Guide to the James Witter Nicholson Family Letters

MSN/EA 5002


Collection Summary

Title: James Witter Nicholson Family Letters
Dates: 1804-1848
Collection No.: MSN/EA 5002
Creator: Nicholson, James Witter, 1773-1851
Creator: Montgomery, Maria Nicholson, 1775-1868
Creator: Few, Catharine Nicholson, 1764-1850
Creator: Christie, Thomas, 1808-1880
Extent: 58 letters; 1 container
Language: Collection material in English
Repository: University of Notre Dame. Hesburgh Libraries, Department of Special Collections. 102 Hesburgh Library, Notre Dame, IN 46556
Abstract: The collection consists mostly of family letters directed to James Witter Nicholson of New Geneva, Pennsylvania, during the first half of the nineteenth century. The chief correspondent is Nicholson's sister, Maria Nicholson Montgomery

Selected Search Terms

New York (N. Y.) -- Social life and customs -- 19th century
Baltimore, Battle of, Baltimore, Md., 1814
Gallatin, Albert, 1761-1849

Administrative Information

Restrictions: There are no access restrictions on this collection

Preferred Citation: James Witter Nicholson Family Letters, Department of Special Collections, Hesburgh Libraries of Notre Dame.

Acquisition and Processing Note: The Nicholson letters were purchased by the Hesburgh Libraries of Notre Dame in 2003, from Dan Casavant Rare Books of Waterville ME. They were arranged and described in 2003, by George Rugg. Finding aid 2008, by George Rugg.

Biographical Note

The majority of the letters in this family correspondence were directed to James Witter Nicholson (1773-1851), of New Geneva, Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Most were written by Nicholson's sisters, especially Maria Nicholson Montgomery (1775-1868), of New York and Baltimore. The Nicholsons' father, James Nicholson (1737-1804), was a Maryland native who, like others in the family then and later, went to sea at an early age. In 1763 he made an advantageous marriage to Frances Witter (1744-1832), the only child of a prosperous Bermudian merchant, and settled in New York. With the coming of the Revolution Nicholson joined the Continental navy, commanding vessels in several actions and becoming, through a Congressional resolution of October 1776, the young service's senior captain—hence the "Commodore" familiarly attached to his name in later life. After the war Nicholson turned his attention to politics. From his home on William Street, and from his summer residence at Greenwich, north of New York City, he became an influential figure in the local anti-Federalist circles, serving for a time as president of the Democratic Society of the City of New York. Four of his five daughters married men active in public life. The eldest, Catharine (1764-1850), wed Colonel William Few (1748-1828), who represented Georgia at the Constitutional Convention and served as one of that state's original U. S. Senators. Hannah Nicholson (1766-1849) was the second wife (m. 1793) of Albert Gallatin, the chief architect of Democratic-Republican financial policy and Secretary of the Treasury under Jefferson and Madison. Gallatin's intimacy with his in-laws—he typically spent a good part of the summer with the Nicholsons, at least until his departure for Europe in 1813—confirmed the family's position among New York's Republican elite, even after the death of James Nicholson in 1804. Also contributing to the family's political prominence was "Cousin Joseph," Joseph Hopper Nicholson of Maryland (1770-1817), elected as a Republican to the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Congresses. The Nicholsons' third daughter, Frances (1771-1851), married Joshua Seney (1756-1798), who served Maryland in both the Continental and United States Congresses. Jehoiadden Nicholson, called Adden (1783-1828), youngest of the five daughters, married a Presbyterian clergyman named James W. Chrystie (1786-1863).

The fourth Nicholson daughter (and primary author of the letters), Maria Nicholson, did not marry until her thirty-fourth year, and so spent her young adulthood at the William Street and Greenwich homes during the heyday of the family's political influence. In 1809 she wed a Republican congressman, John Montgomery (1764-1828) of Harford County, Maryland, then in the midst of three consecutive terms in the U. S. House of Representatives. The couple moved to Baltimore in 1811, when Montgomery became state attorney general, and were still residing there during the British campaign of 1814; both Montgomery and Joseph Nicholson fought in defense of the city. Maria Montgomery would remain in Baltimore through her husband's tenure as the city's mayor (1820-26), moving back to New York only after his death in 1828. The couple's only child, James Nicholson Montgomery, died in 1814. In her later years Maria appears to have remained financially independent, though the tone of her letters darkens, and their content is increasingly informed by her Presbyterian faith. She died in 1868, aged 93.

James Witter Nicholson, the recipient of most of the letters, was the only son of James and Frances Nicholson to survive to adulthood. His settlement on the western Pennsylvania frontier was an immediate consequence of his sister's marriage to Albert Gallatin. Nicholson was one of five original investors in Albert Gallatin & Co., a partnership aimed at developing business interests along the Monongahela River in Fayette County, where Gallatin owned land. In 1795 Nicholson went west with his partners to found the community of New Geneva, working to establish a general mercantile store, mills, and subsequently a glassworks. The partnership ended in 1799, with Gallatin assuming complete ownership of the group's assets. Because Gallatin's political obligations limited the amount of time he could spend in the West, James Nicholson stayed on to oversee his interests. He would remain in New Geneva for the rest of his life, though to no enduring financial advantage; the Gallatin glassworks failed in 1822, and the rest of the western properties were sold off in the early 1830s. During the 1820s Nicholson served as New Geneva's postmaster. To judge by his sisters' letters, his later years were unhappy ones, plagued by debt, family difficulties and tragedies (including the deaths, between 1832 and 1847, of his wife and four of his children), and poor health. He died at New Geneva in 1851.

Scope and Content Note

The collection contains two discrete series of letters. The larger and more significant consists of 51 letters sent to James Witter Nicholson in New Geneva, distributed rather evenly over the years 1804 to 1842. Thirty-nine of these were written by James's sister Maria Nicholson Montgomery, and nine more by his sisters Catharine Nicholson Few (7) and Jehoiadden Nicholson Chrystie (2). These are personal letters, written first and foremost to maintain contact with a distant brother who made only occasional journeys to the Nicholson family enclaves in New York and Maryland. In the letters of Maria Montgomery family news is paramount; common topics include the whereabouts and activities of family members, their visits and travels, their health and illnesses. Persons most frequently mentioned include Maria herself and her husband; her mother; and her sisters and their families (the Fews, Gallatins, Seneys, and Chrysties). Later letters are increasingly filled with news of her sisters' children, their education and prospects. Hannah Nicholson's husband, Albert Gallatin, is often mentioned, even when in Europe (as he was for most of the period 1813-1829). Mention is also made of more distant relatives (like Joseph Hopper Nicholson), and of family acquaintances. Politics, and national affairs in general, are touched on in some of the earlier letters; Maria was clearly an interested (if partisan) observer of public life. The later letters show an increasing preoccupation with religion. Of particular interest are Maria's letters of September and November 1814, relating to the British attack on Baltimore in the War of 1812.

Eight additional items in the collection are personal letters written by or to the children of James and Adden Nicholson Chrystie, dating from 1825 to 1848. Most relate to one or the other of the two oldest Christie sons, Thomas (1808-1888) and James, Jr. (b. 1811).

Arrangement Note

The collection is arranged chronologically, one item per folder.

Container List