Nichols #1348

Thomas Nichols ( -1708)

Probably born in England (some say Wales).  Arrived in Rhode Island in about 1650 and

Hannah Griffin (1642-1709)

Born in Newport, Rhode Island.

Nichols #1348

I consider my immigrant ancestor, Thomas Nichols (1642-1708), to be the founder of the Nichols line of my family in America, along with his wife, Hannah Griffin.  His English or Welsh origins and parentage remain a mystery at this time.  This contradicts the claims, often made, that the actual progenitor of this family is a certain Edmund Nichols of Llantwit Major, Glamorgan, Wales. The information I have been able to obtain on Edmund Nichols is quite confusing.  The “facts” as often reported are the following [indented material is presented for the sake of argument and is not considered authoritative]:

Most sources report that Edmund Nichols was born in about 1616 in Llandwit Major, Glamorgan, Wales, the son of Iltyd Nichols and Cecil Tuberville.  In about 1640, in Wales, he married Jane Philips, who died in about 1645.  Edmund’s will was dated 27 Mar 1661, and he died shortly thereafter, most sources indicating Newport, Rhode Island as the place of death.  During his life, he was engaged in the shipping industry.  However, there is much confusion of names and dates in the first generation or two.  I present here the consensus conclusions of some researchers I have consulted as well as point out some of the inconsistencies and possible explanations.

It is alleged that there were two brothers (or half brothers), Thomas and Edmund, who arrived in Rhode Island from England or Wales around 1650, possibly by way of the West Indies, where the family had trading interests.  The exodus from England is explained by the fact that Edmund supported the Royalist side in the English Civil War of 1642-1649[1], and after his wife died in 1646 and his side lost the war, he apparently thought it best to leave the country.  At about this time, merchants in the new colony of Rhode Island started a trade route through Barbados to Africa and Europe, and this may be what brought the Nichols to Portsmouth and Newport, Rhode Island.  After their arrival in Newport, they were involved in the “triangular slave trade[2]” (molasses/slaves/rum) with the West Indies. They also are reported to be shipbuilders in Newport.

Thomas is supposed to have been born in either 1624 or 1648, and it is unclear whether the two brothers (some sources describing them as half brothers) were both sons of Edmund (1606-1661).  If they were, this is a strong argument against the 1624 date of birth for Thomas, as it would imply that he was born when his father was only 8 years old.  Another possibility is that the brothers were Edmund (born 1616) and his own own half brother.  This explanation makes it necessary to theorize that Edmund’s father, Iltyd Nichols, remarried after the death of his 17 year old wife, Cecil Tuberville, in 1616 (perhaps due to complications with Edmund’s birth) and had another son, Thomas, with his second wife.  This is a very reasonable speculation, but documentary evidence is lacking.  The corollary to this speculation involves the question of whether the Thomas Nichols, who married Hannah Griffith in 1659 and produced a large family of descendants in Rhode Island, was Edmund’s brother (mother unknown) or Edmund’s son.  The identity of this Thomas as Edmund’s half brother is consistent with the often-quoted statement that Thomas was 35 years old at the date of his marriage.  However, if that is the case, who is the mother of this brother, Thomas, and what became of Edmund’s son, Thomas, if he is not the husband of Hannah?  One researcher has attempted to harmonize the facts by speculating that Edmund (born 1616) had a half-brother, Thomas (born 1624) and a son, Thomas (born 1642).  To add additional confusion, Edmund also had a son named Edmund, born about 1645 and Thomas had a son, Thomas, born about 1660.  These attempts to harmonize the reported facts may result in more Edmunds and Thomases than the documentary evidence supports.

In any case, under all these scenarios, it can be stated with some certainty that I am descended from Thomas Nichols (whoever he is) and Hannah Griffith and possibly from Edmund’s father, Iltyd Nichols (either the father or grandfather of Thomas, depending on which theory of parentage one supports).

