The Nicholson Family – Joiners and Toolmakers

Francis Nicholson cornice plane
Fig. 1. Cornice plane by Francis Nicholson, 1683-1753. Note the first state of the name-stamp with a dot between the “F” and “N” (the only recorded tool with the stamp thus). Collection of Barnet Delson, M.D

Excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. 36 No. 2, June 1983

by Ann Wing

Francis Nicholson, of Wrentham, Massachusetts, is probably the best ­known American planemaker. Much information about him has appeared in The Chronicle of The Early American Industries Association. He apparently was the first to engage in the plane­making trade in Anglo-America. His son, John, was also a planemaker, as was his former slave and successor, Cesar Chelor.

We briefly summarize this published research on Nicholson:

1683/84 – Birth (from his age at death)

1713 – Appears in church rec­ords in Rehoboth, Massachusetts

1715-29 – Children born in Reho­both and later Wrentham

1722, 30, 48 – Marriages in Wrentham

1752 – Will, in which he refers to himself as a Tool Maker, bequeaths most of his tools to his only son John, and bequeaths some tools, bedding, clothing, etc. to his slave, Cesar Chelor, granting him his freedom also.

1753 – Death in Wrentham in his 70th year, a Deacon in the church.

John Nicholson and Cesar Chelor also made planes in Wrentham, using the same “Living in” and “Wrentham” stamps that Francis had. John also made planes in Cumberland, R.I.

The discovery of these facts, and the interesting way in which they are pre­sented in the original articles, have sparked a great deal of enthusiasm in 18th-century planemakers and have also raised many more questions. Here­with are the results of further research concerning the Nicholsons.

Having the good fortune to live in southeastern Massachusetts, we have been able to delve into many old records to learn more about this group of early American manufacturers, whose trade grew from joiners’ making a few extra tools for other joiners to full-time business, culminating in the wooden plane factories of the mid-nineteenth century. One of the most striking aspects of this research has been the amount of time and digging required to trace these men, who were not famous in their own time and did not leave records as the better known figures did; they were middle class workers/ crafts­men. One can spend literally days going through early deeds and other records and come up with no new information; and yet there are so many sources that, given time, one can learn a great deal.

The town of Rehoboth is in Bristol County, Massachusetts. A search of the land deeds there revealed that Nichol­son of Rehoboth purchased land in the town in 1716 (at the age of 33), with a John Rolestone, both men listed as “joiners.” This was the only land record of Nicholson in Rehoboth. Town rec­ords show both men being paid for work on the meeting house from 1716 to 1718, both individually and in partner­ship. Nicholson was paid for work on windows and casements, showing that he did indeed work as a joiner as a young man and did not start out solely as a planemaker.

Francis Nicholson mouding plane
Fig 2. Moulding plane with the F. Nicholson stamp in second state, with the dot altered to a six-point star. The stamp now much worn.

Because Wrentham, where Nicholson lived most of his life, was originally part of Suffolk County, the town’s early probate and land records are in Boston. A check of indexes there showed that John Rolestone owned property in Boston, which led us to look into the Vital Records of the city. Here we found three facts of immediate interest:
Francis Nicholson married in Boston, on 10 March 1707, Abigail Badger; their son John was born there on 4 March 1712; and, on the day before Francis’s marriage, John Rolestone married Dorothy Nicholson, providing an ap­parent family connection with Francis. One would like to assume that Dorothy was Francis’s sister, or perhaps his mother or sister-in-law remarrying.

The births of three children of Francis and Abigail appear in the Boston records: Mary in 1709, Mehitable in 1710, and John in 1712. Two more daughters were born in Rehoboth, Abigail in 1715 and Sarah in 1717. Another daughter, Elizabeth, who married in 1737, must have been born in this period, but she is in the birth records of neither Boston nor Rehoboth.

Francis’s wife Abigail died in Reho­both in 1721; and shortly more than a year afterwards he married Sarah Ware. The marriage took place in Wrentham, but their first two children were born in Rehoboth. Both of them and their brother born in 1729 in Wrentham died before the age of one; and their mother Sarah died in 1729, fifteen days before her younger son. One wonders whether this series of tragedies led Francis Nicholson to move from Rehoboth to Wrentham in 1728, as church records show that he moved in that year.

Francis Nicholson married twice more, Mary Ware in 1730 and Hannah Gay in 1748, but apparently had no more children. His eldest child, Mary, disappears from the records after her birth in 1709. Of the other eight, only three lived to adulthood and only one, his son John, survived him.

With such a wealth of dates on some of his children (we can even trace some of his great-grandchildren!), it is frus­trating to have so little information on other aspects of his life, the two most important here being his origins and his apprentices.

We have found no birth of a Francis Nicholson to date, nor can we find a record of his coming from England. There were some Nicholsons in Boston who were joiners in the late seventeenth century, but we have not been able to connect them with Francis. Records of the late 1600’s are, of course, incomplete and in places poorly indexed, and so with further digging he may turn up(!).

So many planes by makers in towns close to Wrentham resemble those of Francis Nicholson in style that he must have had several apprentices, or at least employees. Planes by Henry Wetherel of Norton, E. Clark of Middleborough, and Jonathan Ballou and Joseph Fuller of Providence, to name a few, appear to have been heavily influenced by the Nicholson school. It is possible that Francis’s planes were the only professionally made ones available distributed in any quantity and the other men merely copied them; but the geographic proximity of all the makers tends to make one favor the apprentice theory. One hopes that more hours with dusty volumes will produce a key to these relationships.

