Thomas Nelson Jnr. (1738-1789)


Thomas Nelson, who signed the American Declaration of Independence, was born at Yorktown, Virginia, Dec. 26, 1738 and died in 1789. He studied at Christ’s between 1758 and 1761, although it is not clear whether he actually gained a degree. He was elected to the House of Burgesses representing York County - the first assembly of elected representatives in the colonies, and from the late 1760s it was instrumental in the attempt to throw off British rule, culminating in the War of Independence, which began in 1775. Nelson appears to have been heavily involved in this activity, including chairing a committee for the suspension of British trade and boarding a merchant vessel and dumping its tea into the York River, Virginia’s own tea party. He was elected as a Virginia representative to the Second Continental Congress in 1775, which was convened to manage the colonial war effort and was in essence the first national government of the United States. It was this body which issued the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776, and Nelson signed alongside the other Founding Fathers, just one signature underneath Thomas Jefferson.

Though ill health forced him to resign from the Congress, Nelson continued to be a significant figure in the state, holding various positions including serving in the Virginia legislature, commanding the state militia, and replacing Thomas Jefferson as governor in 1781. He was governor and commander of the militia through the Siege of Yorktown, a battle on 19 October 1781 which effectively ended the conflict on land, as the American and French troops’ decisive victory against British general Cornwallis forced them to negotiate a conclusion to the war. Legend has it that, after receiving information that Cornwallis was hiding out in Nelson’s own house, Nelson offered 5 guineas to any artillerist who could hit the building – there are apparently three cannon balls still lodged on the outer wall!

He resigned the governorship in November 1781 due to his continuing ill health, being accused of having overstepped his powers as governor during 1781, but was cleared of these charges by a Virginian committee. He died as a patriot of the Revolution, and there are two counties in Kentucky and Virginia named after him today, as well as the Thomas Nelson Community College in Virginia.

Christ's College Legacies of Enslavement Project 2021

During the summer of 2021, four student interns worked on a project to discover and examine any links between the College and the slave trade. This research explored the slaveowning history of Thomas Nelson Jr, whose grandfather was one of the pioneers to Yorktown in Virginia and, as the biggest landowner in Yorktown by the mid-eighteenth century, contributed notably to its emergence as one of the biggest and busiest slave markets in the colony. Approximately 50,000 enslaved Africans from 163 ships arrived and were sold in Yorktown during the eighteenth century, with two thirds bought by Tidewater Planters of which the Nelson family formed part. 

Thomas Nelson Jr continued his family name as one of the most notable slave owners in 18th century America. In addition to the estates he inherited from his father and grandfather, during the Revolutionary War he purchased a 5,400 acre plantation (with slaves included) from a family member. On the occasion of his marriage, his father gifted him an estate of 20,000 acres with over 400 slaves, and he also became the manager of the estates of his wife's children from her previous marriage, including Carters' Gove in James City County, one of the most infamous plantations in Virginia.

When he died, over three quarters of his wealth was represented in his ownership of 219 slaves.