What follows next is an explanation of the reasons for the remarkable state of confusion that exists regarding these issues:

It seems that much confusion and mischief has been caused by the publication in 1919 of a monograph titled Origins of the Nichols Family, written by Leon Nelson Nichols (an 8th generation descendant of the first Thomas Nichols of Newport, Rhode Island, through his fourth son, Benjamin).  He was a librarian in the New York City Library system and availed himself of the resources of library to pursue his family research interests.  In this monograph, he discusses his supposed findings of the European origins of his family.  He found various historical connections to documented individuals and families of prominence in Britain, including 1) the Nichols family of minor gentry at Llantwit Major, Clamorgan County, Wales, 2) the first Norman bishop at Llandaff, Wales (Urban) and 3) a chiefton of Normandy (Nigel or Niel Aubigne).  He further embellished his tale using existing documents or books as references, which did not refer to the Nichols family at all.  Most of this research was exposed as a fraud by George Louis Nichols in a 1996 addendum to the 1988 revision of his book A Nichols Genealogy[3], which he entitled “Nichols Family History as Told by Leon Nelson Nichols is a Fairy Tale” and sent to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, for insertion in their copy of the volume.  George Louis Nichols states: “… I have examined the biographical sketches of seven or eight notable Nichols families, which descended from Thomas Nichols and Hannah Griffin, families which lived in the 19th century and whose pedigrees appear in Cole’s History of Washington and Kent Counties (Rhode Island), published in 1908.  All of those worthy people easily traced their roots back seven or eight generations to Thomas Nichols and his wife Hannah Griffin, who were at Newport before 1664.  None of these families claimed any noble lineage, any relationship to important church figures of the past or even to minor European gentry.”  He further observes that John Osborne Austin’s Genealogical History of Rhode Island, published in 1887, begins its historical record of Thomas Nichols in Newport, where he became a freeman in 1664.

Leon Nelson Nichols seized upon the connection of Thomas Nichols to the Nichol family of Llantwit Major, doubtless influenced by its status as “minor gentry”.  The possible connection to Norman/British noble family, a bishop or two and a family of at least the level of minor gentry were just the ingredients he felt were needed to create a fabulous family history.  By 1911, Leon Nichols had prepared a family lineage for his family, which reached back 41 generations to someone by the name of Ivor, of Norway.  The obvious flaws in the “history” as told by Leon Nichols are pointed out in the forward to George Louis Nichols’ book, and George Nichols even offers an explanation of the financial motives of Leon Nichols, that may provide some explanation for this elaborate hoax.  Other researchers of the family have not been able to corroborate any of the links between the Norman house of Aubigne and Bishop Urban, nor any connection between the Nichol family of Llantwit Manor and Thomas Nichols of Newport, Rhode Island.  Research has also not been fruitful in respect to Thomas Nichols’ possible Welsh heritage, his role in the English Civil War or many other details, which Leon Nichols presented as facts.

Leon Nelson Nichols posits two brothers for the first Thomas Nichols of Newport.  One of these, Philip (according to his account), went to Virginia where he was lost to history.  The other, a half-brother named Edmund, stayed at Newport to run the family’s shipping business.  However, no credible evidence is cited.  Edmund’s name does not appear in the early official and unofficial records of Newport.  Yet his “half-brother” Thomas, our first Nichols ancestor in Rhode Island, was quite active.  Upon arrival he purchased land in Portsmouth and built the Overing and Page Farm, later called the Prescott Farm.  The farm is a historic preservation of a colonial farm in Middletown (Newport County), Rhode Island.  It spans 40 acres, and was in danger of demolition before Doris Duke, through the Newport Restoration Foundation bought it in 1973 and began restoration of the historical site.  Notable features include an operational windmill (c. 1811), British General Prescott’s Guard House, a county store (c. 1715) and a University of Rhode Island Master Gardener project with the purpose of simulating a historical vegetable garden through careful research on what crops where grown during that time period.  The farm itself is typical of the farms on Aquidneck Island.