It seems safe to assume that both John Nicholson and Cesar Chelor learned the planemaking trade from Francis Nicholson; we can be certain from the records that they at least worked together.

We have been able to answer some questions about Francis’s son John: he was born in Boston on 4 March 1712. Checking Vital Records of towns close to Rehoboth and Wrentham, we have found that John Nicholson of Wrent­ham married Mary Throop in Bristol, R.I., on 10 November 1736. A son John was born and died in Wrentham the following year. Daughters Abigail (born 1738) and Mary (born 1740) married in Wrentham and died there in 1775 and 1780, respectively. John’s wife Mary died in Wrentham in 1741.

With two small daughters, John married Mercy Ware (a niece of Francis’s wife Mary and cousin once ­removed of Sarah) in 1742. They had three daughters, Mercy, Elizabeth, and Sarah, born in 1743, 45, and 47, respectively.

The first land deed of John’s that we have found is dated 1739 (John was age 27)in Wrentham, in which Francis and John Nicholson, joiners, purchased land together. In 1746 John bought more land in Wrentham, on both sides of a brook called Abbots Run.

It has been assumed that John moved from Wrentham to Cumberland, R.I. because planes have been found marked with both town names. Suffolk County deeds showed him in Wrentham up to 17 46, in Cumberland from 17 51-63, and in Wrentham again from 1770-86.

We have now found that he did not move from Wrentham to Cumberland – ­the border moved! The boundary be­tween Rhode Island and Massachusetts had been in dispute for some time and was settled in 1746/47, the new town of Cumberland being formed from the “At tie borough Gore” section of Wrentham. The land which John Nicholson bought in Wrentham in 1746 was sold by him in 1747 – but the land was now in Cumberland, obviously a part of the border change. Abbots Run Brook is still in Cumberland today.

Interestingly, John apparently did move from Cumberland back to Wrentham sometime between 1763 and 1766, as he is referred to as being “of Cumberland” in deeds from 1747 to 1763 and “of Wrentham”from 1766 on.

Further evidence that John Nicholson was affected by the border change is the fact that his daughter Sarah was born in Cumberland in 1749 but baptised in Wrentham – the church must have been on the Wentham side of the new line.

Cumberland town records show that John Nicholson served on the Town Council in the years 1752-3 and again in 1755-7 (1754 was the year when he was administering his father’s estate). Thus evidently he was a respected member of the community.

An interesting change in the records of John Nicholson is the fact that the land deeds give his occupation as joiner or yeoman to 1754 and consistently as gentleman from then on. Whether he became more wealthy (because of his father’s estate being settled in that year?), rose in social status, or simply chose to list his occupation differently is

While the Cumberland dates are now fairly definite, many questions remain. John’s wife Mercy died in Wrentham in 1785. A year later, a daughter Mary was born to a John and Sarah Nicholson in Wrentham; was this the same John, having remarried and fathering a child at the age of 74? (His first daughter Mary had died in 1780.) There is no marriage record for John and Sarah Nicholson in Wrentham or Cumber­land and we have found no birth record of another John Nicholson who lived to adulthood and could have married the mysterious Sarah. The baby Mary died within a month, but a son John was born in 1787.

According to the 1800 Census, a John Nicholson was head of a household in Norfolk County (which now included Wrentham), the household consisting of one elderly male, one elderly female, and a male between 10 and 16. This could be our planemaker at the age of 88, with a son aged 13.

Abbots Run on map
Fig. III. Detail of the R.J.-Mass. border, c. 1753, from the W. Douglas map. Abbots Run is in the
upper center.

This is not as outlandish as it may sound-an obituary in the (Mass.) Columbian Centinal dated 31 October 1807 lists Capt. John Nicholson “formerly of Wrentham, d. in Union, age 96.” A helpful librarian and several telephone calls led to the discovery that John Nicholson died in Union, Maine, on 8 October 1807, at the age of 96, fitting with the 1712 birthdate of the planemaker (Maine was, of course, part of Massachusetts until 1820.) Further, according to a town history of Union, John and Sarah Nicholson joined the church there in 1803. Thus it seems very likely that the planemaker and the father of John in 1787 are one and the same man.

Why John Nicholson moved to Maine is still a mystery to us, as are gaps in the dates that we have found for him. Between 1771 and 1785 we have found him in no land deeds or other records; this many just mean that he was not actively trading land, or it may have more significance, since this was the period of the Revolution.

John Nicholson is referred to as “Captain” in documents at least as early as 1763. Perhaps he gained experience in the French and Indian wars and participated in the Revolution. His military records, if indeed any exist, must be researched. It is possible that he was involved only with local militia, or that Captain was merely an honorary title.

The other long gap in the records is between 1787 and 1800, during which period he was presumably in Wrentham, here again perhaps just not terribly active (he was in his 70s by then). A search of the land and other records in Union may yield some clues to both this gap in the records in Wrentham and the reason for the move to what is now Maine.

Because of his age (91 when he and Sarah joined the Union church in 1803), one would think that he went to live with a daughter or son· but the only child to survive him, as far as we have been able to find, was his son John who was only 16 in 1803.

Quite possibly, however, some of his grandchildren could have been living in Union.

And so, as we have come to expect, finding information on early plane­makers seems to raise as many questions as are answered. We have learned a great deal more about John Nicholson and his father Francis; and yet we still do not know where Francis came from or who either man trained as apprentices. We have no business records of either father or son, and now we find John going off to Maine at an advanced age for an unknown reason!

Obviously, the story is far from complete.