The Nelson Family Narrative

Copyrighted by Richard S. Thornton, August 30, 2011


esearching my mother’s family has been a bit frustrating. Nelson is a very common name and information from my mother was skimpy. Later in her life she tried to gather some family material because so few relatives were still living. By the time I started this project only she and one of her “blood” relatives were alive.

The earliest known Nelson in my mother’s notes was John, born around 1793 in East Tennessee, who with his wife, Jane, migrated to Missouri and settled in Lafayette County next to Lexington Missouri before it was laid out in 1820. Little was known of Jane other than it is said that she was also from Tennessee. With this limited record and an investigations of census reports brought the Nelson family history to contemporary times, but there were no records of the earlier Nelson families. Even fewer records are found of other family connections. This changed at least for the Nelson family when a chance search on the Internet yielded information that John’s father was Jesse Nelson. Once this name was established as the father of John who did indeed originate from Tennessee, the connections began to fall into place. What follows is what I now know.

The Nelson Family in Yorkshire England

The earliest Nelson connection was found in Kirkby, Malham-Dale, Yorkshire, England where John Nelson, born Dec. 26, 1634,  married Lettice Hodgshon, who was born in 1636 in Malham-Dale. Kirkby is a parish in Malham-Dale, a small village in the Yorkshire-Dale, located 230 miles north of London in the center of the country. It was an area of mills and mines when the Nelsons lived there. They had five children; William, Lettice, Alexander, John and Henry, our connection, born 1696 in Lancaster, England.

It is reported that Henry Sr. immigrated to America around 1703 with his older brothers Alexander and John. They settled in Overwharton Parish in Stafford County, VA which extended west to the Blue Ridge Mountains, south and west of the Potomac River in northern Virginia, embracing what are now Prince William, Loudoun, Fairfax, Alexandria, and part of Fauquier Counties. Henry’s wife, Lettice did not travel with him and died around 1698 in Yorkshire-Dale.

Our connection, Henry Jr. was born in 1673 in Lancaster, England, east of Malham-Dale, and was 30 years old when he and most of his family immigrated to Virginia. It seems probable that he came with members of the Giles family, who was also from Lancaster. Sarah Ann Giles was less than 8 years old when they immigrated.

Henry and Sarah Ann Nelson in America

On April 27, 1717 Henry married Sarah Ann Giles in Stafford County and had nine children: Henry b. 1718, John b. 1720, Mary b. 1729, Margaret b. 1731, Elizabeth b. 1733, Sarah b. 1734, Lettice b. 1740, Suzannah b. 1743, and Frances b. 1747. There are questions on dates for Henry’s age and when the children were born. If the dates are correct Henry was between 45 and 74 when his children were born. Sarah’s age when she had children would have been between 20 and 50.
The 1725 Stafford County Will Book shows that Henry leased land from Robert Hedges to raise tobacco. It is reported that he raised double the tobacco yield that Hedges raised. Henry did not keep the lease the full fifteen years allowable. Records show that his residence was in Overwharton Parish in Stafford County, in the eastern edge of central Virginia next to the Potomac River.
Henry died on Dec 29, 1749 when he was around 75 years old. Seven of the 9 children are listed in his Last Will and Testament, drawn up Nov. 30, 1749. Henry left one-shilling sterling to his two sons, Henry and John, and the same to his married daughter Mary [Mason]. Henry’s wife Sarah received the estate “until the days of marriage of the rest of my daughter.” He also appointed his wife Sarah and his five unmarried daughters — Elizabeth, Margaret, Lettice, Susannah, & Frances —  as executors of the estate. One of the daughters, Margaret, eventually married John Pownall and took care of her grandfather’s brother John W. Nelson when he died.
Henry and Sarah’s second child, John [1725–1784] and our connection, married Sarah Elizabeth Whitson who also lived in Stafford County, VA. Sarah Whitson was 20 when she married John Nelson on Dec 7, 1745. The oldest of five children, her family migrated from the Isle of Wright, VA and had 400 acres of tobacco in Overwharton Parish.
The first five of Henry & Sarah’s children were born between 1746 and 1756 in Overwharton parish: Lydia, Nannie, Mary, Margaret, & Jesse. Their next five — John, William, Lettice, Sarah & Jemima —  were born between 1759 and 1770 in Fauquier County, Virginia, which borders Stafford County, Virginia. The fifth child is our connection, Jesse, born Jan 22, 1756.
As it is with most family histories, relatives like to trace their family’s activities during the Revolutionary War. Did they join with the Continental Army or fight with the Colonists? By 1776 John Nelson would have been 51 years old. According to the Daughter of American Patriot Index, 1966 John is recognized as “have given patriotic service in the Revolutionary War to the state of Virginia.” Apparently he supplied beef to the army of 1780.
The sons’ approximate ages during the war were Jesse 20, William 16, and John 19. Jesse is reported to have participated in the Revolutionary War but there no details on his activities at this time. William is listed as a Lieutenant of Militia for Shenandoah County VA in 1779.
John died in Fauquier County in 1784 but his wife Sarah will live for another 23 years. In his Will he leaves his land on Dry-Run in “Shanado County” to be equally divided between his sons Jesse and John. The location of the land must have been Shenandoah County, on the east side of the Appalachian Mountains, 50 to 75 miles from their plantation in Fauquier County. Jesse and John apparently did not want to live on that land because as soon as their father died they migrated to Tennessee. John’s Will also states: “To wife Sarah: the use of the plantation and land, slaves and stock of all kinds and household furniture during her natural life.” His daughters, Margaret, Jemima, Lettice and Sarah, have the use of two slaves, “George and Daphne,” as long as they stay single. Later in the Will John states that at the death of his wife “the whole of my personal or moveable estate, except the slaves George and Daphne, shall be equally divided between my children: Jesse, John, & William Nelson, Lidia Morehead, Nanny Fishback, Mary Rector, Margaret Nelson, Jemima Nelson, Lettice Nelson and Sarah Nelson.”
John’s third son William, who was the seventh born, received special attention in the will. John promised him a “set of Smith’s tools, a young sorrel mare, now in his possession; and after the death of his mother, the plantation where I now live and a Negro boy named Lymas.” Why would he receive the land, at the death of his mother, and his brothers and sisters receive only “personal and moveable estate?” I have very little information on William and what I have — such as his three marriages — seem inconclusive. He married Mary Harrison in 1791; five years later he married Jane Martin and two years later Elizabeth Morehead.