Thomas was accepted in 1664 as a freeman of Newport.  He was a juryman in 1671, and he was elected five times as a deputy in the colonial legislative assembly.  In 1677, with 47 other inhabitants of Newport, he was granted land across Narragansett Bay from Newport in the area of the present-day East Greenwich, as a reward for the services rendered during King Philip’s war[4].  John Osborne Austin’s Genealogical History of Rhode Island (published 1887) fails to even mention an Edmund Nichols.  Edmund seems to be lost to history in Newport, perhaps because he never existed.  For these reasons, Leon Nelson Nichols’ work may be discarded as a source for reliable family history.

For now, our Nichols family line in America begins with Thomas Nichols and Hannah Griffin in Newport Rhode Island, and all theories of his English or Welsh origins and his parentage remain speculative at this point and are the subject matter of further research.

It is known that in 1659 in Newport, Rhode Island, Thomas Nichols married Hannah Griffith, who was born 17 Dec 1642 and died 5 May 1709 (both events occurring in Newport, Rhode Island).  Hanna’s father is Robert Griffin (1613-1648), discussed under his own heading.  Hanna’s mother has not been identified.  The children of Thomas Nichols and Hannah Griffin (all apparently born in Newport, Rhode Island) are listed as follows:

  1. Thomas Nichols, born 1660 and died 1745 in East Greenwich, Rhode Island.
  2. Susanna, born 5 Oct 1662.
  3. John, born 16 Apr 1666.
  4. Robert, born 22 Nov 1671.
  5. Hannah, born 7 Aug 1674.
  6. Benjamin, born 28 Jan 1675/76.
  7. Jonathan, born 1681.
  8. Joseph, born 1684.
  9. Elizabeth, born 14 Jun 1688.

Thomas Nichols (1660-1745), the eldest son of Thomas Nichols and Hannah Griffin) married Mercy Reynolds in 1683 in Newport, Rhode Island.  She was born in 22 Dec 1664 and died 27 Dec 1738.  Mercy’s father is James Reynolds (1625-1700), discussed under his own heading.  Mercy’s mother is Deborah (1628-1692) [surname unknown].

The children of Thomas Nichols and Mercy Reynolds are: Hannah (1684), Mercy (1686), Deborah (1688), Susannah (1690), Mary (1693), James (1693), Elizabeth Nichols (1695-1737), Francis (1697), Comfort (1701), Thomas (1702-1825) and Benjamin (1703).

Elizabeth Nichols was born 16 Mar 1695.  She married Joseph Clarke (the son of Carew Clarke and Anne Dyer).  He was born 20 Oct 1694 in Newport, Rhode Island. Elizabeth Nichols and Joseph Clarke both died in 1737.

The lineage of Elizabeth Nichols and Joseph Clarke is continued under the heading of Joseph Clarke (1618-1694).

[1] The English Civil War (1642–1651) was a series of armed conflicts and political machinations between Parliamentarians (Roundheads) and Royalists (Cavaliers). The first (1642–46) and second (1648–49) civil wars pitted the supporters of King Charles I against the supporters of the Long Parliament, while the third war (1649–51) saw fighting between supporters of King Charles II and supporters of the Rump Parliament. The Civil War ended with the Parliamentary victory at the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651. The Civil War led to the trial and execution of Charles I, the exile of his son, Charles II, and replacement of English monarchy with first, the Commonwealth of England (1649–53), and then with a Protectorate (1653–59), under Oliver Cromwell’s personal rule. The monopoly of the Church of England on Christian worship in England ended with the victors consolidating the established Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. Constitutionally, the wars established the precedent that an English monarch cannot govern without Parliament’s consent, although this concept was legally established only with the “Glorious Revolution” later in the century.

