Pendleton for national independence. Lee redrafted the resolution as part of his own June 7, 1776 resolution. It was at this time Nelson was recognized as one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Nelson’s health began to decline and he split his time between Philadelphia and Virginia, though forced to resign from the Continental Congress in spring 1777.
After a respite period, Nelson reentered service, given the rank of brigadier general in the Virginia Militia. In the spring of 1778, Nelson aimed to create new troops for light cavalry. However, Congress appealed this motion. Instead, Nelson partially funded the birth of the cavalry as well as outfitted and trained the unit.
His poor health continued to plague him, forcing Nelson’s inconsistent service, both in government and military.
In 1781, however, Nelson made a bit of a “come back,” as he was elected to the position of Virginia’s governor.
From September to October 1781, Nelson took part in the Siege of Yorktown. Nelson family tradition states that asked General George Washington to fire upon his own home when he learned that it was being used as headquarters for the British.
After the War
Following the victory at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, Nelson’s ill health overtook him and he was forced to resign his governorship.
He retired from public service and took up residence at one of his more modest estates, Offley Hoo, in Hanover County. It was there that he died in 1789 at the age of 50.
Thomas Nelson, Jr. was interred in the cemetery of Grace Episcopal Church, 111 Church Street in Yorktown. Those who traverse the hollowed grounds of the churchyard are bound to find his grave, clearly marking the eternal resting place of this Founding Father.