Migration to Cocke County, Tennessee

Several of John and Sarah’s children married local residents and migrated to other parts of Middle America: Tennessee, Illinois, Kentucky and West Virginia. When Jesse was around 30, soon after his father died in 1784, he and his younger brother John and members of his mother’s family, the Whitsons, left northern Virginia for new territory to the south. They took the wagon trial that traversed southwest along the edge of the Appalachian Mountains through Virginia and the western edge of North Carolina to just the other side of the mountains into Green and Cocke County, Tennessee.
Soon after Jesse and his brother John settled in Cocke County, around 1792, some local Indians killed John’s 10-year-old son William. The incident appears in the book History of Cocke County; published in 1887.
“In the latter part of 1783 the Indians began to steal the cattle and horses from settlers along the French Broad and Nolachucky. They then retreated across the mountains to North Carolina with a company of thirty men pursuing them. After killing one Indian and wounding a second, and   having regained the stolen property, they began their return and encamped. During the night the Indians who had followed them made a sudden attack killing one and wounding others. The Indians remained in the vicinity until near morning when they took their departure. During the next two years it was necessary to keep scouts continually between Pigeon and French Broad. Three forts were built but still there were skirmishes. During one, a boy ten years old, named Nelson, was killed on Pigeon River, and the horse which he was riding was stolen. After a large number of horses were stolen from the neighborhood of Crosby Creek in 1793, conflicts between the settlers and Indians quieted down.”
Members of the Nelson family had strong hatred toward the Indians for many years because of this death. About six years after the killing of their son, John Nelson and his wife Bathsheba Hogan migrated to Barren County, Kentucky. They must have continued their migration west because he and his wife died in Illinois in 1845 and 1863.
Cocke County Tennessee is on the Cumberland Gap, a popular westward travel route through the Appalachian Mountains to Kentucky. The Nelsons were settled there from 1790 to around 1820. Sometime around 1805 my great, great, great, grandfather William Thornton brought his family from Burke County, North Carolina, through the same area on their way to Clark County, Kentucky. The Thornton family wagons would have passed through the area and could have had contact with the Nelson family.

Either during their travels or when the Nelsons arrived in Tennessee Jesse met a woman from South Carolina named Anna Stephens. They were married around 1788 and had 8 children, all born in Cocke County. Their children were: Nancy born 1790, John born 1792 [our connection], Josiah born 1795, Sarah born 1797, Rebecca, born 1799, George Stephens born 1801, Thomas born 1803, and Mary born 1810.

Next page: Jesse & Anna migrate to Missouri

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