triangular-trade-map[2] Triangular trade, or triangle trade, is a historical term indicating trade among three ports or regions.  This form of trade usually evolves when a region has export commodities that are not required in the region from which its major imports come. Triangular trade thus provides a method for rectifying trade imbalances between regions.  The best-known triangular trading system is the transatlantic slave trade, that operated from the late 16th to early 19th centuries, carrying slaves, cash crops and manufactured goods between West Africa, Caribbean or American colonies and the European colonial powers, with the northern colonies of British North America, especially New England, sometimes taking over the role of Europe.  The use of African slaves was fundamental to growing colonial cash crops, which were exported to Europe.  European goods, in turn, were used to purchase African slaves, which were then brought on the sealane west from Africa to the Americas, the so-called middle passage.  A classic example would be the trade of sugar (often in its liquid form, molasses) from the Caribbean to Europe or New England, where it was distilled into rum.  The profits from the sale of sugar were used to purchase manufactured goods, which were then shipped to West Africa, where they were bartered for slaves.  The slaves were then brought back to the Caribbean to be sold to sugar planters.  The profits from the sale of the slaves were then used to buy more sugar, which was shipped to Europe, and so on.  The first leg of the triangle was from a European port to Africa, in which ships carried supplies for sale and trade, such as copper, cloth, trinkets, slave beads, guns and ammunition.  When the ship arrived, its cargo would be sold or bartered for slaves.  On the second leg, ships made the journey of the Middle Passage from Africa to the New World.  Of course, many slaves died of disease in the crowded holds of the slave ships.  Once the ship reached the New World, enslaved survivors were sold in the Caribbean or the American colonies.  The ships were then prepared to get them thoroughly cleaned, drained and loaded with export goods for a return voyage, the third leg, to their home port.  From the West Indies, the main export cargoes were sugar, rum, and molasses; from Virginia, tobacco and hemp. The ship then returned to Europe to complete the triangle.  However, because of several disadvantages that slave ships faced compared to other trade ships, they often returned to their home port carrying whatever goods were readily available in the Americas and filled up a large part or all of their capacity with ballast. Other disadvantages include the different form of the ships (to carry as many humans as possible, but not ideal to carry a maximum amount of produce) and the variations in the duration of a slave voyage, making it practically impossible to pre-schedule appointments in the Americas, which meant that slave ships often arrived in the Americas out-of-season.  Instead, the cash crops were transported mainly by a separate fleet, which only sailed from Europe to the Americas and back. The Triangular trade is a trade model, not an exact description of the ship’s route.  New England benefited from the trade, as many merchants were from New England, especially Rhode Island, replacing the role of Europe in the triangle.  New England also made rum from the Caribbean sugar and molasses, which it shipped to Africa as well as within the New World.  Yet, the “triangle trade” as considered in relation to New England was a piecemeal operation.  No New England traders are known to have completed a sequential circuit of the full triangle, which took a calendar year on average, according to historian Clifford Shipton.  The concept of the New England Triangular trade was first suggested, inconclusively, in an 1866 book by George H. Moore, was picked up in 1872 by historian George C. Mason and reached full consideration from a lecture in 1887 by American businessman and historian William B. Weeden.

[3] A Nichols Genealogy: A Branch of the Family Descended from Thomas Nichols and Hannah Griffin of Newport, Rhode Island, through Sarah, Daughter of Alexander Nichols and Sarah Gardiner Gould of East Greenwich, Rhode Island compiled by George Louis Nichols (Houston, Texas, published by G.L. Nichols) 1988, revised edition.

[4] According to Mary Nichols Rice, Thomas Nichols loaned the use of his ships to move troops and supplies from Plymouth, Massachusetts to the ports along Narragansett Bay and to the garrison at Wickford, Rhode Island. After the Indians were defeated, the ships returned the colonial troops to their homes and brought the wounded to Newport. These were the important services rendered by Thomas Nichols for which he was awarded land in East Greenwich.  From an article in The East Greenwich Packet, Vol. 4, No. 1, East Greenwich Preservation Society, East Greenwich, Rhode Island, Fall 1974.



  • Jacqueline Parish

    I may be a descendant of Thomas Nichols and Hannah Griffin. I am researching my grandfather, Harry Nichols. His parents were Daniel Nichols (1835-1928) and Julie Cramer (1840-). My research shows that Thomas was a relative. Do you have any info on Harry?

  • Beverly Causa

    I’m a descendent of Thomas Nichols an Hannah Griffin…

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